Here’s how much it costs to gut renovate a historic Harlem brownstone

When Maria and Raquel inherited a two-unit brownstone in Harlem, they were completely unfamiliar with the renovation process—but they were deeply intrigued. The couple, who had been living in the ground floor one-bedroom apartment, hoped to move into the building's upper triplex, but an accessibility issue required the reconstruction of the main stairwell. In addition to this major design and structural work, they also wanted to make lifestyle changes to update the living spaces on all of the triplex floors.

With an initial, firm budget of $350,000 in mind, the couple contacted Bolster.

"These clients came to us exasperated by previous efforts to get the ball rolling and overwhelmed by the idea of the process," says Anna Karp, co-founder of Bolster. "But they have a great design sense and jumped head first into the project. These women have truly taken the process seriously and have done their homework every step of the way. By the end of the design process, they were master ninjas of renovation."

The driving force: a new staircase

Bolster’s architect Agustin Ayuso was a perfect fit for the brownstone project. His main challenge was to design a new staircase that met the practical need of ease of use, while also being structurally and architecturally feasible. And as Maria and Raquel got more involved in the design process and expanded their renovation wish list, the couple confidently increased the total renovation budget to fit an updated scope, which included a custom shoe closet, a contemporary kitchen, and the installation of HVAC throughout the triplex. Cosmetic changes such as new fixtures, windows and wallpaper were as well included in the design.

Bolster’s contractor Aaron Borenstein supplied the winning bid of $572,860 (click here to view the bid in full).

"The biggest challenge was the staircase. That was the heart of the project," says Agustin. "It was really all about different ways to configure it. When you make a staircase wider, it takes up more space, so the living room takes a hit in terms of footprint. After that part was figured out, all the other pieces fell into place."

Choosing where to spend and where to save

Over a series of five meetings with the Bolster team, the couple reviewed and revised plans and materials. In prioritizing the staircase redesign, the Bolster team worked with the couple to set spending limits on other aspects of the renovation. However, the team understood that Maria and Raquel wanted to budget for other lifestyle upgrades–so in the end, it was all about finding a balance between pragmatism and small indulgences.

"They were very practical about choices such as tiles, door hardware, plumbing, and appliances,” says Aaron. “Agustin and I worked together very closely to make sure his designs could be executed at the price points they needed to hit."

"Functionality was the bedrock of the entire renovation," says Aaron. "We worked together to understand the couple’s day-to-day and how the design could best fit their lives. For instance, they wanted a kitchen that was cozy but not cavernous, in order to restrict the number of guests they felt obligated to invite to dinner.”

Cost transparency in real time

The Bolster team gave Maria and Raquel a granular cost breakdown that included design and build project fees, empowering them to know exactly where every dollar and cent was allocated. 

Brownstones are old and always pose unique challenges. As Bolster looks toward the build phase, considerable plumbing upgrades need to happen in the kitchen and bathrooms ($28,000), an installation of an HVAC system throughout the triplex totals $28,500, and repairing and refinishing the wood floors costs $10,395, due to the space’s large square footage.

In the kitchen, the L-shaped space will  become a galley layout with an island—the couple was realistic about their food prep habits and needs, as well as diligent about sticking to the budget. Not gourmet cooks, the pair felt they didn't need high end appliances such as a Wolf range, and opted for the economical choice of a suite of name brand kitchen appliances ($3974). Decorative touches in the kitchen include backsplash tiles ($24/psf), and a countertop of white Carrara ceasarstone ($6,600), while the first floor powder room incorporates a minor splurge of statement wallpaper featuring a modern Harlem toile pattern ($600).

"Throughout the drafting and design process, we presented Maria and Raquel with options for materials and fixtures within their set budget. But because of their steadfast dedication to the budget, they were able to splurge on a few nice-to-haves that they knew were worth the extra cost," says Anna.

"As a result, they’re getting the home of their dreams with no surprises along the way."  


Thinking about beginning a major home renovation? Don't worry, we've got your back. Bolster is the first general contractor to become a financial partner in your home renovation. We hope you'll get in touch to begin your project!