A Brooklyn town house renovation

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You would never guess this house in Brooklyn, New York, is a renovation, let alone 200 years old. Its floor-to-ceiling windows and mix of industrial and natural materials make it feel more like a trendy new-build loft, but look closer and you'll see that by retaining their home's original features, Margarita McGrath and Scott Oliver have created a love story to the past.

The couple, who are both architects, bought the house with a plan to showcase their design skills by levelling the floor, putting in a new roof and improving the insulation. But when structural work uncovered beautiful walls of hand-made bricks and a rustic cedar frame, they chose to do something much more interesting and strip the house back to its bones, to celebrate its historical character.

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Downstairs is the foyer and bedroom, with the window by the bed offering views of a large maple tree at the front. A ladder left behind by the builders descends to a small basement, used as a utility room, and industrial metal stairs climb to the upper level. It’s here that the original brickwork is best displayed, bathed in light from clerestory windows, like an archaeological find in a museum. The new windows fill in the gap between where the old pitched roof used to be and its new raised position, which has increased the height of the walls to a respectable 10 feet. Since necessity is the mother of invention, Margarita and Scott have added clever features to fit their space and budget. Security bars at the back door slide across to double as a ladder to the guest bed, ingeniously perched above the kitchen, and a wall panel in the stairwell is made from birch-veneer doors stacked on top of each other, with one at the top placed at a right angle to create a table.

Throughout, a series of slots connect the inside and outside, and upper and lower levels. The tall, skinny window at the front frames views of the maple tree; the clerestory windows along the wall face south, catching the sun; a metal grille used for part of the floor upstairs allows light to seep down to the bedroom; and a skylight above the stairwell creates a shaft of light that reaches down to the basement. The couple kept construction costs low by fitting in DIY work between their jobs – Scott at an architectural practice in New York, and Margarita as a lecturer in Virginia. ‘Doing a project like this the normal way would have been three times more expensive,’ says Margarita.

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The couple also saved money by sticking with the original plumbing, and retaining the building’s original footprint, which meant fitting the stairway inside, rather than making it an external addition to the house – a decision they grappled with for some time. The building work was completed in three months, but the internal finishing took over two years, partly because a lot of it was bespoke. Instead, they used their architectural skills to work in an unusual, improvisational way. They did drawings as they went along and then sat down with tradesmen, who were given the freedom to build things as they saw fit. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but they found it was more efficient.

Now, Margarita and Scott have a snug, 60 sqm home that gives them everything they need: a bedroom, a light-filled living space, a patio and their very own archaeological exhibit.

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