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High-End Manhattan Renovation Guide
Author: Colleen Barry-Sleicher Manhattan High End Residential Construction
by Colleen Barry-Sleicher

Manhattan High End Residential Construction Information for brownstone, apartment, condominium and coop owners and Building coop boards planning renovations in New York City's exclusive cooperative and condominium buildings and Brownstones


Brownstones have been a part of New York City since the 1800’s. NYC cooperative and coop buildings are designated as either pre or post war buildings referencing WWII. Think of renovations in these buildings as dealing with squared off areas, whether it is a section of one floor or a vertical section of a building having more than one floor in a single residence.

Pre War Buildings

In Pre War buildings walls are made of gypsum block along with metal lath or steel studs. The floors and ceilings tend to be very thick.

Post War Buildings

Gypsum block was used in 1960’s buildings, plaster in the 1970’s, and sheetrock up to the present. These buildings are made up of plaster, cement and steel. Since theses materials are very dense and less flexible than prewar buildings they tend to transmit sound. Often soundproofing is needed under floors.

Difference in building materials

Many of the luxury buildings in NYC were built prior to 1960. There have been many innovations in construction since. Metallurgy has contributed many new products in building and building maintenance. For example copper water pipe and Synthetic rubber. The use of lead or lead containing products is now prohibited. Paint may not be stripped with heat or dry sanding. Chemical strippers can be used because the old paint does not go into the air. Plaster walls and ceilings will probably require a thin plaster layer (skim coat) to be applied to make the surface smooth. This will seal any lead containing paint layers in place. Asbestos was used in plaster, floor tile and many other products in buildings prior to 1979. Now, a certified removal company must perform any asbestos removal.


Property owners will be required to put in time during the planning stage. It is important to research and feel comfortable with the designer. You must be on the same page or you will never get the look you want. When selecting a designer, keep in mind a project can grow beyond the skill level of the designer. Interview several designers. Prior experience and knowledge will determine their suitability for any project. Any delay in selecting or approving layouts, drawings, work items or materials will cause delays that will cause more delays. One missing detail or purchase item may delay huge blocks of work.

Architects and Designers

Interior designers are trained in architectural design as well as soft goods selection. Often a design firm has Architectural designers working for them. Architects are more involved in the methods of construction. Aspects of the project such as electrical device location and type, air conditioning, plumbing fixtures, walls and ceilings, architectural woodwork are of more interest to the architect. The importance of good planning with the architect and designer influences the project progress. For example, the bathroom fixtures may have an impact on how the tile work is installed. Doorway dimensions will determine the light switch location.


All contractors performing work on a private NYC residence must be licensed by the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) as a Home Improvement Contractor (HIC). Plumbers and Electricians are licensed by the NYC Department of Buildings. Architects are licensed by the State. Decorators and Interior designers are not required to be licensed.

Prepare a detailed plan of what you want accomplished before interviewing contractors. A complete project specification must be developed for a contractor to prepare a realistic estimate of time, materials and cost for the home improvement project. Do not change the plan as you speak to different contractors. You will not be getting an “apples to apples” quotation. The contractor with the higher price may be including an aspect of the project you did not make clear to another contractor. Project specifications that are incomplete are a roadmap for disaster.

When choosing a contractor the homeowner should consider general knowledge, existing customer projects, references and reputation. The homeowner might consider using the services of a contractor referral agency. The referral agency offers the homeowner a pool of contractors who have been screened and matched to a particular project. Selecting a contractor who is inexpensive, inexperienced and in over his head can only lead to disappointment.


There are two variables that determine the final cost of each project. “Core Work”, walls, floors, ceilings and everything that is behind these surfaces and “Finish Work”, moldings, trim, final skim plaster coat, marble, tile, and cabinetry. Quality of the workmanship and the level of finish will vary between different contractors. Core Work, behind the scenes, construction cost are often similar from contractor to contractor. The cost of the Finish Work will be determined by how much you are willing to spend and the skills of the contractor performing this work. This finish work will have the widest variance in pricing and final appearance of the renovation. Finish materials such as stone and woodworking will have quality price differences.


All contracts for home improvement in NYC must include the address and phone number of the contractor, the contractor and salesman license numbers, estimated dates when the work will start and be substantially complete, description types of material, a notice that all monies received will be deposited in the contractors account and be used for no other propose than to provide payments as stated in the contract, a schedule of progress payments showing the amount or each payment and the application of that payment in some relationship to the progress of project completion or materials to be purchased, all limitations, representations and warranty, a statement and insurance certificate .


Contractors will give a schedule of the work to be performed. Building guidelines can have a great affect on the project timeline. Over the course of the job many man-hours are lost just getting in and out of a building. Building Hours are often 9AM-4:00 or 4:30. Building may have restrictions on the amount of time any job can last. There may be restrictions on the service elevator usage or water shut off times and planning.

Buildings are careful concerning site protection. Good contractors take extra steps to protect the building and the clients living space. Site Protection includes protecting existing floors and dust control with exhaust fans for example. .

Projects are divided into two phases. The first phase includes the behind the scenes construction including the walls, floors, ceilings and everything that is behind these surfaces. The second phase is the “Finish Work”, which is the woodworking, cabinetry, final skim coat, marble tile and moldings. A majority of work will be behind the scenes. The first phase is often the most costly and time consuming. As mentioned earlier planning is very important. Many rooms are defined by any changes including wall locations, plumbing and water supply locations, electrical requirements and HVAC installation.

Sample Renovation Project Tasks:

  •   Demolition and debris removal. Many contractors often have their own employees take care of demolition to insure quality.
  •   Inspect for any leaks or damage behind walls, tiled areas, floors, etc.
  •   Repair and prep behind the scenes areas with any needed protective installation or sealants.
  •   Plumbing and electrical installation.
  •   Electrical Riser Work.
  •   Cutting through existing wall for design changes.
  •   Framing of new walls, partitions, etc.
  •   Complete walls
  •   Smooth and Level floors, walls and ceilings for cabinetry, vanities, tiling, wood floor installation etc.
  •   Install new floor areas.
  •   Complete ceiling changes.
  •   Complete tiling
  •   Install appropriate fixtures such as tub.
  •   Complete doorway framing and interior window frames
  •   Complete surface electrical work such as ceilings lights, lights with cabinetry, etc.
  •   Install cabinetry, appliances, vanities, counter tops, etc.
  •   Complete surface flooring
  •   Complete fixture installation
  •   Complete crown-molding, millwork, trim work, woodworking and carpentry.
  •   Final plaster skim coat
  •   Floor protection and painting
  •   Complete Painting
  •    Faux Finish, wallpaper, murals if needed
  • Keep the following points in mind during a renovation:

  •   The finish items will affect the way the rough plumbing and electrical work will proceed
  •   Walls cannot be closed until the inspection is performed.
  •   Projects cannot be rushed such as painting and come out correctly.
  •   Changes, deletions, additions, client approval and any missing specifications or items will cause delays in the job completion date.
  •   Contractors do not look forward to changes and additions, they have schedules and other projects they want to move forward on.
  •   Job site meetings usually produce some modifications or changes.
  •   There will usually be some minor changes that will result in added costs.
  •   There is always a ripple affect on any contractor's job schedule when poor planning takes over.

    Colleen Barry-Sleicher, CEO and Founder Manhattan Home Improvement Referral,