Making Home Renovations Sweeter:
An Interview with Sweeten Founder & CEO Jean Brownhill
New Yorkers are as diverse as their city, encompassing a vast array of opinions, tastes, and interests. But one thing most New Yorkers can agree on is that home renovation can be a maddening process - just ask any homeowner about their experience with past general contractors and you'll rapidly see why. But what resources are available to help alleviate the strain of remodeling? How can homeowners attract bids from the most qualified and thoroughly vetted general contractors? Are there any mistakes or common pitfalls they should be wary of?
In this edition of Bamberger Answers, Sweeten founder and CEO Jean Brownhill weighs in on the challenges facing aspiring renovators in New York City, and how Sweeten has helped revolutionize the home remodeling process.
Photo by Michael Wiltbank
Jean has more than 15 years of experience in residential and commercial architecture planning, design, and project management and systems. While working in Global Architecture at Coach, she won the company’s Chairman’s Award for designing and managing web platforms for construction of stores worldwide. Jean received a Bachelor of Architecture from Cooper Union and was one of nine recipients of the prestigious Loeb Fellowship in 2011 from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where she developed Sweeten. She is one of only 11 African-American female entrepreneurs in the US to raise more than $1M in venture capital.
[The Bamberger Group] What led you to create Sweeten?
[Jean Brownhill] The renovation of my own Brooklyn home. Even with an architecture degree and a decade of experience in design and construction, I found it incredibly challenging and chose the wrong contractor. None of the available resources were of any help. Sweeten (named for "home, sweet home") was born from that experience. Our free service matches homeowners and business owners with the best vetted general contractors for their projects, and we stay involved until the job is completed.
[TBG] How do you vet the general contractors you work with? How do you vet the customers?
[JB] We have a rigorous vetting process for GCs—beyond licenses and insurance, we check craftsmanship and quality of work over time (including conversations with past clients), AND their customer service skills. On the client side, when a homeowner posts a project on our website, our matchmakers determine whether the budget and scope are aligned. If not, we reach out to the client. We don't match them to 3-5 contractors until we believe the expectations are reasonable. We want to connect great GCs with great people who are renovation-ready.
[TBG] A very popular renovation project for families with newborns or young children is creating a "convertible" or "flexible" additional bedroom. From a renovation expert's perspective, are there any detractors when it comes to altering the floor plans of your apartment?
[JB] The biggest issue with “convertible” spaces is that they are not legal bedrooms and you’re chopping up the space, making the apartment feel smaller. Better to think about being very flexible by using semi-permanent solutions such as shoji screens that can be taken down later on when you want to sell.
AFTER: The unit's oak herringbone floors were restored to pristine condition, modernizing the look of the apartment while simultaneously returning it to its pre-war roots. You can learn more about the project on Sweeten's blog.
[TBG] There seems to be two conflicting schools of thought when it comes to planning home renovations. Some prioritize the original vision of the architect, and others place enormous value on the pragmatism of the contractor. Where does Sweeten fall on this spectrum, and why?
[JB] These are not mutually exclusive. The best designs are often the easiest to build—the architect has taken into consideration the structural and logistical elements of the work, and a good GC can see a well-planned design allows for the details.
[TBG] By systematizing hundreds of small construction projects each year, Sweeten enjoys a perspective on the market that no contractors or architects could ever experience when working alone. Can you give us an example of how a centralized renovation company capitalizes on all the information and experience it collects, and how its customers and employees can expect to benefit as a result?
[JB] Yes, Sweeten does have a unique perspective on the business. We help to set higher standards across the industry, and share data via expert cost guides on our blog. If a client has a sense of what a budget should be going in, you're already starting from a MUCH better place. We recently completed a national survey with Schlesinger Associates in which 95% of New Yorkers said they were stressed about renovating. We're aiming to change that…people should enjoy the process as much as the result.
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Sweeten is a free service that personally matches renovation projects with vetted general contractors, helping until project completion. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and when you’re ready to remodel, start your renovation on Sweeten.