How would you design a family-friendly condo?

Over the summer, I ran into a college friend at a real estate alumni event. We made plans to meet up for breakfast about a month later and got really excited about what the other was up to – Joe, my friend, had started his own boutique development firm that focuses on condo conversions, especially in brownstone Brooklyn.  His firm purchased a brownstone building here in Park Slope with plans to convert the two-bedroom, one-bath apartments to condos for young families.

When he learned that I was interested in the interior design field, he asked me to participate in a “design charette” event at the building last Tuesday night. We invited couples and young parents to tour the empty, unrenovated apartments, look at the architect’s floorplans, and discuss their design and layout preferences.  We asked people to think about the question: “how would you design a family-friendly condo?” …and we got lots of different answers!

Upon arrival, guests were invited to take a self-guided tour of the two empty apartments on the third floor of the building.

There was a display illustrating some of the proposed design concepts and sample finishes to provoke conversation.

The wine  & cheese also helped to get the discussion flowing.

Several young parents brought their adorable babies, which contributed to the casual and fun atmosphere. Having babies in the room helped to keep the conversation focused on design elements that make sense for families with small children.

After everyone had a chance to walk through the apartments and take a look at the ideaboards, Joe and his business partner JR kicked off the discussion by introducing the project’s architect (below right), and describing the architect’s suggested floorplans.

They pointed out the differences between the left and right apartment layouts and asked about the importance of a second bathroom versus additional storage in the apartment. One question quickly led to another and the discussion went on for about an hour, ranging from stroller parking to kitchen flooring to the communal use of the roofdeck!

On energy efficiency: Some guests indicated that they were more interested in how much money energy efficient appliances and windows would save them in the long run rather than how “green” they were. A mother spoke up about the importance of low- and no-VOC paints and non-toxic finishes.

On lighting: Guests generally agreed that there was never enough lighting in apartments and the architect talked about how electrical work is typically very expensive for the developer. There was some discussion about the use of compact florescent lighting, which some guests complained never gave a flattering light, especially for women applying make-up. The architect introduced the idea of LED lighting and the group heard personal testimony from a satisfied LED light user.

On heating & cooling: Joe & JR plan to install three individual wall-mounted heating/cooling units per condo. These will allow the homeowners to heat & cool the living spaces separately from the two bedrooms, saving on their utility costs.

On kitchen flooring: Guests were split on wood versus stone tile in the kitchen. Some preferred wood floors throughout for the feeling of continuity, while others complained that no wood floors could stand up to their high-heeled shoes.  There was also discussion about the functionality of wood and stone in a kitchen – which was easier to clean? Which would hold up better to regular drips and spills?

On refrigerator design: Unanimous preference for the style of fridge with two doors on top and a drawer freezer below. These make sense in small kitchens because the doors are shallow and require less space to swing open. Someone also pointed out that most people use the freezer less frequently than the fridge, so you spend less time bending down low to get stuff off the bottom shelf.

On bathroom fixtures: Guests agreed that young families need bathtubs for bathtime! Bathtubs can’t be too deep and they should’t have glass enclosures. And although young parents may like the look of pedestal sinks, they’re not very practical for families that need lots of storage space.

On insulation: the more, the better. In between floors and in between rooms, especially between the right and left apartments. If you refer to the floorplan above, you can see that one apartment’s master bedroom is adjacent to the other apartment’s smaller bedroom, which could potentially put family #1’s parents on the opposite side of a wall from family #2’s newborn. Super-think insulation will be necessary in this situation to maintain neighborly relationships!

On storage: Storage in the basement was deemed an absolute must. Guests agreed that the cost of the storage unit should be included in the selling price of the condo, but that the units should be sellable from one neighbor to another.

Stroller or bike parking? There isn’t room for both, so which one do Joe & JR choose? In any case, guests agreed that neither one was as important as storage.

On exposed brick: A unanimous yes for the living space, and a mixed response for exposed brick in the bedroom.

On decorative fireplaces: Some guests (yours truly included) loved the look & feel of decorative fireplaces and historic mantels. Others thought they were not useful and simply took up space.

On the roofdeck: There were lots of different opinions here and we didn’t reach an agreement. Some liked the idea of having a shared space for all the building’s residents; including rights to access the roof would be a selling point. Others preferred the idea of sectioning off the roof into two or more private roof decks with exclusive rights for the top floor condos. What the group did agree on was that it needed to be either 100% shared by everyone in the building, or 100% privately owned by the condo owners who purchase the rights. In other words, they didn’t like the idea of half the roof being accessible to everyone while the other half was sectioned off into one or more private roof decks.

Even after we wrapped up the formal discussion part of the evening, several guests lingered, still full of ideas. Joe and JR agreed that they learned a lot from the group discussion, especially about the specific considerations of new parents such as full-sized bathtubs and extra-insulated walls.

I know some of my friends and readers are new parents of young children…how would you design your ideal home to meet the needs of your family? Leave a comment and I’ll pass the ideas along to Joe & JR!


Jen’s Studio – progress report

I wrote about my friend Jen’s new Brooklyn studio a couple months ago and posted some “before” pictures here. I’ve been back twice to hang out, offer design advice, and to document her progress towards a comfortable, bright, welcoming home where she can relax, work, and entertain friends.

Here are two photos of the apartment just after she moved in…before she unpacked all her boxes. It’s cozy (i.e. small!), but the great light from her three big windows make it feel bright & spacious.

When Jen moved in, she hung some colorful curtains for privacy, but wanted to replace them with something more chic and sophisticated. She also knew she wanted a new rug to help define the living room space. She had a perfectly-sized round table and four chairs, but didn’t love the “country” style. She needed to buy a new bed. And we realized that the baseboards were white in the bedroom nook but natural wood colored in the living area. So we came up with a long list of potential improvements that she’s been working on over the past few months. Yesterday I got to snap some photos of all the progress she’s made!

One of the first things Jen did was to give the baseboards throughout the apartment a fresh coat of glossy white paint. This small detail really helped the entire space look more crisp and fresh.

For the living room, we found some beautiful curtains at West Elm that stylishly filter the sunlight. Jen waited for them to go on sale and has been really happy with her purchase. She also chose a natural fiber rug that helps define the living room space and feels really good on bare feet! And she did a great job covering up the boring standard-issue light fixture with a simple, inexpensive paper shade that gently diffuses the light.

To make this room feel more finished, she plans to hang the mirror above the fireplace mantle and her grandmother’s antique frames on the wall. She’s thinking about creating botanic art for the frames to add a colorful, handmade touch to the room. We’re also talking about maybe spray painting the table & chairs for a modern update!

From the living room you can see into the kitchen.

In the kitchen, Jen hung some beautiful antique ceiling tile pieces she found at a local flea market. She has some very happy herbs on the windowsill. I’ve suggested a simple roman shade for the kitchen window. She’d also like to add some shelving up high for additional storage, and we’re going to look for a narrow shelving solution for the 9.5″ space between the counter and the stove.

Here’s a look back into the dining area from the kitchen.

Jen’s bedroom nook is also looking a lot more put together with a bed, a dresser + mirror, an armoire, coordinated storage boxes, and curtains covering the apartment’s two closets. I especially like the picture ledge she hung above the bed where she can display and rotate her favorite family and travel photos.

Jen’s next project for this space is to hang curtains that will separate the bedroom nook from the living area when she wants privacy, and to block light when she wants to sleep in late. She’s also going to replace one of the white closet curtains with a colorful one to add more interest. Additionally, we talked about adding one or two storage shelves above the armoire to take advantage of her high ceilings. That way all three black & white storage boxes can live together and there will be more space above the closet where she can store her window air conditioner during the cold weather months.

Finally, here’s a photo of the entrance to her apartment.

The door to her apartment is literally at the foot of her bed. In order to create separation between the “entryway” and her bedroom nook, I’ve suggested three simple changes: 1) spray paint the coat rack a fun bright color; 2) add a cheerful round rug that coordinates with the coat rack; and 3) replace the existing light fixture with a pretty feminine capiz shell chandelier. A few other ideas include adding a small shelf and key hook by the front door for small things that you want to drop off immediately upon arriving home, like mail and your cell phone, hanging a mirror or piece of art to cover the grey fuse box behind the coat rack, and installing a fabric curtain above the closet to hide the suitcase and other bulky items. All of these details together will create more of an entryway/dressing area that will feel separate from the bedroom.

It has been so fun for me to get to advise Jen as she creates this cozy home for herself! It’s such a bright and peaceful space and I’m delighted every time I get to visit.

Donating Design Services

Last night some friends of mine threw a “Party For a Purpose” in Williamsburg where they held a silent auction and a raffle to raise money for Safe Horizon, a New York City charity that supports children and families that have suffered injustice or violence. There was a a great DJ and a kickin’ roof deck with views of Manhattan.

I was asked to donate something for the silent auction so I donated my design services for a minimum bid of $75. Here’s what the bid sheet said:

Do you have a room in your home that isn’t quite right yet, no matter how many times you rearrange the furniture? Let designer Sarah Mencher come over to restyle your room and give it the feeling and function you’ve been longing for. The makeover consists of a two-hour at-home consultation and the delivery of a mood board that will suggest colors, window treatments, furniture placement, and purchases within your budget that will transform your room from “meh” to magnificent!

And the winning bid was….three hundred dollars! I was shocked and amazed and so happy to have been a part of this worthy cause. I will be meeting with the winner at her home in a few weeks for the two-hour consultation and I’ll be sure to share all the details here.

In the meantime, help my friends reach their goal to raise $25,000 to benefit the children and families at Safe Horizon  – they’ve already raised almost $15,000! Donate online:

Baby Bueno’s Big Boy Room

My co-worker Mailen asked me to help her put together her son’s first “big boy” room. I haven’t met him yet, but apparently he’s a charming, well-behaved baby so his nickname is “Baby Bueno.” She shared some pictures of the room with me to help me visualize the space, and we talked about what kind of room they want to create for him – a fun bedroom that’s all his, with space to sleep, read, play, and relax.

Baby Bueno already has a dark brown crib-turned-toddler-bed, a dresser that lives in the closet, and his parents are planning to install a flat-screen tv for him. Additional needs for the room include window coverings, a rug, somewhere to store toys and books, something to sit on while watching movies or reading, and a place to play and do art projects.

His parents painted his room bright blue to create a boyish, playful atmosphere.

Baby Bueno is a big fan of Spiderman, so his parents found a colorful Spiderman border that he’s very excited about. I suggested that we use the colors from the border (primary colors, mainly blue, red, and green) as a template for the colors in the rest of the room.  The border isn’t up yet, but here’s a screenshot:

There are currently black blinds covering the windows, but those will be switched out for something lighter.

For the windows, I’ve suggested a two layer look with white blinds to block light, and these cute green dot curtains from Ikea to frame the windows. The lighter colors on the windows will lighten up the entire room.

The floor is linoleum tile, so we’ll definitely want to put down a rug so Baby Bueno can be comfortable when he plays on the floor. This alphabet rug from Target would look really cute and help him learn his ABCs!

I thought Baby Bueno would have fun with a beanbag chair where he can sit to read books and watch tv. He’ll love lounging on this junior sized navy mod-pod from Target.

Mailen already found a child’s table & two matching chairs she likes that he can use for play and art projects:

Near the table & chairs, Mailen wanted a recommendation for some toy storage. These wall pockets from Ikea look great with the color scheme and will be perfect for storing small action figures and art supplies.  For books, these inexpensive colorful shelves from Ikea will be fun & functional in red and green. This red mesh hamper is perfect for larger toys, like stuffed animals and balls.



The room doesn’t have overhead lighting, so we need to add a few lamps. First, I suggested that they install a simple white reading light above Baby Bueno’s bed for bedtime stories. Second, he’ll definitely want some light near his play table – Mailen found this wall-mounted star-shaped lamp from Ikea and I love it too!


I think a simple white paper bubble shade, hung from the ceiling, would be a perfect way to light whole the room without taking up floor space. This would require both a paper shade and a cord set, both from Ikea. And finally, so that Baby Bueno doesn’t get scared at night in his very own big boy room, here’s a sweet boyish nightlight that will cast a comforting glow.


And, a cost run-down based on the items I’ve recommended here (not including white blinds for the windows):

ABC Rug – $29.99
Table + two chairs – $19.99
Mod pod – $89.99
Curtains – $12.99
Overhead bubble lamp + cord kit – $8.99
Bedtime reading lamp – $16.99
Star-shaped wall-mounted lamp – $9.99
Nightlight – $12.99
Wall pocket toy storage – $3.99
Colorful book shleves (2) – $13.98
Mesh hamper – $4.99

Total: $233.87

Baby Bueno is going to have a fantastic big boy’s room and I can’t wait to share the “after” photos with you! Maybe we’ll even get lucky with an appearance by Baby Bueno himself 🙂

Rebuilding a staircase

While our landlords (who live upstairs) were away this past week,  contractors rebuilt the staircase from the parlor floor up to the third floor of our brownstone. Have you ever seen a staircase being built? It’s fascinating! It was especially interesting to see the “undersides” of the staircase to understand how it’s assembled. I snapped a few pictures along the way.

Here it is at the beginning, when they had cut away the bottom half of the old staircase. We were glad to see the old stairs go because they squeaked and groaned with every step.

To the right of the staircase you can see a stack of new stair pieces. The first few days our entire house smelled like sawdust. The contractors cut the stair pieces right outside the front door at the top of the stoop. They had an industrial fan set up in the entryway for ventilation, and cleaned up all the sawdust after each workday with a shopvac, but the smell of sawdust persisted.

Here’s what it looked like after day one:

I climbed up the new stairs and was delighted to find that they were very solid underfoot and didn’t make a sound. Here are some close-ups that show how a staircase is constructed and how all the pieces fit together. You can also see how worn the old stairs were from years and years of use.

It took another day to finish constructing the staircase. After it was completely assembled, they stained the stairs dark to match the existing dark wood paneling. The new staircase looks fantastic and really spruces up the entryway of our home!

Now if we can just re-paint the lavendar purple walls…

Jen’s Studio – before

My friend Jen recently moved into a new studio apartment in Prospect Heights. She agreed to let me help her design and decorate it. She snapped a few pictures of the space before she brought in any of her furniture or boxes.

Here’s the main living space, with two big windows facing north over the green treetops. The opening in the wall on the right leads to the kitchen, which has a third window.

Here’s the charming decorative fireplace and mantle, which we will emphasize in the design of the living room. This picture also shows one of the apartment’s two closets.

And here’s the “bedroom nook,” with the door to the bathroom on the left, and the entry door next to the apartment’s second closet.

My favorite things about this apartment are: the really nice wooden floors, the great natural light, the charming fireplace, and the fact that this is Jen’s very own space that she gets to decorate exactly how she wants 🙂

Stay tuned for follow-up posts on what we create together in this space! Thanks in advance to Jen for allowing me to help her design a comfortable, welcoming, light-filled space that she loves, and for allowing me to share about it on this blog!