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New Prospects

A Brooklyn architect shows what a little elbow grease, a healthy dose of naïveté, and a decade can accomplish.

Architect Jeff Sherman, of Delson or Sherman Architects, has more guts and gall than your average home renovator. In 2000, strapped by a “very finite budget,” he bought a wrecked row house in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, that had been used as an illegal breeding kennel. Over the next ten years, working as his own general contractor and builder, he transformed the scariest building on his block into a high-design home, all for about $100 per square foot. “I’m a little wary of the construction-on-a-dime myth trumpeted in the press,” says Sherman. “Construction is ridiculously expensive. But yeah, I wound up doing a house for next to nothing.”

Jeff Sherman: I’ve seen a lot of really bad houses and apartments, because, you know, I’m an architect, but this one was so bad my business partner, when she came to help me measure it, had to keep running out to the sidewalk because her gag reflex kept kicking in. There was dog crap everywhere. The front porch was kind of dangling off the front facade and bits of the floor were missing. It was gross—no doubt about that.

My reaction was basically, “Hey, I can afford this!” It was a row house, it didn’t seem to be falling down, and it had a big backyard. I started drawing well before I closed on the place. I knew I didn’t have enough money to do a real renovation, only a bare bones renovation. But I thought it would be a fun project. Ha! I was so in over my head.

The day after closing, in November 2000, the contractor started demolition. By January the structural work was done. The entire middle of the house was opened up to bring light in and counteract the darkness typical of row houses. When he was finished, I had an insulated shell with utilities and big structural cuts and an opening for a skylight. I moved in, kind of camping out in my own house. Before I got a proper front door the place was broken into three times. It was pretty harrowing. And I was the poorest I’d ever been.

My renovation policy was: If it was okay, I kept it—like the pressed tin on the walls and the exposed subfloor upstairs. I uncovered the marble fireplace under a half dozen layers of paint. Every time I got a paycheck, I’d go buy some materials and think of the next thing to do. It forced me to pace myself. I began by taking care of basic needs, like building a rudimentary kitchen and a closet so I could put away my clothes. I also knew I really wanted a big tree in the backyard, so I planted a baby American elm, knowing it takes a long time to grow. Ten years later, it’s taller than the house.

After I decided to cut that giant hole in the center, the room configuration quickly laid itself out. The kitchen went in the back, the living room in the front, and the two-story space became the dining room. Upstairs, there’s a bedroom in the front, a bedroom in the back, and a catwalk connecting the two. I also wanted to separate the living room from the foyer and to activate the full height of the space, so I built a volume that contains storage space and extends from the first floor to the roof. I covered it in inexpensive copper flashing so it would read as a single object.

I thought wrapping the volume in copper would be easy to do, but, of course-like everything in the house-it turned out not to be easy at all. Copper is really heavy and floppy; it’s like holding a 100-pound noodle. So I had this crazy system rigged up where I had this rope connected to pulleys, and I’d hoist up the copper and nail it in, then move on to the next one. About four years into the renovation I burned out, and for about three years I just stopped and lived in a half-finished house.

Toward the end, certain things happened in big leaps. As my architecture office became more successful and I had more money, I was able to hire people to do things, like install bam-boo plywood flooring and build the downstairs bathroom, which I think is the nicest room in the house. It’s got a brick floor and a showerhead in the middle of the room. When the window is open and a breeze comes through, it feels like the outdoor shower I’ve always wanted.

Throughout the renovation, I used a lot of local artisans. Albert, from around the corner, did the striped stained glass on the back door, and a local storefront company mounted the glass. My next-door neighbor Ullah is a mason, and he built my stoop. I’m pretty antisocial by nature, so bringing in neighboring craftspeople was an attempt to help create a community for myself. Also, because I was working as my own general contractor, I ended up getting pretty good prices.

It’s taken me a long time to really get that I’m living in a finished house now. Six months ago I volunteered to be on a neighborhood house tour as publicity for my firm. People came and oohed and aahed over my house, and it caught me by surprise. I kind of still thought of it as a half-finished piece of crap. It took me a while to see what they were seeing: some kind of fantasy house.

See more photos of the house here. Click here for a behind-the-scenes video and design tips from Jeff Sherman.