A Green Apartment Remodel: Accidental Environmentalists

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Stephen Ang
Artist Lan Nguyen helped Amy and Oscar dress up the bedroom with an eggplant-colored radiator cover. Amy chose the silk curtains and brilliant-orange Benjamin Moore Eco-Spec paint because the bright colors 'just make me happy.'

Considering their ambivalence about eco-friendly remodeling, Amy and Oscar Schachter ended up with an amazingly green apartment.

When they contracted architect David Bergman to remodel 600 square feet of their 950-square-foot 1960s-era apartment in Manhattan, the couple wasn’t particularly committed to green building and décor. When they handed him their wish list–lots of color; a fabulous, open kitchen; and a home office connected to but also separate from the living space–Bergman handed them his. “He emphasized early on that he wanted the project to be green,” Amy says.

“We knew nothing about eco-design, but we told him as long as we liked the look and could afford it, that would be fine. We just didn’t want to pay a premium for something we weren’t looking for in the first place.”

“Green design wasn’t on their radar,” says Bergman, who is LEED accredited (the U.S Green Building Council’s designation for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). “So at different points, I showed them several material choices and didn’t tell them whether they were eco-friendly. More often than not, they liked the green materials.”

The Schachters ended up with a vibrant, comfortable home that boasts cork floors; locally sourced, recycled-glass countertops; recycled-glass tile backsplashes; wheatboard (composite “wood” made of agricultural byproducts) cabinets; and natural linoleum desktops–all cutting-edge materials they chose for their durability and aesthetic qualities.

“The green factor added an extra layer of excitement for Amy and Oscar,” Bergman says. “They love the apartment’s new layout and the colors most of all–it’s being green was just an added benefit. I like to call this ‘transparent green.’ It’s there if you’re looking for it, but this apartment doesn’t shout ‘green design.'”

Seeking space and light

Like most New Yorkers, Amy and Oscar were in need of more space when they bought the nondescript apartment on the eighth floor of the Upper East Side building where they already owned two tiny units. They’d been living in a first-floor apartment while the studio down the hall served double duty as an office and guest accommodations. However, the studio was too small for all the paperwork required for Oscar’s law practice, and he hated waiting for visitors to vacate in the morning so he could work. The Schachters also were seeking more light, which their ground-floor apartment seriously lacked. So when they learned that an eighth-floor, two-bedroom apartment had come on the market, they grabbed it. They sold the studio and turned the downstairs apartment into a formal dining room and guest room.

The couple renovated the new space–“to a point,” according to Amy–when they first moved in, turning the entire living room into an office and the tiny second bedroom into a dining area. Three years later, they knew more changes were needed.

“Our apartment was 90 percent work space and 10 percent living space,” says Amy, an affirmative-action consultant. Instead, the couple wanted to work comfortably in a much smaller part of the apartment so that their professional work became “a part of our life space, but not our life,” she explains.

“I also wanted to do more cooking,” Oscar adds. “So I wanted a place to prepare food without having to be in a separate room when we had company.” In addition, the Schachters needed a less formal space for casual, intimate entertaining than the downstairs dining room, which seats eight.

The couple was prepared to renovate right this time. “We were determined to really think it through so we wouldn’t have to redo anything,” Amy says. “We wanted to make sure everything was ready and right before we moved ahead.”

Bergman’s solution was to gut the windowless galley kitchen and blow out the enclosing walls so that it became a part of the living and office areas–turning a boxy apartment into an open, airy, loft-like space. A mobile kitchen island on wheels provides plenty of storage, as well as additional counter space and a spot for two people to eat dinner. Bergman moved the office area next to the kitchen and hid Oscar’s file cabinets (which are shrinking in size because he now stores many of his files electronically) behind a pivot sliding door made of recycled-content resin. The door pulls out from an interior pocket at the side of the refrigerator and folds over to hide the front of the files.

Building character

Throughout the process, Bergman and the Schachters focused on bringing character and color to an apartment that Bergman describes as having “8-foot ceilings with no details at all.” Randomly placed maroon cork tiles undulate through the wood-tone floor, adding unexpected shots of color. Brilliant blue natural linoleum dresses up the built-in desktops. And the powder-blue, recycled-content resin panels hiding both the utility closet near the kitchen and the file cabinet in the office “pull the whole look together,” Amy says. “It’s an industrial element that’s very New York.”

“For us, it’s all about color,” Amy adds. Bergman, who played with orange for the first time on this project, says bringing in color when using eco-materials was a challenge to overcome. “A lot of the colors are just rather bland,” he says.

Bumps in the road

As with any project, this one was not without its bad moments. “In the end, it came out beautifully,” says contractor Robert Politzer, president of Greenstreet Construction, “but it’s a classic story of the sometimes bloody process involved in the learning curve with green materials. This field is transforming so rapidly that with every project there’s a new material we’ve never worked with.”

Greenstreet ran into troubles when installing the cork floor; as with any resilient surface, it transmits all the bumps in the subfloor below. The original, recycled-glass tiles used on the kitchen backsplash also showed every imperfection and mottling; they had to be replaced with another brand that had a thin opaque backing.

Both Oscar and Politzer describe the original concrete countertop as simply “a nightmare.” Extremely porous, the concrete showed every scratch, every dent. Amy and Oscar tried to live with it for a few months, but they eventually decided to tear it out and replace it with IceStone. The Schachters love the new material’s sparkling green color and durability, and Oscar likes that it’s manufactured in his native Brooklyn.

Politzer is proud of the result, despite his firm’s struggles. “Construction is always a challenge, and this is construction in New York City, for God’s sake,” he says. “I’d advise other builders not to be allergic to green materials–but just to be aware of the learning curve.”

The Schachters are also thrilled. “We’re pleased we could do all this and stay within budget,” Amy says. “David was just great at finding all the right stuff.”

A Conversation with the Homeowners

What do you love most about the remodeled apartment?

Oscar Schachter: It’s a wonderful space for cooking, and at the same time, I can be with our guests and be a part of what’s going on.
Amy Schachter: For me, it’s the way the entire space works. And the color, I just love the color. It makes me happy every day when I get out of bed in the morning. It makes me smile.

What’s your favorite space?

Oscar: The kitchen part of the room is the thing I enjoy the most. I love the fact that it’s next to my office, and I can make a fresh cup of espresso without leaving the room.
Amy: The office space. I spend a lot of time there. I love the desk looking out on all this art. It’s a wonderfully pleasant place to work.

What would you do differently?

Oscar: The CD cabinet bothers me. It’s too low, and it’s difficult to see the titles down there. And we would like to have more space for books.
Amy: The only thing I wish we had done is to put in a curved lighting system by the bookshelves that matches the one in the kitchen.

What advice would you give others planning to remodel?

Oscar: If you do see something you think is a mistake, change it before you try to live with it.
Amy: Don’t chintz. Recognize this is going to be your home for a long time. Don’t try to skimp on stuff that’s important. Get the best you can afford. Recognize high-quality stuff is expensive for a reason. And find an architect who will listen to you.

The Good Stuff

• IceStone recycled-glass/concrete countertops
• UltraGlas recycled-glass tile backsplash
• 3form post-industrial, recycled-content resin panels
• Forbo natural linoleum desktops
• Reinstalled existing kitchen sink and faucet
• Fire & Water energy-efficient tabletop lights
• GreenRidge Specialties cabinetry made from wheatboard and sustainably harvested beech and maple with nontoxic glue and low-VOC finishes, fabricated in an environmentally friendly cabinet shop
• Aurora Glass recycled-glass cabinet knobs
• Benjamin Moore Eco-Spec paint
• Energy Star appliances