Here’s what you should expect to plan and carry out a gut renovation in New York City. 

Whether you’re buying an apartment that needs a complete renovation before you move in, or you’d like to gut renovate your current home, it is important have a good understanding of the process and a realistic sense of timing.

“When people ask how long a renovation project takes, they tend to be thinking about the construction itself—from the moment demolition begins to when they can move in—but that’s only part of the what goes into a successful project,” says Greg Dyer, founder of Element Design Group—a New York City design/build firm specializing in full-service renovations.

To get a better understanding of what to expect, we follow the story of an apartment combination project on the Upper West Side.

Step One:

Decide how to structure your project, and hire the team

There are two ways to approach any renovation:

The first and simplest is ‘Build Only,’ in which you hire a general contractor to handle your project without drawings. “This works for simple, straightforward projects with very little design work,” Dyer says. However, in NYC—where few things are ever simple—you will likely need permits for your renovation from the Department of Buildings, and your building management may still require you to hire an architect.

The second option is ‘Design/Build,’ in which you hire a design and construction team who work together to deliver your project.  Dyer recommends this approach for budget-conscious homeowners doing smaller gut renovations.

Virtually all city apartments, whether in brownstones, pre-war co-ops, or new condos have space limitations or unusual shapes. The locations of building wiring, plumbing, structural elements, and other fixed features often pose design challenges. Creative and sophisticated thinking, combined with in-depth knowledge of city codes and building regulations, are essential to solving these challenges and designing to the maximum potential of your space.

For two Element Design clients, a pair of young professionals who wanted to gut renovate and combine two individual apartments on the Upper West Side, a Design/Build approach was the right fit.

After their real estate agent found two neighboring apartments for sale in the same building, Element assembled a renovation team consisting of LEED-accredited architect, Agustin Ayuso and Dyer as the project manager. As the architect, Ayuso’s role was to consider the couple’s vision for their apartment and define the project’s parameters in terms of lifestyle and functionality. And as project manager, Dyer was responsible for managing the renovation’s cost, schedule and overseeing the construction.



If you don’t want to stay on site, opt for Design/Build

Even if you’ve gone through a renovation before, it’s still beneficial to have a dedicated design team committed to your project. Without this, Dyer says, you won’t be able to leave the project site: “Take a bathroom renovation for example. Once you select your fixtures, you need to determine precise heights and locations for all the pieces. This requires coordination between the plumber and the general contractor. In order for fixtures to align properly with the tiles, these details need to be thought about in advance.” There are many other decisions that have to be made daily on a renovation project. “An architect’s job is to think through all of the possible design questions in advance and document the decisions so that you get the best result and the construction process won’t be slowed down by indecision. In the case of a major home renovation, this is money well spent.”

Architects add a sense of formality to the process, which ultimately reduces stress and keeps the project flowing. As with any collaborative effort, it’s beneficial to have a design and construction team that is used to working together.


Step Two:

Prepare plans and choose materials

With your design team on board, it’s time to start thinking about how the renovated space should feel.

Your architect will conduct a physical survey of your apartment in order to understand the flow of the space and the structural elements. During this phase, the architect will think about your needs and lifestyle and start to prepare schematic drawings—two dimensional plans and diagrams of the space—which cover broad concepts, such as the layout and location of major fixtures.

This process will take at least two weeks, but could last longer. “We often find that as we move through the design process, clients diverge from the original plan they had envisioned and want to consider some alternate ideas,” says Ayuso.

Once the schematic drawings are complete, the focus of the design process moves from broad concepts to more granular topics, such as choosing the specific products that will be installed. This process generally takes about four to eight weeks. “If you already know exactly what you want, it can go much faster,” Dyer says. “Since you will have to live with these objects in your home for years to come, it’s best to take your time and be comfortable with all of your decisions. Once all the selections are made, we create a presentation showing everything together to check for cohesiveness.”

Finally, construction drawings are created to show the exact layout and placement of the materials and these sometimes include mechanical details the builder will need to execute the design properly. This may take from four to eight weeks, depending on the complexity of the design.

While the plans are being developed, an experienced design/build team can begin to prepare accurate and detailed cost estimate for the construction. This is also when fixtures and finishes are selected so that they can be ordered and delivered in time for construction.

With the final plans drawn and all materials selected, a detailed contract is prepared showing the final cost of the project including allowances for any unknown variables, which may still be outstanding.


Step Three:


Whether your apartment is a condo or a co-op, you must first apply to your building for permission to do your renovation. The rules will be outlined in a document called an Alteration Agreement. This document lists all the rules and procedures for renovation projects, covering topics such as work hours, insurance requirements, and security deposits. Generally there are small nuances, which vary from building to building. The completed Alteration Agreement application is submitted to the building management with the set of plans and the scope of work for review.

When you buy into a co-op, you are buying shares in the building corporation (not actual real estate). “Since the building corporation (co-op) is technically the owner, they are legally responsible for the permit. Buildings generally care that the planned work is: legal, will not negatively impact building systems or other residents now or in the future and follows best work practices,” says Dyer.

Any renovation beyond what is considered decorative work (painting, wallpapering, floor refinishing, and built-in millwork) will require permits from the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB). Once your building approves the renovation, it will sign off on permit applications to the DOB. Note that if you live in a landmark district, your application will also need to be reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), even if no work is being done to the exterior of the building.

It can be difficult to predict precisely how long the approvals process will take. There are differences with every application and the DOB sometimes incurs backlogs, making it essential to have an expeditor on your project team—whose job is to navigate the city bureaucracy.


Step Four:


Permits in hand, it’s time for the construction phase. Not surprisingly, this step takes the majority of time. One sign of a good builder is that they will provide a construction schedule, outlining the major tasks with the time allotted for each and noting major milestones.

As a general outline, all renovations begin with demolition, from which point the work proceeds from a rough construction to a fine finishing detail. Rough framing and carpentry are among the first steps, followed by rough plumbing and electrical. At this point, any final field measurements can be confirmed to start production of cabinetry and millwork. Next, drywall is installed and the finishes begin to go in–tiles, wood floors, followed by cabinets, plumbing fixtures, light fixtures, and hardware. Lastly, the walls and ceilings are painted, and the construction is complete.

Following the construction, it’s time to move and place the furniture and hang artwork. With all the dust gone, window treatments and decorative wallpaper are installed at this stage. Whether you’re acquiring all-new items or merging old with new, it requires finesse–certainly more art than science–to get it just right.

For the apartment combination, construction lasted four months, including two weeks of delays due to building closures during the holiday season.


Step Five:

Inspections and project close

During the construction phase, the city will conduct plumbing and electrical inspections to ensure compliance with the filed plans. Once all of the construction is complete, a final inspection is conducted in order for the DOB to sign off the job and close the permit.

Before the final inspection, your architect will conduct a walk through to make sure everything is in order. A “punch list” should be provided, noting any blemishes or outstanding tasks that needed to be wrapped up before the construction team leaves.

In the case off the apartment combination, a new Certificate of Occupancy was required, acknowledging the two apartments were now officially one. This can take a few weeks, but the owners were still able to use the apartment before final DOB paperwork was received.

No two renovation projects are ever alike. “While we follow the same process, what we encounter with each one is always unique. We almost always find something that we didn’t expect as we move through the construction. The measure of a good team is how they react to the unexpected,” says Dyer.


With its fresh, integrated and full-service approach to home remodeling, Element Design Group projects are completed more efficiently and with better results. Recognizing that every project is unique, the firm tailors its design process to meet the specific requirements of each client.

 To get started with your home renovation project, visit or call 212-537-6173.