In an April 29, 2016 posting, NR featured 284 Liberty Street . Two months later, it found new owners.
NR: How did you find Newburgh and what made you decide to move here?
Liz: Michael and I love the Hudson Valley and along with friends we were looking for a location to build a sustainable community in a place that was walkable, historic, and with an edgy vibe. We were concerned about the challenges but kept returning. It grew on us.
NR: What kind of loan did you end up getting, and how hard was it to find a lender?
Liz: We helped my sister with her home on Lander Street. We learned how difficult it is to get a construction loan, especially when you want to build to high-energy standards. As serial renovators, we needed funding to startup our company, dwellstead, which helps others with similar projects.
Michael: We ultimately decided to fund from proceeds of the sale of our loft. This meant saying goodbye to 45+ years of life in Lower Manhattan.
Historic Tax Credits are a key part of our financing. The money we got back on this building drove net costs down by 15%. We’re doing tax credits as a service for those who find the process cumbersome and time consuming.
NR: What work had to be done to your building and what services did you use?
Liz: It had a CofO, but previous alterations were not code compliant. There were gas-fired heaters in each room!
Working with our business partner and architect, C. B. Wayne, we did a gut renovation. He first made us reinforce the joists because he has been to many of our crazy loft dance parties and was afraid of what would happen with 150 people jumping up and down together in unison.
Michael: Climate change is becoming an urgently felt problem. Just the other day, millions of students around the world walked out of class for 11 minutes, representing the number of years we may have left to fix this problem.
As individuals, reducing the energy demand of one’s own home is something we each can each do now. I was originally inspired by Passive House homes, designed to be “so energy-efficient you can heat them with a hair dryer”. But estimates we got were 50% more than current top selling prices for homes in Newburgh. We wanted a high performance approach budgeted for the Newburgh market. C. B., with extensive experience in high-energy-conservation construction, said that what matters is hitting a HERS* rating of 20-40. He provided other methods that are simple, intuitive, time-tested and more affordable.
Often, the goals of preservation and energy conservation clash. Since C. B. also has a passion for preservation, he was the ideal partner for finding sensitive, thoughtful ways of maintaining the historic beauty of the building, while getting us to our performance goals.
Liz: The layouts of each floor had been carved up to maximize occupancy, with sheet rock covering windows and doors every which way. We returned as best we could to the elegance of the original layout. By removing a stairway, we were able to enlarge the bath and add a walk-in closet for the ground floor one-bedroom rental.
The main floor has the parlor, dining room, pantry and kitchen. There were previously 3 bedrooms upstairs but we converted one into what has become a heavenly master-bath and laundry.
Michael: The plumbing, heating and electrical are new. Because the building is tight, we installed ERVs for fresh air. Sprinklers were an unexpected expense, but I lived for 41 years in a manufacturing building with them, they are a part of my psyche. The pipes are buried within the walls: you hardly know they’re there.
We added 5” of rockwool insulation in the walls and 17” under the roof. Rockwool is 3 times more fire-resistant than foam, which burns rapidly and produces intense heat: it’s like pouring gasoline into the walls. Rockwool ads say “Keep a fire in your house from becoming a house on fire”. This is an important consideration for historic districts.
Liz worked hard at restoring the windows on her own but got great help from the floor guy and his girlfriend towards the end, and storm windows – built by Innerglass – were placed on the inside. They are 7 times tighter than exterior storms. At first, they were not an easy sell with the city’s compliance department, but in the end we found the guys there to be good to work with. We didn’t receive any stop-work orders: maybe because we bugged them with so many questions that they eventually just wanted to run the other way. We reconstructed moldings to match the original design.
Liz: We try to re-use/recycle and have fun with it. Our bathroom vanity is fabricated out of a mid-century credenza that I found at a thrift store. We took our custom designed kitchen cabinets with us from our Manhattan loft and re-purposed them here. We added Italian marble counters on either side of the stove, and went with butcher block for the island.
Finding good, honest help wasn’t easy, but most everything went well: we had six plumbers, five carpenters, two electricians, a mason, a floor guy, a tile guy and one very cranky plasterer.
NR: What has your experience been like living on Liberty Street? How are the neighbors?
Michael: It’s quiet. People smile and say hi. Sometimes I smile back (Liz: Practice, Michael!). To one side are a couple who are in arts/education. They love gardening, and trees. Across the street is a Boys and Girls Club. It’s nice to hear the sound of children playing.
Liz: This fall my sister’s previous tenant bought the house two doors north of us. He’s become like family.
There’s bodega a block away – can’t beat that!
Friends and family pop over and it’s like old times. Our floor guy loves Michael’s collection of gospel LPs. Marino, our masonry guy, drops by with produce from his church pantry. If we’re not home, he leaves it at the door. No one ever takes it. Last time, he brought me a ton of limes, carrots, and blood oranges. We made Key Lime pie, carrot cake, and ricotta cheesecake with blood orange compote and invited everyone over. Take that, Martha Stewart!
NR: Why is this your dream home?
Michael: This house allowed us to see if we could execute to a vision. When we got our heating bill, it was 15% of what buildings of this type and size average: think of what you can do with that extra $s. We still have to do our HERS audit, but this is an indication that we will hit our target, and we did it at a price that’s right for Newburghers.
I love the attic. I have my office and studio space there. The view out the east window is peaceful and conducive to work. I like being able to jump on my bike and be in the countryside in 5 minutes.
Liz: The house has great soul. It’s cozy, unpretentious and warm. We have a beautiful backyard for our dog Mitsy to run around in. And I LOVE that I can walk to my sister’s house in 5 minutes!
NR: What have been some of the perks and challenges of living in Newburgh?
Liz: I don’t need a car. The restaurants, cafes, parks, and grocery stores are a walk, bus, cab or ferry ride away.
Michael: There are economic and housing trends that are not sustainable. Hundreds of charming but distressed buildings wait to be turned back into beautiful homes, yet there is a clamor for affordable housing. We see opportunity in this. That is why we started dwellstead. We are looking forward to finishing the exterior of this building, and ramping up our next.
NR: What advice would you give others who are considering moving to Newburgh?
Liz: Do your homework. Talk to people who have done the kinds of renovations you aspire to. Give considerable thought to building sustainably: fixing up these distressed buildings so that they consume as little energy as possible is a great opportunity to contribute to slowing climate change because buildings are the biggest contributors to carbon emissions. Yes, more than industry and more than cars. At the same time you will save money over the long run and be very comfy in your warm home.
Plan carefully. Vet your trades as if your life depended on it.
Take advantage of historic tax credits! It’s a lot of work but it’s worth it! (We can help: call dwellstead at 917-743-7568 or 917-628-8835, or visit our office at Grit Works at 115 Broadway in Newburgh, where we will be having our next workshop soon.)
Finally: finding a property you can buy for $5k and renovate for $100k is a long shot. Maybe you have to say that to yourself in order to commit yourself to a process that is often maddening, but denial is painful and the truth will save you.