Ready, Set, Renovate When Updating Common Areas, Teamwork and Long-term Planning are Key

Ready, Set, Renovate

 Lobbies, corridors and common areas are the public face an HOA or condo  community shows to the world. Shabby, threadbare, or painfully dated common  areas can hurt overall property values and send the wrong message about how a  community is maintained and cared for.  

 Of course, a newly-refurbished grand entrance and beautiful common areas that  give owners bragging rights are universally popular, but when it comes to  paying for that refurbished lobby, or stepping over painting or plastering  crews' equipment, the consensus can sometimes break down. Some owners may want  low-maintenance floor tiles in place of carpet that needs frequent shampooing,  for example, while others insist that Persian area rugs are the way to go—and if the lobby and common areas aren’t too awful, there are always a handful of frugal owners who insist renovating  can be put off entirely for at least another year or two.  

 So how does a condo community or HOA determine when its common areas are due for  renovation, and how much renovation is in order? As with most such issues,  there are several different answers.  

 Balancing Budget and Buy-In

 Whatever the project, it’s up to the board members to make aesthetic and economic decisions while  maintaining a balance of interests. Juggling these tasks is not easy,  especially when faced with the diverse and often cross-generational interests  of homeowners who may not be sold on the project’s value. Balancing residents' priorities and concerns is sometimes tough. One  faction may want their building to look great no matter what it costs, while  another faction stands firm, rejecting all but the barest minimum project  proposals.  

 Getting skeptical residents to "buy into" a renovation or remodeling plan  involves more than just putting a line or two about the proposed project into a  newsletter or sticking a notice up on a cork board in the entryway. The most  successful projects tend to be those where residents are involved early on in  the process, and feel that their concerns and input are valued and taken  seriously. Experts agree that communication is key to securing broad-based  support amongst owners. Open meetings, and the creation of sub-committees where appropriate can  help residents become more educated on the issues, and become more supportive  of the board’s position on a project.  

 According to Peter Moran of management firm Marshall & Moran LLC in Morristown, one angle to take with residents is to remind them  that fresh, appealing common spaces improve everyone's investment. "If things  are looking worn-out," he says, "that affects the property values, and it's  time think about updating."  

 Another approach is to present residents with a reserve study outlining  timeframes, budgetary limitations, and schedules for future projects in  black-and-white. "Reserve study reports are extremely helpful," says Moran,  "because it allows an association to plan ahead financially for things like  that."  

 How often or to what degree a condo or HOA undertakes a renovation of its common  areas, "obviously is determined by the amount of money the condo has," says  Moran. "Some condominiums never want to raise their maintenance fee, and they  kind of pay the opposite way for that in the long run because they don't have  the money to update things. They keep putting it off and putting it off, while  other ones that keep their maintenance fees caught up with the cost of living  can update things a lot quicker."  

 The process of devising the right design plan for a common area is partly about  finding a happy medium that's palatable for most residents. Design questions  are a matter of taste, so not everyone will agree on choices made in renovation  projects, but consensus should always be the goal for boards and their design  professionals. “When the board or property manager is looking for opinions, they should remember  that common areas are not individual apartments,” says Sivan Mair, co-owner of Art & Interiors, an interior design firm in Woodbury, New York. “You want it to be comfortable for most people in the building.”  

 First Impressions

 Refurbishing or remodeling a clubhouse or entry hall is a different proposition  than replacing windows or some other large-scale capital improvement, says  Moran. "On something like a roof replacement, you have an engineer who comes in  and just tells you how it should be. In a condo community, if you want to  change something about the appearance, you generally have to get a vote from  the entire association."  

 Arriving at a consensus among residents—or even just the members of a design committee—can be a challenge, says Moran. But he adds that for the most part, a clean,  neutral color palette and uncluttered floor plan in HOA common areas and  hallways is the safest, most durable bet.  

 "Normally, it's best to go with a very basic, neutral color," says Moran. "Plain  white, or a beige; something that is very clean. You want nice landscaping  outdoors, but as far as building interiors go, you want to keep everything as  simple as possible so that it doesn't look like you live in the '60s. A simple  and clean-looking design looks good, brings out the landscaping, and doesn't  interfere much with each person's personal taste."  

 Warren Heit, owner of Mt. Vernon, New York-based S & W Painting agrees, and adds that a successful common area has a pleasing color  scheme—but it doesn't stop there. It also includes other elements of the room, such as  moldings, window treatments, and furnishings. “The colors should be in sync with each other,” Heit says. “In a successful common area, all of the colors and motifs will blend together  for a nice aesthetic finish.”  

 Like many designers, Heit recommends using earth tones in common spaces and  hallways. For long hallways, he recommends cozy colors like cocoa and warm,  olive greens. He advises boards and managers of buildings to hire an interior  designer to help them with improvements to common areas. “A good designer will give you different ideas and options of what you can do,” Heit says.  

 Form Follows Function

 Understanding that design selections for common areas should be consistent  throughout a building or development from the lobby to corridors to community  rooms, smart boards and design committees will focus on design requirements  that fit the space, scale, and scope of the project.  

 That means considering design options that are compatible with the functional  needs of the building, the budget, and the board’s vision. Simply put, if the lobby will become more than a space to pass through—inviting residents and visitors to congregate—adding comfortable chairs placed in an arrangement designed for that function is  a good idea.  

 With a goal in place, a design professional works with the board regarding the  condo’s design options, through space planning, product research, budget review, and  specifications for purchase. An association's budgetary guidelines set out the  parameters within which the designer will work; however, the board reserves the  right to review and amend his or her recommendations.  

 Establishing goals helps to keep the project moving. The initial design phase is  exploratory in nature, presenting many options. Product selections will be  determined by functional requirements, finish intent, durability, daily  maintenance, cost, and overall aesthetic quality. Wholesale pricing made  available through the designer, and reduced prices for items purchased in  larger quantities can help keep the project affordable.  

 With the right manufacturer, custom goods do not have to be cost-prohibitive. “Some mills offer low minimums for custom goods,” says Scott Johnson, a manufacturer’s representative for Fortune Carpet and Gerflor flooring. Johnson adds, “a few small mills have sample plants which can turn custom samples overnight to  the client. You get more service, flexibility, creativity and quality from  smaller manufacturers.”  

 Thoughtful planning can stretch budget dollars. One key idea suggested by the  pros is breaking the project into phases, often stretching over a few years.  Unless there is a true safety concern, most projects can be done in steps,  rather than all in one fell swoop.  

 Another more budget-friendly approach is to add new fixtures, which can offer  added benefits and value without necessitating a full-on renovation. Stone  fireplaces with gas convenience, and freestanding heaters in outdoor common  areas are two examples of retrofits that are currently popular. Natural stone  surfaces are both desirable and high-performance surfacing materials—and are available in a variety of cost alternatives. When determining selections  for purchase, design professionals stress that the goal should be the best  overall value, which tends to be the lowest long-term costs, not the lowest  initial cost.  

 Green is Good

 Board members can pass on significant savings to the homeowners by using green  fixtures that reduce utility costs year in and year out. Products designed to  be green that don’t sacrifice performance include low-flow toilets and energy-efficient light  fixtures. Many of these products are supported by incentives from local  utilities. For specialty flooring, says one Massachusetts-based designer, “Clients often ask about products that are green, but are unwilling to pay for  it. Take into consideration a product like vinyl flooring. The most important  aspect is that by far, it has one of the longest life cycles of any product,  which is the biggest environmental statement you can make.”  

 Other green products may not save energy, but are recognized for being safer for  owners, or environmentally-friendly. These include contract carpeting  recognized for its post-industrial recycled content; fabrics produced using  rapidly renewable materials, and non-VOC paint, which has no lingering odor, is  more durable, and dries faster.  

 And speaking of green, plants help create healthy environments as well, adding  vitality to a space, and becoming important design elements in their own right.  Through form and texture, they can fill empty spaces begging for attention.  What plants are popular today? Alexia Morosco, the general manager of garden  design for Winston Flowers in Boston, turns to varieties of floor plants that  have exposed trunks and interesting leaf shapes. She explains, “Popular plant varieties include Yuccas, the Ponytail Palm, Pencil Cactus, and  Jade trees. Plant varieties that are long lasting and are easy to care for  under a broad range of conditions offer good value. Select good performers such  as Philodendron Moonlight or the spiky Sansevieria Cylindrical.”  

 High-end condominium properties are increasingly using plants as a design  element, often placing emphasis on the container. Morosco says, “Containers in various finishes such as metal, wood, and metallic glazes are all  hot right now. Use groupings of pairs or collections of containers in a series  of even numbers. By adding a combination of specimen plants and rock top  dressings, containers allow you to bring organic elements indoors. Thoughtful  placement of common varieties of plants in distinctive containers will help  them appear fresh and new.”  

 When renovating common areas, an inspired approach to product selection,  combined with thoughtful planning that focuses on practicality, will ensure  success and create the broadest appeal. Well-designed common areas will be  worthy of display, and unit owners will live in a condominium building that  they are proud to call home.  

 Lisa Goodman is a freelance author and principal of Lisa Goodman Design in  Sharon, Massachusetts. Additional research by David Chiu and Hannah Fons.  

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  • We're recently refurbished our Condo foyers and hallways, and have a resident who doesn't like the color of the walls or carpet and has sent numerous complaint letters. We recently hung new artwork and she took it down, sending a letter to management saying it didn't match. Anyone else ever have this problem?