Even though this is the first house we’re purchased together, it’s not our first remodel job. Bradley actually remodeled a studio apartment in Minnesota and lived in it for a while. He did the entire thing on his own with a little help from friends. And then we worked together on a loft in Brooklyn. Here’s how it looked on moving day in January 2008:
Yup. That’s a chandelier hung up with a bicycle u-lock. It was, in short, a disaster zone. The whole space was about 550 square feet, but it had super high ceilings with tin tiles and an entire wall of windows. It was the run-down, beat-up version of the funky NYC artist lofts you see in movies.
We signed the lease and moved right in.
The previous tenants had put up some pretty shoddy little walls so 3 roommates could live in the space. There were no closets and the kitchen consisted of one counter, one cabinet, a fridge and a gas range.
But it had so much going for it.
- High ceilings!
…that were so thin you could hear every word being uttered upstairs.
- Lots of artists in the building!
…bums, the whole lot of ‘em. We were lucky enough to be surrounded by awesome neighbors on all sides, but the rest of the building was full of turds.
- An entire wall of windows!
…single-pane and very inefficient. Our heating bill was out of control, and we were still freezing all winter.
- Rent was a “very reasonable” $1475!
…for the first year, and then it goes up 8% every year after that. It also doesn’t include utilities, so we had to pay for heat, water, gas and a maintenance fee on top of the crazy-high electricity bill.
- The management company was very open to us demolishing and rebuilding however we wanted!
…that’s code for “kinda slum lords.” Luckily for us, Bradley knows plumbing and electrical. He also hates waiting on a landlord to fix anything, so he just did it himself.
- It was a sewing factory in the 1800s!
…we’re not sure why that was a selling feature for us, but it was. We’re suckers for old industrial buildings.
I know what you’re thinking: we were insane to sign the lease. But we’ve never claimed sanity. We were young and full of energy and ready to take on the world. (This is, like, 3 years ago, so not much has changed.) Besides, we were New Yorkers. Crummy apartments were a way of life. We knew we could take the space from industrial to industrial-chic if we just put some time into it.
We moved right in and started demolishing walls like we owned the place. Did we mention that after forking over the Brooklyn standard of first month’s rent, last month’s rent and 2 months of additional security deposit, we were flat broke?
Lets just skip to the after pictures. Here’s the loft by the time we finished:
It took, maybe, 2 or 3 months to get it looking like this. That’s the benefit of only having 550 square feet to work with!
Pretty much everything was made from found / salvaged / free objects. The big metal leg that holds up the loft, the bookshelves and even the Japanese prints that we framed and mounted high up on the loft walls. Most of the furniture was custom made by Bradley on a serious budget: the dining room table, the coffee table, even the ladder that leads up to the couch.
If you look closely, you can see we had a little bit of a painted rafter look going on under the loft above the couch. And a raw unpainted rafter look under the bedroom closet:
Looks like we couldn’t decide between the two even back then.
The wood floors were painted years ago with a latex paint. We’re pretty sure they gave it a few coats of the same primer they put on the walls. We actually loved the raw, grungy look against the new furniture, but we’re going with a much more durable oil-based paint for the floors in our house.
The little treehouse up top was the bed loft that Bradley designed and built from scratch. There was enough room for a queen-sized mattress and a nightstand. But we also mounted a floating shelf above the foot of the bed that housed a small flatscreen TV. There was also a hidden window that held a small AC that vented outside.
The big metal shield in front of the tree house? That’s a piece from an elevator in the warehouse that the loft was in.
Not gonna lie: the big wall of windows had a lot to do with us instantly falling in love with the place.
The filing cabinet on the left was found. The tall console with plants on it was made by Bradley years ago. It was one of his first experiments with concrete. The smaller table with the plant on top is one of his latest experiments with concrete. We gave both pieces to a friend when we purged our apartment in the winter. We gave the coffee table to my sister when we moved to a very narrow railroad apartment.
We still have the dining room table. We just decided that it’s going to be reborn as a bathroom vanity for the half-bath downstairs.
The light fixture and hanging lantern were found objects. There was no closet when we moved in so we had to plan and build that ourselves. All of the wood was salvaged, including the big beams that run under the bedroom loft to support the weight. The dresser was a found object that we painted grey (it used to be a hideous grandma-green).
The stairs up to the bedroom loft were handmade by Bradley. We made a coat rack underneath to maximize space. And the little black dresser was another found object that we stripped, stained and sealed.
From the bedroom loft looking down into the kitchen:
The pot rack was an old security gate. The floating shelves were smaller security gates. the “backsplash” was a Do Not Enter sign and I’m not really sure where we found that, but we thought it looked fun. The blue and white cabinet on the far left was a really old steel medicine cabinet that we found and fell in love with.
The big orb in the middle is a light fixture that Bradley made out of wire. I wish I had a picture of it turned on because it cast some incredible light and shadows.
The kitchen counters are made from salvaged barn wood (you can see the white stripes where lathe strips used to be), and the counters were some discount granite tile we found.
And just in case you’re wondering, Bradley’s ever-expanding collection of tools was hidden in a storage space behind the lofted bedroom:
The pipe that run across the top was a vent for our air conditioner. We had a secret window in the back of the bedroom loft for a small AC unit. And, yes, I did attempt to grow tomatoes inside using a Topsy Turvy tomato planter — it was a disaster.
All in all, we didn’t spend a ton of money totally renovating the place because we found free furniture and salvaged building materials. A lot of this came down to luck and location. We were in an industrial area of Brooklyn so there were lots of industrial dumpsters to dive. They were also renovating a school on our block, which meant wood, beams and steel were ours for the taken (we asked the construction foreman nicely). Bradley made most of the furniture (like the coffee table and dining room table) out of salvaged wood from that wood.
As for the found furniture, we had a high turnaround rate for lofts in our big warehouse. People often left furniture in the halls and when we saw something we liked, we snagged it. We only did this for wood furniture, never for anything upholstered. Living in NYC made us super paranoid about bedbugs.
So there you have it; our first renovation together. It’s not exactly glamorous, but we were way more into the raw / industrial look back then. And it was, hands down, the best looking loft in the entire building. People in the building would sometimes drop by to check it out because they heard about it. We were proud little renters.
We learned a ton and we’re using our past experience to help streamline our new (and much bigger) project. The best part is that we saw what we could do on a super-tight budget. Even though our budget is way less strict now (hooray for moving to the middle-of-nowhere!), we know we don’t have to spend a ton to turn our house from frumpy to fabulous.
What we learned from our loft renovation:
- Contain your messes.
The loft was basically just one big room, which meant that we had to live in a giant construction mess for a couple of months. It drove us nuts and we fought a lot. We need a safe zone to escape messes. That’s the basis for our one-room-at-a-time philosophy — we don’t have construction messes all over the place so we’re happier and get more done.
- DIY till you die.
Or at least pass out from exhaustion. It takes a little elbow grease, but we’re way happier with the results and we end up saving a ton of money. Plus our house looks and feels like an extension of us rather than a page out of a CB2 catalog.
- Old stuff rocks.
They don’t build stuff like they used to. We love IKEA and all, but old furniture was made to last. And it’s not difficult to update — all you need is new hardware, paint or stain, and a little time.
- New stuff rocks, too. If you make it.
We’re shopping for a house on a budget, which means we’ve been scouring all the usuals. Target, IKEA, Bed Bath and Beyond, Overstock, etc. But we’re never happy with the look or the quality. And we’ll totally admit that we’re yuppies who get severe guilt over buying Made In A Sweatshop furniture. We have a professional furniture designer on staff here and we have Google to teach us whatever we don’t know. We’d be crazy not to do it ourselves. …and share the steps with you.
- Salvaging 101: Learn to tell the difference between what’s worth saving vs. what’s junk.
We’re salvaging/reclaiming a lot of materials in our house, but we’re not saving everything. Knowing what’s worth saving (like the cool wood planks we’re going to turn into nightstands) vs. what’s not worth saving (like the cheesy trim upstairs) really helps. Ask yourself if it’s unique enough to keep before you decide to hang on to something.
- Mix and match.
Before the loft, we had a serious case of the matchy-matchies. You know the look — all the wood is the same, all the hardware is stainless steel, everything is glossy, nothing has texture, all the greens are exactly the same shade. The loft renovation basically forced us to embrace different materials, finishes and styles. We found that a really polished, modern coffee table could look amazing on worn, old floors. We starting loving textured surfaces and raw finishes.
- Storage space + organization = sanity.
We’ve lived in 2 NYC apartments that had zero closets, and we learned very quickly that having storage can make the difference between crazy-cluttered and cozy-cute. We came up with a ton of storage and organization solutions that we’ll share in future posts.
- Stick to your boo-zhey.
That’s fancy-talk for budget. Whether it’s $10 or $10k or $10bajillion, figure out what you can spend and then stick to it no matter what. Spending less might mean taking longer to get from start-to-finish, but as long as you keep the messes contained and stay organized, you’ll get there. Keep your eyes on the prize and forge ahead, brave DIYer. We’re rooting for you.
- Learn to see the potential of a space.
That last one is the most important one of all. We watch “Property Brothers” on HGTV sometimes and it drives us nuts when homebuyers can’t look at a space and see what it could be. See the big picture. Don’t focus on the details (till you start renovating!). Keep an open mind. Instead of seeing only the things you don’t like, try seeing the things you can improve.
Hope you enjoyed the tour of our 2009 digs. We’ll be back with more updates on the casa. Stay tuned!