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When Clients Become My Friends: The Story Of An Immigrant Family Rediscovering ‘Home’

Stair Detail

My firm rarely takes on home renovation but when I work with residential clients, I’m looking for chemistry. Just the other day, I helped a young family find their home. The family of four, including their 4-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, has been living in a small apartment in Brooklyn. The wife who is an immigrant from China works in Manhattan’s financial sector and the husband who is Jewish is a writer for the New York Times. Together, they needed more space as the wife’s parents who do not speak English are also moving in with them.

As I revealed their finished house, they finally felt at home. It’s a 2-story townhouse in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which is a diverse neighborhood, gradually becoming revitalized. You could say that this neighborhood, like my clients, is in transition. Looking upward and onward to a new chapter in life.

We took a long journey together. When we first stepped into the space last July, the place was very cluttered. The clients doubted they could ever uncover the feeling of home here.

The previous owner lived in the house for about 30 years; she filled it with her ‘collections’ and two large dogs. We looked out at this mess, padlocks on some of the doors, outdated appliances and plumbing. On top of everything, the previous owner had done some work to the house to accommodate her disability, but without permission from the authorities. As she aged, her children didn’t want to take on the burden. So we did.

My firm provided design services and project management; we were able to walk the new homeowners through the whole process and work with the contractor to stay on task.

Stair Restoration After

Most importantly, we helped our clients envision the space’s potential. We embraced the perks – the original hardwood floor with inlay and borders was intact, and we were able to refinish it and reveal its beauty. Architectural details like crown molding were hidden underneath paint. The wife stripped the paint off of the staircase and nearly restored the original carvings. As she discovered this hidden detail, she embraced our collective vision.

Basement Near Complete

Our main design challenge was in the walk-out basement. Because they needed to accommodate her parents, we designed an in-laws suite in the basement. But first, we replaced the furnace and boilers. With limited lighting in this long and narrow space, we created a bright area that doesn’t feel like a basement at all.

Now this multi-generational household lives in a well-lit, modernized home. They walk through the dining room into the kitchen; when they are entertaining guests they can see from one room to another, and out the window to the patio. We also replaced the old radiator with a more energy efficient heating system. They are very pleased to see the architectural details revealed, too.

As the clients are unpacking, they see a home here where their kids can grow up. Overall the renovation captured what they were hoping for. I did a final walk-through with them last week. The husband said, ‘The feeling of home didn’t really hit me until now. For the first time, I could feel this as my home.’

These clients were open-minded, and we enjoyed working together. I predict we will stay friends. I’ve given them advice, relating my story to theirs. We share a similar lifestyle; my mother lives with me and I have a 10-year-old son. For my team to work on a project, we need to know who the person is – we want to know their lifestyle, temperament and hopes and dreams.


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