Architecture and design have changed a lot over the years. Considerations for ‘what-goes-where,’ are very different now than say, back in the Roaring Twenties, when so much of the region’s housing stock – and hence a large proportion of today’s co-op and condominium buildings – were originally built. ‘Prewar’ is an adjective that draws many buyers to buildings built in that golden age. It denotes larger rooms, classic finishes, and a more genteel feeling to a space. It also means basement spaces that, with the possible exception of a large laundry room, were never conceived with usable amenities in mind.
Back in the first half of the last century, when both developers and consumers had different agendas than they do today, and less-advanced technology required more physical space, giant boilers, elevator machinery, and other mechanical systems were kept in basements. Whole rooms were built for oil storage tanks and other heavy equipment. Today, many of these systems have been replaced by streamlined components and computerized controls that require far less space than their predecessors. Many buildings currently find themselves with additional space that can be converted into room for modern-day amenities.
Sarah Marsh, Principal at MAAI March Architects in New York City, explains that potential uses fall into two general categories: those that involve extended, regular use by residents (such as a gym or library); and those that don’t, such as a bike storage room.
“Bicycle storage rooms, especially high-density storage,” she says, “aren’t glamorous, but residents want them. That’s also true of gyms.” The difference between the two is that a gym will require HVAC and at least two means of egress in accordance with municipal building codes. Bicycle rooms can get by with one entrance/exit, and less-stringent air circulation standards.
Howard Zimmerman, an architect based in New York, says: “Any room with human occupancy – meaning not used purely for storage – needs natural ventilation. That means either a legal window or mechanical ventilation, which is simply air-conditioning. If there’s no window in the room at all, the air conditioning must have an exterior compressor located in either a rear or side yard.
“Another consideration,” he continues, “is the certificate of occupancy. You can’t just change over an old super’s office or workshop to a gym. You have to amend your certificate of occupancy to reflect the new use.”
When it comes to egress, different municipalities have different specific requirements that must be met, but generally speaking, there must always be two ways to exit a building for all people inside it, and they must be a certain distance apart. If an exit leads to the outside, there must be a safe exterior situation that allows people to leave the place of danger and get to public streets. Finally, an exit doorway must be wide enough to be code compliant, and stairs must not interfere with compliance.
“Sometimes in co-op basements there are two ways out of a building at grade or below grade level,” Marsh continues. “Are they both legal for use by people? These questions have to be considered if you are going to populate a basement with new uses and, potentially, lots of people at one time.”
Marsh adds that use often depends on the tenancy. “A family building,” she says, “will often want a children’s party room, or a library.” That architects and designers are seeing an increasing number of these requests, “speaks to the age of the tenancy and the board,” says Marsh. “Ventilation would be an issue with both of these uses.”
Other possible uses for ‘dead space’ that don’t necessarily require a major investment in ventilation equipment or pose challenges for fire code compliance include storage lockers. “Every building has, needs, or wants to re-do their storage area,” says Josh Goldman, President of Bargold Storage Systems in Queens, New York, which does business throughout the tri-state area. “Storage is the single most-used amenity, even more than laundry.”
Storage spaces can be installed relatively easily, and come in a wide array of formats, from wire mesh cages to fully-enclosed mini-storage ‘rooms.’ Many buildings opt for wire units simply because of cost, says Devon Fields of SpaceGuard Products in Seymour, Indiana, a company that manufactures units for all markets, including New Jersey and New York. “Wire is significantly cheaper than fully enclosed units.” For a building planning to purchase and maintain the units in-house, that’s valuable.
The second advantage of wire units is their modularity. “You have the ability to move [the units] around,” Fields explains. “They’re anchored to the floor, so they won’t go anywhere if you don’t want them to. But if you do want to, you can unlock them and move them around” for greater flexibility. These units are analogous to freestanding, more modular bookcases versus ones built directly into the wall.
Another increasingly popular option is converting fallow basement space into bike storage. Anyone who has been in the New York-New Jersey area over the last few years cannot fail to notice the explosion of bike-centered facilities and amenities on both sides of the Hudson. With the new emphasis on two-wheeled transportation comes a new issue: where to store all these bikes? We have all been to apartments where bicycles are hanging on the wall by the kitchen table, but that is not the most efficient use of space. For that, it’s best to call in the experts.
Tracie Roberson is the president of Cycle Storage Solutions, a company based in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, that designs and manufactures custom-made bike racks that are then installed all over the country. “We make all the racks at our facility,” she says. “All are made of steel,” and coated to protect from the elements. One of the rack products is a tiered bike rack, that lifts the bicycles off the floor so stuff can be placed underneath it. These can be modified in many ways—one is to fit spaces with low ceilings. “We can save you space, so your bike room is not only cleaner but more efficient,” she says.
Like storage locker firms, bike storage companies will draw a blueprint designed for maximum space efficiency based on the specs of your proposed bike room. Price ranges from $45 per bike—a one-time fee—to $85 a bike for more complicated tiered systems. These costs can easily be recouped by renting the units to cycling residents.
Goldman even speaks of a hanging bike rack that rotates around the room, like the hanging racks at the dry cleaners—it all depends on the wants, needs and budget of the association or the buildings in question.
Regardless of the intended use of a basement or other formerly-unused or repurposed room, it’s absolutely crucial that any conversion work be done properly and in strict compliance with applicable building codes – primarily to safeguard the safety and good health of the residents using the space – but also because somewhere down the line a city inspector will show up to assess it. Even a few violations can cost your building or HOA thousands, both in renovation costs and hefty fines.
A Real Life Example
Alan Gaynor, Founding Principal at Boddewyn Gaynor, an architecture firm in New York City, recounts how a redesign of basement space changed the image of a property. “Basement space is useful space,” he says. “We were commissioned to upgrade the basement areas of a property in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We installed a lounge, a yoga studio, a gym, and a legal roof deck.” The building had struggled to distinguish itself from others like it in the area, and these upgraded amenities made it much more attractive to the heavily millennial buyers who dominate the Williamsburg market.
Consider this: A co-op building in an up-and-coming New York City neighborhood like Woodside or Washington Heights may have appeal for young families in the current market. There may be a large number of buyers with young children moving into the area, so adding a children’s play or party room might seem just the thing to draw new residents to an older building. In 15 years, those kids will all be off at college, but at the same time, the tenancy may not turn over. Many empty-nesters stay in their apartments for years after their children leave. Design pros advise putting in that party room, but doing it in such a way that when needs change, it can be converted to something else – say a reading room or communal workspace – without too much fuss and expense.
In a dense urban or urban-adjacent market, where every square inch of space is expensive, every square inch of space should be used – and used productively. The choice of use change often depends on residency. Find ways to use your space to the max, while giving real thought not only to what your residents require now, but what they might require 10 years down the line. Planning – and creativity – is the key.
A.J. Sidransky is a writer/reporter for The New Jersey Cooperator and a published novelist.