What happens when an interior designer, architect, builder and homeowner walk into a townhouse? It’s not the beginning of a joke; it’s the premise of a new documentary. “The Townhouse,” which debuted last month, charts the relationship and the collaboration between architect Brian E. Boyle, designer Sarah Magness, builder Josh Wiener, and the owner of an Upper East Side townhouse as the space is entirely reimagined over the course of two years. The team sat down with EAL to chat about slow design in the age of minute-long makeovers, HGTV and do-it-yourself design.
Josh Wiener (SilverLining Interiors, producer), Jonathan Robinson (Build Pictures, director), Sarah Magness (Magness Design, interior designer) and Brian E. Boyle (architect)
So many of the “makeover” stories we see are presented in 20-minute segments on HGTV that make design seem seamless and even easy. What’s your goal with this documentary? Who is your audience?
Sarah Magness: The goal was to document and educate viewers on the importance of craft and collaboration. High-end residential requires the utmost attention to detail and providing to the client the highest level of design and craftsmanship. My goal is to use the film as an educational outlet for potential clients, but also to engage a younger student audience on the importance of design and craft.
Brian Boyle: It is so difficult to show the complexity of this process in 10 minutes, 20 minutes, even two hours. I would just hope people do see the complexity and effort it takes to produce good design. It is not something that happens with a fast crew of people in six days, or even six weeks. It takes planning, teamwork, talent at all levels and a unwavering commitment to quality.
Our first film with Build Pictures, called “Skyhouse,” was a success, with nearly one million views, but it didn’t show how the amazing home came to be. It lacked process footage, and we realized there was a demand to see the building process. By showing process in the “Townhouse” film, from excavation and rough trades through finishes and furnishing, we hope viewers understand how challenging it is to rebuild an 1800s home, essentially from the ground up, in one of the world’s most dense urban environments. Our audience is architects, designers and industry friends who specialize in high-end residential work.
How were all members of the design, architecture and building teams first connected?
SM: I had worked previously with the client and they approached me to help create a team for the townhouse. They wanted a team that understood the importance of restoration and quality of design but also were capable to listen and engage each member of the team to develop a winning project.
BB: Sarah and I met while she worked for another designer with whom I have a long history of collaboration. She and I worked for a time on a project or two, and developed a good rapport and respect for each other, but never got the chance to work through a complete project. But a seed had been planted. When the homeowners came to her having purchased this home that had been carved into 10 apartments, she called me. I had done a previous smaller renovation on another townhouse, in the row of six, of which this was one, that were built by the same builder. So I was able to show the homeowner work four houses away. I think it gave them a great opportunity to see what the house “could be,” which was rather difficult in its current condition.
I have done a number of projects with SilverLining as the builder: a duplex penthouse apartment in Tribeca, a previous townhouse which had much more “surgical” scope of work, and several apartments. They are always on my short list of contractors, so I introduced them to the owners of this townhouse. I find SilverLining to be good team players, creative problem solvers, and producers of superior finished projects.
Josh Wiener: SilverLining had a longstanding relationship with architect Brian E. Boyle, and he introduced SilverLining to designer Sarah Magness. Sarah and Brian had a relationship, as well, from previous projects. This shared history of working together very much contributed to the synergy and collaboration that followed.
How did the idea for the film originate?
SM: The film originated from the builder, SilverLining. SL approached me with the idea to present to the client. The client was excited and enthusiastic for the film to document the entire construction and design process.
JW: My brother-in-law Jonathan Robinson, owner of Build Pictures, has been making documentary films for many years, and it’s been a goal of mine to show our work in a more immersive way than photography is capable of doing.
What was the most challenging aspect, from a designer’s point of view?
SM: The most challenging aspect was to design an interior corridor that would maximize the amount of natural light. My idea was to create an oculus with an elliptical dome. The oculus provided the maximum amount of light and the dome created the interior ellipse to bring the natural light from the top floor to the main parlor floor.
JW: Rebuilding a townhouse is especially challenging, because it’s connected to two neighboring properties, which are structurally integrated and dependent on one another. Replacing the 1800s wood frame structure with steel framing piece by piece is meticulous and requires constant monitoring of neighboring homes, temporary bracing and a sequencing strategy that’s efficient without compromising safety or the highest standards. Another major challenge was working with Landmarks Preservation Commission to establish conformity in the rebuilding of the front stoop and rear facade. We were thrilled to have this work recognized by winning the Friends of the Upper East Side 2016 Restoration Award.
Do you have another film-design project in the works? What are you currently working on?
SM: I am working with the director to create specialized design segments from the “Townhouse” film. I am currently working on two houses in Long Island, a villa in Italy and three apartments in Manhattan.
What was the most challenging aspect, from an architect’s point of view? From a builder’s point of view?
BB: Coordination of all new structure, HVAC, lighting, AV, and all the other associated elements, into a compelling finished design that feels like it was the way it always should have been. Contemporary homes are so much more complex than even 20 years ago and require coordination of a lot of systems. These need to be integrated so that they simplify and enhance the life of the homeowner but don’t call attention to themselves; they fade into the background or even disappear.
Another challenge, as noted in the film, is getting light into the dark interior space of the central stair hall. The homeowner was excited about our idea of the elliptical stair, with the large domed skylight to brighten the core of the home. It adds a sculptural element to the home, that on the one hand is quite dramatic, but when experienced, very graceful and serene. We went to great lengths to have the handrail be one smooth curve from the top floor to the parlor floor; no newel posts, no goosenecks, just one continuous sweep.
Scale and proportion are always a challenge, in any design, in all levels of detail. Architectural elements need to be in proper scale for the space, to help to create a rhythm and continuity throughout one's experience of a house and together with the finishes and furnishings, feel comforting, welcoming, like home.
A special challenge in this home was that the homeowner had a very strong need for minimal sound transmission between rooms, between floors, and from mechanical equipment. A lot of attention was paid to every detail, during the entire design and construction processes, to assure that this need was met.
[For a builder,] typically one of the big challenges is schedule. When creating one-of-a-kind hand-carved stone or wood mantles, custom coffered ceilings, special finishes, or lighting used in ways never done before [the powder room ceiling], these all require a lot of planning, mock-ups to assure that the design team and homeowner are all satisfied with the intent, vetting the correct craftspeople. Everything takes longer than expected. But the most important path to keeping as close to schedule as possible is an involved and caring client. We were very fortunate to have had that.