Mornings in the Snyder-Burns household are brighter than most. The master bedroom and bathroom share an open plan, with the shower tucked inside a glass cube with a skylight above. Unusually for a narrow building of this vintage, the space is so bathed in sunlight that resident Lauren Snyder says it’s like showering outdoors, despite being in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. "It’s probably not for everyone, but it works for us," she says.
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Lauren is the owner of The Primary Essentials, a home goods store in nearby Boerum Hill that stocks works by many craft-based designers, including ceramic artist Helen Levy, weaver Doug Johnston, and furniture studio Fort Standard, to name a few. Her husband, Keith Burns, is an architect who worked with the firms ODA and REX in New York before setting up his eponymous studio. So when they decided to renovate a brownstone on a leafy Bed-Stuy block, the two had considerable contemporary design experience under their belts.
Keith had worked on a few renovations before, but the bulk of his experience was with a different scale. "My background was mostly working on large commercial projects," he says. "It’s been very different working on a hundred-year-old building where nothing is completely straight."
Beyond its age, the brownstone was in a state of considerable neglect when they purchased it in 2014. "We put a lot of energy into the bones of the building—new windows, new roof, the nuts-and-bolts stuff you don’t see," Lauren says. "At least half our investment went into that because we intend to be here for a long time."
The first step was a complete gut of the building to create an energy-efficient modern home. The sole remaining original feature, other than the floor structure and exterior-bearing walls, is the staircase, which has elegant turn-of-the-20th-century woodwork on the upper floors. Along with spray-foam insulation, Keith installed rooftop solar panels, an energy-recovery ventilation unit, a rainwater collection system, high-efficiency radiant heating, and a wood-burning stove. Thanks to these measures, the two haven’t had to pay for electricity in the year they’ve lived here.
Next, they focused on creating a livable layout—their own way. "Because we both work in the design world, we are quite particular," says Lauren. "But we don’t want to live everyday life in a precious way, and our home reflects that."
"Lauren is great at editing," says Keith, who also designed the retail space for The Primary Essentials, which embraces a similar palette. "I give her several sketches, and she always tends to go for the more adventurous option. However, we used simple, basic materials like plaster, brick, and wood throughout—in an honest way."
The building is large enough to accommodate such experiments as the improvised "jungle" and reading nook at opposite ends of the second-floor hallway. It also contains the couple’s joint office in a former bedroom on the third floor. On the first floor, Keith removed the room partitions but left a nod to the original hallway with a timber frame along its boundary. The most substantial redesigns took place in their open-plan bedroom/bathroom, which also features a wall that serves as a headboard and separates it from a walk-in closet, without restricting the flow of light.
The kitchen island is the largest feature of the expansive first-floor space. It took eight men to maneuver the single six-by-eight-foot marble slab countertop into place; beneath it is most of the kitchen storage, eliminating the need for eye-level cabinetry. The island is visually consistent with the marble that covers holes left by the original fireplaces, tying the space together as a cohesive piece, Keith says. He finished by plastering the walls to add a subtle, warm texture.
"Overall, we opted for architectural planes to define spaces, as opposed to boxing in rooms," he says. "There’s only so much you can do in an eighteen-foot-wide brownstone, and we wanted ours to feel fresh and personal to us."