How We Design Custom Moldings for Apartments, Co-Ops and Homes

Having looked at ceiling and crown moldings, the next moldings that are most apparent are the frames that surround doors. In the later 20th century the famous “clamshell” molding was the developer default; and a marginal improvement was the later 1½” – 2” flat piece of wood.

Drawing of a clamshell molding | Rodman Paul Architects
Drawing of flat trim | Rodman Paul Architects

Now, flat is fine, but profiles are far more interesting! If you have room for wide, truly interesting moldings, the play of shadows on the various planes of the moldings truly enhance any room. There are dozens of millwork companies that have catalogs of fine moldings, but in our office we usually turn to custom moldings of our own design.

By using custom moldings, we can also ensure that they fit all our needs. In pre-war apartments, the space between a door (or a window) and an adjacent wall is often very tight. For example, if we design a wide door trim of five inches, it looks ridiculous if cut off at three inches because the adjacent wall is too close. But, as noted, a two-inch flat trim is boring. The solution: what we call, in this office, the “doodle trim.”

The “doodle” design grew out of a desire to have a molding with a voluptuous curve and bold proportions, while also fitting into a very small total width. In our office the “doodle” is usually about 2 ½” wide. We have used this trim countless times to wonderful effect, with the largest part of the curve facing the door opening, rather than vice versa.

Molding detail | Rodman Paul Architects
Drawing of molding trim detail | Rodman Paul Architects
Trim detail | How We Design Custom Moldings for Apartments, Co-Ops and Homes | Rodman Paul Architects

What to do for those more formal or public spaces, where a larger presence is needed? There is a well-known trick called a back-band: a stepped frame, added around the outside of the “doodle,” which can expand the width of the entire assembly to four or five inches.

And how to make these door trims, whatever their design, meet the floor and the baseboards? A plinth block is the usual method. For that, see our post on baseboards.

Wondering how custom moldings could enhance your home? Contact us for an assessment of the possibilities.

How Classical Architectural Can Influence Prewar Apartment Renovations

Interior architecture is frequently built on traditional details that have roots in Greek and Roman architectural detailing. In the classical world, built form was a layering (from the bottom up) of pedestal (base), column, capital, entablature, and balustrade or pediment. Individual components such as capitals, moldings, dentals, friezes, and stringcourses all varied both as to style and in relationship to themselves. Arguments over the correct use of classical orders are older than history! Architects have constantly reinvented them while seeking new ways to demonstrate proportion and harmony, and their efforts have left us with an enormous library of shapes which we can use in our work today.

Some projects bend toward minimalism, but many owners of pre-war apartments find comfort in traditional details. Few apartments have sufficient scale that using an entire, correct classical order is appropriate, but in our work, we constantly use the principles and the prime aspects of the classical orders.

For example, columns, whether round or square, remain an elegant way to articulate a transition between different spaces. They need not be precisely correct from the classical point of view so long as they are well proportioned.

Custom Mouldings in Park Avenue Pre-War Apartment | Rodman Paul Architects

So how do we translate a concern with classical proportion to interiors today? Looking at the intersection of wall and ceiling is a good place to start. New York apartment ceilings are typically 8’ though they can rise much higher. We have found that conventional cornices, dentals, and similar moldings, most frequently copied from 18th and 19th century English sources, can be wonderful with 9’ -10’ ceilings and higher. But most of us live with 8’ ceilings and lower!

What to do? A counter-intuitive reversal of focus, with a small, low profile trim at the top of a wall and a handsomely detailed plaster molding on the ceiling itself can make an ordinary 8’ – 9’ ceiling look much higher. The relationships between the various planes give the illusion of a more impressive scale and a larger space.

In our next post, we’ll show how we create custom moldings drawing from classical architecture but with a concern for the realities of postwar apartments.

Considering Renovations? Why It Matters If You Own a Co-Op, a Condo, or a Townhouse

In New York, home buyers have four general options: a cooperative apartment, a condominium apartment, and a townhouse – or, outside Manhattan, sometimes a free standing house. Aside from some obvious differences, what are some of the less visible differences?

Renovation Considerations for Co-Ops

First and foremost, in a cooperative apartment you will be buying not “real estate” per se, but shares in a corporation that give you the right to live in a particular unit subject to the rules of the corporation.

While these rules can make your daily life easier, they can also present challenges when embarking on an architectural project. The first set of rules you will encounter is usually called the Proprietary Lease and the Bylaws, and these apply to all owners at all times. Additionally, in order to protect itself from liabilities and bad decision making by individual cooperative owners, contractors, and outside vendors, the boards of cooperative corporations create additional sets of rules that apply to almost any renovation work. The most important of these is usually called the Alteration Agreement, and may be accompanied by a set of House Rules and/or Building Rules. These rules affect almost every aspect of getting work done: you will not be able to start work until you have fulfilled all the obligations listed in the Alteration Agreement, its requirements will inevitably affect the price of the work, and the building will typically charge you a large security deposit as a guarantee towards your adherence to all the rules. In addition to the above, the building will also typically hire its own architect or engineer to review all your plans, at your expense, as well as to inspect the progress of the work as it moves along. And not least, many cooperatives will charge you fees as long as your construction lasts, and might even penalize you for overshooting your schedule. As the name implies, living in a co-op requires cooperating with a larger number of people than you might otherwise imagine when you begin to think about renovating.

There is an upside! Co-op maintenance fees pay for building staff that a busy city dweller may find useful. Building staff not only repair and maintain the building, but aspects of the apartments as well. Some helpful services include: receiving packages, providing basic security, cleaning public areas, mediating with bad neighbors, and being on call in emergencies (floods, fires, and so on). They are there to deal with the general business of owning a building in New York.

Renovation Considerations for Condominiums

The most basic difference with a condominium apartment is that you are actually buying a small part of a larger building, and you will own that piece of “real estate”. This means that you will pay your taxes directly to NYC rather than through your maintenance. Although a condominium board could impose the same burdensome rules as a co-op board, in practice the rules are a bit looser. There will still be an Alteration Agreement, and Building Rules, but typically a bit easier to navigate than in a co-op. There will still be a building architect or engineer to protect the building’s interests, but he or she may be somewhat more inclined to help you achieve your renovation goals. If you keep in mind all the issues that could apply to a co-op renovation, you won’t be caught off guard in a condominium.

Like co-ops, condominiums also have maintenance fees which can cover a range of services, from the most basic to virtual maid service. The list of services available in some of the newer condominiums puts a new definition on luxury.

Renovation Considerations for Townhouses

In a townhouse, or standalone home, the homeowner becomes the building manager. When something breaks, you need to figure out how to get it fixed and you pay for it. You take your own trash out and you clean up the sidewalk after SantaCon. If the Environmental Control Board (ECB) issues you a violation for something, you need to figure out how to resolve the problem.

But for those who can afford it, owning a townhouse has a significant advantage when it comes to renovations: you can skip most of the aggravating reviews and regulations that co-op and condo owners face with a renovation project. You will be subject to the rules and regulations of the New York City Building Department, and you will have to have an architect file for any permits that the City may require, but you will have no board to deal with, no building engineer inspecting your work, and no neighbors to complain about your construction. Even more importantly, your construction schedule can be as long as you are willing to endure it. This gives townhouse owners a great deal of freedom to design their interiors in any way that suits their lifestyle. Very occasionally there will be issues to settle with the neighboring houses, but if work is planned properly, this should be a rare occurrence.

Your approach to a renovation or remodel will need to be slightly different depending on your home type, and it’s important to have architects and contractors who have experience in that home type so the project is as successful as it can be. We have worked extensively across all home types, and would be happy to discuss the best approach for your situation.

Seven Considerations for Renewing a Beach House

If your ideal summer includes relaxing in your outdoor living room as you gaze out over the water, you’ve no doubt thought about renovating a beach house to become your dream house. While beach house renovations are similar in some ways to primary residence renovations, there are some unique differences to think about and plan for.

Considering the Original Era of the House

Knowing when (and why) the original house was built will give you a baseline understanding of what might need to be changed. In Fire Island Pines, for example, unrenovated houses generally fall into one of two categories: mid-century or 1970’s. The mid-century homes tend to be smaller with pitched roofs, and some were even prefabricated on Long Island and floated across the water, where they were re-installed on pilings. Homes from the 1970’s tend to be boxier with flat roofs. Both can be renovated as the owner wishes, but each involves a different approach and different considerations.

Shifting the Focus Outward

It’s a beach house, so having a connection to the outdoor living areas and drawing the eye toward the water or the outdoors are paramount. Remarkably, this was not always a concern when the original houses were built, so a large part of the renovation effort will involve creating outdoor living, dining, cooking, and entertaining areas, along with reshaping the interior house plan so that windows and doors focus the views. Pools didn’t become a desired amenity until the mid-1970’s, so our designs usually include the addition of a pool that integrates with the outdoor living space and the view. With residents spending the bulk of their time in outdoor areas, we strive to make outdoor living rooms that are light years beyond the umbrella-table-and-four-chairs approach of yore.

Renewing the Foundation

Depending on the age and climate history, the foundations of the house may not be in the best shape. In Fire Island Pines, for example, almost all houses are set on pilings, and any original locust wood pilings are over 60 years old. When we begin planning a renovation in the Pines, it almost always involves redoing the pilings. Although this part of the project is obviously less interesting for the homeowner, it’s critical path to ensuring level floors, functioning doors, and the home’s continued existence.

 Incorporating Appropriate Fabrics and Furnishings

We work equally hard on furnishing plans for the outdoor spaces as for the indoor spaces. To live comfortably in the outdoor spaces, you need sun, shade, comfortable furniture, and it has to be run through all the outdoor weather scenarios. The last thing a beach dweller wants to deal with is moldy, mildewed, or chlorine-damaged furniture. The good news is that modern improvements in fabric mean ever-increasing options for outdoor furniture – and even carpets –  that don’t get moldy or mildewed.

Two products that we frequently work with and recommend are Perennials Fabrics and Chilewich carpets, although there are at least a dozen major fabric houses producing fabrics that are sunproof, chlorine-proof, and feel like normal fibers. It’s possible now to have truly comfortable outdoor furniture, and we recommend using the same fabrics for the interior spaces to protect against someone in a wet swimsuit inadvertently staining a sofa or chair. We take the same approach to carpeting for the same reason, and Chilewich’s carpets work fabulously well outdoors and as well as indoors.

Things to Consider When Updating a Beach House | Rodman Paul Architects

Choosing All-Year or Seasonal

Beach houses were originally built only for the summer season; year-round beach houses didn’t become fashionable until the 1980’s. If an original house had gas or electric heat, it was possible to push the boundaries of its use to early spring and fall, but in the main houses weren’t sufficiently insulated to be winterized. If you prefer to winterize so you can use your beach house year-round, you have to start with “winter water,” which involves sinking the water main low enough so that it doesn’t freeze and burying the piping. Next comes insulating the walls and ceilings to a level that meets code and keeps the heating bills reasonable. And lastly, since the house is on pilings, you have to skirt the house all the way around the bottom or insulate the floor.

Addressing Climate Concerns

Of increasing importance is the weather: flooding, hurricanes, and global warming all impact the design of a house. Sufficient elevation is crucial to protect against flood damage and meet FEMA floodplain requirements. Depending on the required elevation, the relationship between the house and the land can become distorted; a three-foot elevation can be concealed with bushes, but a ten-foot elevation calls for a ramp or steps and usually some kind of screening to conceal the pilings. For our Water Island project, the only way to conceal a significant elevation and establish the relationship to the landscape was to thickly plant beach plum and native black cherry shadbush trees. The trees establish a new kind of ground plane that frames the houses and avoids unsightly views of the undersides of the houses.

Many beach homeowners used to leave their AC systems, pool pumps, and sheds on the ground and out of sight, but FEMA regulations no longer permit that. Everything must be located at or above FEMA flood elevations. Building platforms for the mechanical equipment is an option, but if you are subject to coverage limitations, those structures will also count toward your overall coverage and may put you over the legal limit. To avoid this problem, we try to find creative solutions to conceal them in other structures so that they don’t add to coverage.

Hurricane-proof glazing for windows and doors is recommended, but it is expensive and heavier than traditional glazing products. It’s tested for projectile impact, although there is still debate over whether it would actually prevent damage in the event of a full-on hurricane. Some owners take the option of storing plywood, drills, and screws for boarding up windows in the event of a hurricane warning.

Tips for Restoring a Beach House | Rodman Paul Architects


Knowing – and Following – Applicable Regulations

In each beach community there will be different building, zoning, and construction regulations that will impact your project and your budget. For example, “renovations” are usually subject to different regulations than “new construction,” and it’s important to know which is more advantageous to you. If you aim to fall within the “renovation” category, for instance, you can still take the house down to a bare roof and bare studs, and then add new sheathing, siding, insulation in the walls and roof, and interior finishes.

Generally, beach communities also have either a homeowners’ association or a loose approximation of one. Membership may be mandatory or optional, but usually this group will carry a certain amount of influence with zoning and regulatory authorities. Knowing what the group in your community prioritizes, values, and dislikes can help avoid unpleasant surprises from your planning and permitting processes.

It’s also important to know whether your home is subject to any Federal rules. As an example, Fire Island Pines is located within the Fire Island National Seashore, a national park which is protected by Federal zoning rules. Chief among those is an an aggregate lot coverage rule specifying that for all structures built on a lot, the total coverage cannot exceed 35% of the total lot coverage. Federal rules can also impact the height of the house and the setbacks.

Knowing and planning for the rules can help keep your project moving. If you have your permits in order, construction can almost always be completed within one off-season cycle.

Beach houses can be a source of great joy – I have been a happy Fire Island Pines homeowner for more than 30  years. If you’re thinking about renovating yours, let us be a resource for you. Contact me at to set up a consultation.

Related Projects

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Bass Walk

Water Island

About That Greta Garbo Apartment

Many years ago, long before Google, I responded to a managing agent’s request that I meet with a client — un-named — to discuss “how to install a laundry” at 450 East 52nd Street, otherwise known as the Beekman Campanile. From the moment I walked into the apartment, it was clear that it had an aura. The client introduced herself as Gray Reisfield, and she indicated that she had recently inherited the apartment from “an aunt.” The apartment had an incredible view over the East River, but as a life-long Fortuny fabric aficionado and as an art lover, what caught my eye was that the place was awash with fine old Fortuny and an incredible art collection covering all walls. It was “pre-war” of the old school: the kitchen and maid’s room hadn’t been refreshed in decades, and the public areas were only marginally better off.

My new client, as she became, toured the apartment with me, and finally admitted that her aunt was none other than Greta Garbo. It all began to make sense: soft pinks and greens throughout; Fortuny and more Fortuny; faux bois pine paneling; rhodonite figurines; the “Closet Room,” still filled with Chanel suits, matching shoes below; the Bedroom, with more Fortuny and V’Soske carpets; and lovely French furniture, and the art, throughout—all under a thick layer of dust.

We started a long and difficult project, which involved coming to terms with the fact that Garbo had inexpensively patched up the apartment when she purchased in 1953, and hadn’t done much since. A “gut job” was soon agreed to, and a “gut job” it was. Apart from the beautiful living room, the entire rest of the apartment was re-planned with Gray Reisfield’s intense involvement.

With my partner, Tarek Ashkar, we created new floor plans and an intricate decorating scheme to pay homage to Garbo and her taste. After many new combinations of Fortuny, and almost two years of efforts with V’Soske on an immense new wool and silk carpet, I felt we had honored Garbo and her memory. Equally important to the occupants, the apartment also had gained central air-conditioning, a modern kitchen, numerous marble bathrooms, and the aforementioned laundry.

Gray was a generous client with regard to our detailing: for a dining room to showcase the fine Jawlensky paintings, we created a vaulted ceiling with strap work and tiny lights at the strap work intersections; beautiful plaster moldings were the order of the day; and the floors were intricate parquets.

Gray originally insisted on a complete ban of any kind of photos or publicity, and by contract we agreed to forego any of the usual photography or publicity. I am delighted to see in the New York Times that current efforts to sell the apartment have now resulted in so many photos being exposed to the public — nearly thirty years on, the rooms are untouched, and still look wonderful.

Takes me back!

Introducing Rodman Paul Architects

Dear Clients and Friends,

First, the major news: Larson and Paul will be separating into two different offices. Doug Larson has decided to focus on retail and upstate New York, and I will continue to focus on residential work in and around New York City. This coming week you will begin seeing our new name, Rodman Paul Architects, and new email addresses. Our new website will be live shortly thereafter. The firm’s office will continue to be located at 118 Chambers Street, 4th Floor, in New York, with the same telephone number, and emails sent to a Larson and Paul address will still come through to our new accounts.

Park Avenue Apartment Living Room Architecture After Renovation | Rodman Paul Architects

One understandable reaction to this news might be, what an odd career stage in which to launch a new firm. I must admit that I also considered retirement, but I’m still a trifle young for that as architects go, and my schedule is hardly grueling. I looked at what I enjoy the most, and it was clear to me that interacting with you, our clients, and designing superb houses and apartments for you is what gives me the greatest pleasure. One of the primary reasons people retire is so they can do the things they enjoy, I am fortunate enough to be able to do that every day without retiring.

It has always been my desire to encourage a next generation of leadership at the firm, and to that end I have an exceptional group of architects who are also part of this transition. Michael Fasulo will continue to be the organized and even-tempered center around which the rest of us orbit, and he will be ably supported by Andrew Klein, Mitch Hartig, Antonio Rivera, and Siobhan Fennessy.

Water Island Estate | Rodman Paul Architects
Pool at Mid-Century Modern Beach House in Fire Island Pines | Rodman Paul Architects

I am proud of the trust that you have placed in me and in our staff as we have developed plans for you, and that in turn is what drives us to produce the layered and detailed work that you all appreciate. Whether on Park Avenue, a farm, or a sand spit, we have always tried to arrive at stylish designs appropriate to your lifestyles as well as appropriate to the locale. This might mean the complex moldings that I love so much or it might mean the simplest of cedar surrounds, but each has been a pleasure to develop with you.

We will continue to be in touch over the next few months with various announcements, but I wanted to get this initial news out to all our clients and friends.

Happy summer!