written by:
photos by:
August 13, 2011
Originally published in Japan Style

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

Brick house facade in Brooklyn
Sherman sits in front of his Prospect Heights home. The front door is made from etched Lexan bulletproof glass.
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Creative living room with an Eames chair and decorative rug
In the living room Daphne the dog keeps company with a Case Study Day Bed from Modernica, a LCM chair by Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller, and a painting by the Brooklyn artist Joyce Kim.
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Modern kitchen with metal kitchenware and wall hangings
Sherman’s friend Anna Chang prepares tea in the kitchen. The range is by Wolf. Walls are coated with parging, a type of concrete made with sand instead of gravel—-more typically used in an industrial context.
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Dining area with a mint green door and cedar ceiling
The dining area is bright and airy, thanks to the skylight-topped hole cut in the center of the structure. The ceiling is clad in cedar closet liner; the dining chairs and table base are from Ikea.
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Stairs with original tin panels
The tin panels lining the stairs are original to the house.
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Modern home office with copper-covered walls
The copper-covered volume extends from the first floor, where it contains coat and shoe storage.
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Jeff Sherman and Sakhawat Ullah talking outside
Sherman chats with his neighbor Sakhawat Ullah, the mason who built his front stoop.
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Guest room with a floor-to-ceiling headboard
The copper-covered volume proceeds to the second floor, where it forms a storage wall in Sherman’s home office
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Compact blackboard closet for food storage
Closet Case To consolidate most appliances and food storage, keep his compact kitchen looking neat, and save money on cabinets, Sherman built a closet into the kitchen wall (“Cabinets are expensive but closets are cheap,” he offers). Inside is a countertop, blackboard surface, toaster oven, garbage cans, magnetic knife rack, and plenty of shelves. When the doors are closed, the unit recedes from view.
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Shoe shelves covered with bamboo bead curtains
Seeing Double To cover up his shoe-storage shelves, Sherman bought bamboo bead curtains from the Callaloo Company emblazoned with an image of the Madonna. He separated out every other strand to create two curtains from one, resulting in twinned pixelated images. The resulting pattern is “like a Chuck Close that everyone can afford,” says Sherman.
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Outdoor rubble brick and concrete path
Green Thumb Sherman’s back garden is a model of adaptive reuse: The path is made from rubble bricks and concrete dug up from the backyard and crushed, and the bench is made from reclaimed cast-iron panels and mahogany scraps left over from replacing the interior stair treads.
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Master bedroom with corrugated-plastic panels and vinyl from Canal Plastics
Sheer Genius The master bedroom wall that faces the light well is made from a double layer of corrugated-plastic panels, with a sheet of vinyl from Canal Plastics Center sandwiched between them for translucency. The wall lets sunlight and moonlight into the room while still maintaining privacy.
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Natural lit dining room with book shelves on top
Now You Cedar To make sure the light well over the dining area read as “a hole, rather than just a bending of the Sheetrock plane,” Sherman clad the first-floor ceiling in inexpensive tongue-and-groove cedar closet liner from Home Depot. Bonus: “I like the smell of cedar,” says Sherman, and now the house carries a faintly woodsy scent.
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Brick house facade in Brooklyn
Sherman sits in front of his Prospect Heights home. The front door is made from etched Lexan bulletproof glass.
Project 
Sherman Residence

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.

Dining area with a mint green door and cedar ceiling
The dining area is bright and airy, thanks to the skylight-topped hole cut in the center of the structure. The ceiling is clad in cedar closet liner; the dining chairs and table base are from Ikea.

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.

Modern home office with copper-covered walls
The copper-covered volume extends from the first floor, where it contains coat and shoe storage.

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.

Guest room with a floor-to-ceiling headboard
The copper-covered volume proceeds to the second floor, where it forms a storage wall in Sherman’s home office

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.

 

 

Jeff Sherman takes us on a guided tour of his residence in a special behind-the-scenes video.

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