A house for a rainy day


By PENELOPE GREEN,   The New York Times 
NEW YORK — The back half of the ground floor of Jaime Roark and Ben Krone’s rebuilt Red Hook house is a clear plastic garage door. On a recent Indian summer morning, it was wide open, and the light poured onto the concrete floor. (The couple’s kitten, Gustav, nearly hysterical with the freedoms this afforded her, kept leaping out and into a neighbor’s yard.)

Looking up, you could see the flood vents that underlined the door’s acrylic panels. Krone, an architectural designer with his own practice, Gradient Design Studio, and Roark, an exhibition designer at the Guggenheim, had bought the vents themselves and had the garage-door company custom-fit them to Krone’s design.

Like much of Red Hook, the neighborhood along south Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront, Pioneer Street is in the flood zone, and Krone’s blueprint for the house meticulously follows the post-Sandy building codes in clever and thrifty ways.

The hurricane blew right through this modest, three-story house, after which its owner at the time, who had maintained it as a rental property, was forced to gut the century-old place to its brick walls.

The previous tenants were Ben McGrath, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and his wife, Leah Hoffman, who is also a writer. Their son, Ian, was only 4 months old when Sandy hit, and in an essay about their ordeal, McGrath wrote about the 40 giant trash bags they hauled from the place, the books floating in a toilet and how Ian’s needs kept them “from collapsing too readily into self-pity.”

(McGrath and Hoffman were itinerant for months after the storm and now live on high ground in Rockland County.)

Without plumbing, walls or floors, the house was uninhabitable. No bank would touch it. Krone, now 37, and Roark, 38, had been renting a loft in Williamsburg and looking to buy something for months, and last October they bought the place for about $880,000, using money left to Krone by his father and grandmother as a down payment.

The financing for the balance was extended to them by the owner, in a yearlong arrangement with an extremely low interest rate that would skyrocket if they missed their deadline. The idea was to get a traditional mortgage once the place was habitable. Oh, and Roark was pregnant, which ratcheted up the deadline pressure.

But Krone, an ingenious modernist whose past projects include residential and commercial work, and a few multiunit developments, acted as general contractor and was able to finish the house in six months, at a cost of about $350,000. To do so, he and Roark used their savings and their credit cards and did a lot of the finish work themselves.

The broad strokes of the rebuild were a two-story addition at the back of the house, a new foundation and, of course, new everything inside. The hub was a kitchen that Krone and Roark bought at cost from Henrybuilt, the Seattle-based kitchen company, which Krone has worked with before.

Henrybuilt was switching out its SoHo showroom model, something it does every three or four years, and the couple bought it for a fraction of its retail price.

It was from the kitchen’s dimensions that Krone sketched out the house in 2,200 square feet: a wide-open living, dining and kitchen area on the first floor, with all the mechanicals tucked into a pantry closet, high above the flood plain (remember that the first floor of city houses is one story up from street level); a ground floor with an office and a front room; and a top floor with a bedroom and dressing room.

This open configuration, which allowed for modifications as the family grew, would cause headaches later on with the bank, whose calculations stamped the place a one-bedroom.

“If you add a bedroom,” Krone said, “you get a $30,000 credit. It would cost me $1,000 to put up a wall, but it’s wasteful and not what we needed.”

Another setback was a piece of lending arcana that prescribed a mortgage of only 70 percent of the appraised value of the house if they tried to finance in under 12 months from the purchase date. They had hoped the mortgage would both pay off their credit card charges and give them back some liquidity.

“At first, it felt a bit like a punch in the guts,” Krone said. “But now we have equity in the house, as opposed to owing it.”

On Christmas Day, they shoveled snow out of the space that would be the kitchen. Roark gave her husband a mailbox; he gave her a Nest thermostat and some smoke detectors. By April, they had moved in, with a few pieces of furniture Krone designed.

Asa, their son, arrived almost a month early, on Aug. 1, in the midst of the kerfuffle over the mortgage.

“In a moment of delirium, I sent two emails to the bank saying they had to get a lawyer to the hospital,” Krone said. “In my mind, it was totally logical.”

In the months since then, they have settled in nicely, sharing parenting tips with Luise Kaunert and Chico MacMurtrie, whose Amorphic Robot Works studio is in a church down the block and whose daughter is 4 months old. And Krone is building a two-sided shed/greenhouse at the back of their property that will be shared by another neighbor, Patrick Nuti, a chef, and his wife, Kimmerly Scott.

The shed it is replacing, a termite-infested house for an old washer and dryer, was one of the few things that Sandy didn’t wash away.NOTEStart

AP-WS-AP-WF-10-08-14 2352GMT


Last modified: October 23, 2014
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