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Cover story: Condo redesign involves special considerations
Condominium owners may enjoy the advantage of avoiding exterior home-maintenance projects or major landscaping, but when they want to renovate their home to modernize the layout or update the kitchen, they face some challenges that owners of single-family homes escape.
First, renovations must meet condo association guidelines, which typically are stricter than homeowner association rules. Second, the project itself can be complicated by space constraints and the logistics of a construction project within a shared building.
Remodeling companies say that although condo renovations are challenging, they can be overcome by working with contractors experienced in this type of project.
Bill Millholland, executive vice president of Case Design/Remodeling, said, “We’ve been seeing more condo renovation requests recently than in the past, which could be because many of the buildings are older and need updating. The other reason is that there is a new appreciation for carefree living, particularly among more mature households, who are downsizing but want a home with new finishes.”
Steve Kirstein, a principal with BOWA, says one of the biggest challenges of a condo remodel is that a condo is “neither fish nor fowl” because it is a residential building with the systems of a commercial building.
“The impact during the project will be felt not only by your client, but by others in their tier and on either side of their unit,” Mr. Kirstein said. “This requires supervision and sensitivity.”
Most condo renovation projects start with a consultation about condo association rules and obtaining permission from building managers.
“Each condo has different rules about what can and cannot happen,” said John Coplen, co-founder and principal of Alter Urban Design Collaborative. “Sometimes even blinds and draperies have to be approved because the association wants the exterior to be consistent, but others are more flexible.
“Even in the case of a flexible association, though, owners need to obtain general approval for a project, especially so the manager can see that the renovation will not impact common spaces or other owners.”
Most condo associations restrict the hours contractors can work so residents are not disturbed too early, too late or on weekends. In addition, freight elevators may need to be reserved.
Mr. Kirstein said BOWA contractors meet with the owners of the units that surround the one where they will be working to give them information on the project and to provide contact information, including cellphone numbers, in case there is a problem.
“We work closely with building managers, too, even for a small project, just so the managers are aware of what we are doing,” Mr. Kirstein said.
Mr. Millholland said the main reason contractors need to work with building managers is concern about the building’s infrastructure. In some instances, Case Design/Remodeling consults with a building engineer to make sure the project doesn’t have an adverse impact on the building.
Space constraints also can create logistical challenges, including the necessity of removing debris from the project each day.
“In a single-family home, you are usually inconveniencing one person, but in a condo, you could be inconveniencing hundreds,” Mr. Millholland said. “If there is not a lot of guest parking, you have to make arrangements for contractors while they are working, and it can be more complicated to stage or store materials if the unit is small. A contractor can arrange to have materials delivered at the right time so they can be installed right away rather than storing them on-site.”
Mr. Coplen said most condo owners choose to stay in the home while it is being renovated, as long as there is one working bathroom available.
From a design perspective, condo dwellers sometimes have fewer options for renovations because load-bearing walls, plumbing and gas lines cannot be moved.
“A condo remodel can be a fun design challenge because of the small scale,” Mr. Coplen said. “A lot of people want to simplify the space and make it as functional as possible. A typical project is to take an older condo that has been broken up into smaller spaces and create an open, loftlike feel.”
Mr. Kirstein said condo buyers often want to redo the kitchen, bathrooms and flooring and move walls. Sometimes, though, structural elements or utilities prevent contractors from being able to redesign the interior as much as buyers want.
“Combining units can be interesting, too, but contractors need to work with the building managers to create new entries,” Mr. Kirstein said. “Sometimes it is possible to take the former kitchen of one unit and use the plumbing penetration to create a new master bath.”
Popular projects for many condo owners, Mr. Coplen said, include replacing parquet flooring with hardwood flooring and upgrading the kitchen with tile or stone flooring, stainless steel appliances and granite counters.
“Storage is always at a premium, so condo owners also want to convert small spaces into storage by adding cabinetry or sometimes buffering out a wall to create a small closet,” Mr. Coplen said.
Mr. Millholland said condo owners often are looking for a sleeker and more modern style than owners of single-family homes.
“In baths, condo owners are adding heating floors, which can be done electrically; frameless glass showers and marble flooring,” Mr. Millholland said. “If space is an issue, we can put in smaller appliances to make the kitchen more functional, build cabinets up to the ceiling and even build shallow storage space on one wall.”
Mr. Kirstein recommends that buyers considering purchasing an older condo and remodeling it should consult with a contractor before making an offer to find out what changes they feasibly can make to the home.
Contractors say that while the labor costs may be higher on a condo remodel than a single-family home because of the constraints of working in a smaller space, those costs are offset by the fact that framing supports are in place and the projects often are more limited in scope.
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