Sustainable and toxin-free living

Sustainable and toxin-free living

How We Sustainably Renovated Our Brooklyn Living Room

After seven months of travel, out of all the things I miss about New York City, the three things I miss the most are our friends, our cat, and our apartment.

We’ve stayed in luxury eco-resorts, lovely AirBnBs, and high-end hotels (and our fair share of awful places that I shall not talk about here). And through it all, we’ve always thought and talked about our apartment. The comfortable bed. The soothing colors. The pink sunsets through the living room windows. The way we had it designed to exactly our preferences and belongings and interests.

It’s been three and a half years since my husband and I renovated our apartment together. When we bought it, it was a wreck: pipes sticking out of the walls, cracked laminate flooring, and inexplicable popcorn-textured drop ceilings that made the hallways oppressive. It’s only 650 square feet total.  But I saw potential. It was on the top floor, with tall ceilings, windows everywhere and beautiful views of Brooklyn. Having grown up with a renovation-happy mother, I knew that those were the important things –everything else could be completely transformed.

My now-husband, an architect, helped me execute on my vision. And what we got was a cozy, organized, beautiful apartment drowning in light. In the spring, throwing open the windows ushered a refreshing breeze through the whole apartment, stirring the leaves of the kitchen plants. In the winter, the radiators clicked and hissed, as comforting as a fire in the fireplace, and our cat, Pancho, lolled on the couch in the bright winter sun.

While I posted the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and even entryway makeovers pretty quickly, I never got around to posting the before and after photos of the living room. I was just never entirely satisfied with the way it looked, and kept shifting things around.

But I got pretty close right before we left, so I took some final photos literally the morning we left for the airport. And now I’m finally sharing them with you, Plus, of course, how we did the renovation as sustainably as possible. (Here’s EcoCult’s guide to sustainable and ethical furniture.)

Let’s hope I can remember everything after all this time!


An ugly, small light fixture, old parquet floors, an old radiator squatting in the corner. Not terrible, but could be improved.

There was a wall between the kitchen and living room, which made the apartment feel smaller. Wiring was everywhere. And you can see the linoleum floor in the hallway that mismatched the parquet floors. So, we tore down the wall, and tore up the floor.

Better already!

Since my husband is also a DJ, we decided that it would be the polite thing to do (and make our lives easier) to soundproof the apartment. I’m so glad we did, because we didn’t realize until after the renovation had already started how thin the walls were! One day I stood in the living room and actually heard the lyrics from the music the neighbor was playing next door.

It’s lucky my husband is an architect and music lover, because he dove into the internet and researched the best solution, then carefully designed it out in blueprints that our contractor did his best to ignore. (Illich showed up each morning before work to instruct the workers in Spanish on exactly what needed to be done.) Ideally, we would have put in an extra layer of wall with air in between, sound production booth style, but that would have been giving up too much precious space.

Sound is like water: it will find any hole to go through. When my husband stuck his head up into the ceiling, he realized that the wall didn’t connect all the way to the roof, there was simply some two-by-fours and drywall in an L-shape up to 9 feet, leaving a two-foot gap. The sound could flow right over the wall. So we tore out the wall and ceiling, stuffed them both with insulation made from recycled denim, put up metal tracks with rubber to deaden the vibration, and affixed double-thick soundproofing drywall to that.

We also ripped up the floor and put down recycled rubber mats to deaden the noise.

We knew there was brick behind the outer wall, but a board member told us not to try exposing it. The building envelope is not properly sealed, and another neighbor who had tried it had moisture coming in. Instead, we installed a thin veneer of reclaimed New York brick to fake it. 

On top of the recycled rubber flooring, we put reclaimed oak milled from upstate barn wood by Carlisle Wide Plank Flooring. It lends the entire apartment a warm glow, and has all these beautiful knots and imperfections. We finished it with a non-toxic, water-based finish. With the extra leftover wood, we made shelving for above my desk and above the couch, using simple and affordable white metal brackets we found at a hardware store.

The desk pictured is from the sustainable department store ABC Carpet & Home‘s warehouse sale. (They’ve since closed the warehouse, sadly.) The chair I bought secondhand off of AptDeco.  For the curtains, I bought the linen fabric, dip-dyed it at a Shabd dying workshop (dip dying that much fabric is exercise, my friends), then sent the fabric to my mom to sew into curtains. The sheepskin is from the Union Square farmer’s market, and the chunky knit wool chair cushion is from Etsy. The desk lamp is from West Elm. It’s metal and marble, not expressly sustainable, though West Elm has had some sustainability initiatives in the past.

To the left, you can see the DJ and production nook my husband carved out for himself during the renovation process. The wood shelves above are actually made from cedar reclaimed from old Brooklyn water towers that we got from Big Reuse (formerly known as Build It Green!). That’s more of the leftover flooring on the top shelf above the couch. We put that shelf there to give ourselves more storage in a tiny apartment. It’s also where we put the projector, so we don’t have to have a big black television on our wall. We painted the walls white with no-VOC paint.

I went to a couple of Goodwills and found a bunch of old frames in different sizes. We had some paint leftover from repainting the window frames, so I used that to paint the wood frames black. Then I filled them with family photos to create the gallery wall.

I guess I need to explain the speakers. Those are party-level speakers hanging up there. No, we don’t need speakers that big. But my husband owned them from throwing his own parties, and occasionally lends or rents them out to people. We didn’t have space to store them out of the way in the apartment, and didn’t want to get storage, so while the ceiling was open, we ran wiring from the DJ table through the ceiling to that wall, and had a professional install them safely. Now we can have our DJ friends over to play, and with the apartment soundproofed, we get away with some afterparties.

The couch, coffee table, and pink pillows are both from ABC Carpet & Home. It was really important that we get our couch from a trustworthy place, as conventional couches have toxic, off-gassing fillings and finishes. The antique icebox I got out of my mom’s basement, and I found the old wooden crate on the street and filled it with coffee table books.

Later I added the fuzzy alpaca pillow (I can’t find it now but this one is similar and cute). Then then I ordered the rug from Wilder in Nashville. And finally, one of my best friends knit the chunky white blanket as a wedding present.

Then I filled the living room with two of my favorite things – books and plants – And the renovation and redesign were complete!

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