There’s a strong trend these days for folks – from millennials to empty nesters – to want to experience urban city living environments. There’s a lot of building in the city going on – especially here in Boston. Millennials are looking to avoid what they see as their parents heavy burdens of the big house and yard, two cars and lots of time spent commuting and empty-nesters are looking to get out from under it as well. But, living in smaller places with less physical room inside and outside can be a challenge.
There are two types of building going on – renovating original buildings to accommodate modern living expectations and new building of high-rises – such as the boom that’s going on in Boston. Both have unique challenges and it’s super important to understand what you’re getting into when embarking on a renovation or new build.
A few years ago, I did the formal living room, media room and bedrooms in this condo in the South End of Boston. This was a two-unit condo building which has five stories but is very narrow. Unit 1 is sub-ground level and street level and the unit I worked on (highlighted in white) was on floors 3 – 5.
The street view shows this is a fairly narrow street with resident-only parking on both sides. There are a handful of visitor spaces at the end of the street.
This is the view of the access “road” leading to the private alley behind the building. There are no google street views of this alley, but it was a narrow road with parking spaces for homeowners behind each building.
As you can imagine, getting a parking space was always a crapshoot. I actually didn’t have a lot of problems, but did get a ticket the day we did the photoshoot because I parked right out front (in a resident spot) and was there for the entire day. My client’s paid the ticket. My trades and furniture delivery people either had to drive around several times looking for parking, or they double parked and ran things in as quickly as possible. And that was a fairly easy project – no construction.
You can see in the satellite view how congested this area is.
I did do a plan to fully renovate their 6 x 9 FT master bathroom – which was on the 4 floor and shared by the two bedrooms on that floor. My clients wanted to be able to stay in the house during the gut reno, which meant my builders needed to set up all their materials and equipment every day, and then remove it all and clean all the landings and three staircases leading to that floor – every day. It added exponentially to the cost and time it would take to get the project done.
My builder recommended that my client’s move their young daughter out of her bedroom so they would wrap that room and protect the floors and use it as the staging/storage room during the reno which would alleviate having to haul everything in and out every single day. However, the builder’s preferred solution was for the client’s to move out for the renovation period so they didn’t need to fully clean the stairwells and landings every day. They could have easily blocked off the rooms with plastic to avoid dust and debris wafting in and then do the deep cleaning at the end versus on a daily basis. Wanting to stay in the house during the reno probably added at least 15% onto the cost of the expensive project. And, even under the best circumstances, they would have been dealing with the street parking issue – which is a normal, common element of building in the city. In the end, we didn’t do the bathroom because the cost – for such a small space – was very high and they had to put on a new roof and other big maintenance items.
I worked on another project – my Back Bay Bachelor project – which was a full gut reno of the top floor. Not only did we deal with all the access issues discussed above – this building is in a historic district so in addition to all the city permitting required, the historic commission had to approve everything that was visible from the outside including new window frames. It’s so important to work with a builder who is well-versed and experienced working with the various city commissions to keep things running smoothly. And, as this was also a condo building, the condo association and the neighbors have a say as well. At least my client did all this work before he moved in!
A few weeks ago I attended a B|A|D Talk (Building|Architecture|Design) at the Boston Design Center on exactly this topic – the challenges of building in the city. The talk, called City Condidential, was moderated by outgoing New England Home magazine editor-in-chief Kyle Hoepner, was described:
“Urban influx and downtown residential development are spiraling upward offering a newly enriched market for B/A/D companies. Urban dwelling has distinct qualities that attract homeowners and bring unique challenges to the professionals working on their behalf. Join our panel of experts in a discussion of the special qualities, opportunities, and constraints of working in downtown Boston’s rich mix of low and high-rise neighborhoods.”
Let’s start with one of the first comments made – “There’s got to be a better way”. This brought a big, and rueful, laugh from the panelist and audience of builders, architects and designers. Anyone who has worked on city residential spaces has experienced some or all of the inherent challenges involved.
The panelists included: Ellen Perko, Associate Principal, CBT Architects , Michael Ferzoco, Principal, Eleven Interiors , David Carlson, Deputy Director for Urban Design, Boston Planning & Development Agency and Jon Wardwell, President, JW Construction, Inc
It was fascinating to hear from David Carlson of Boston Planning & Development Agency and hearing about urban building from the oversight agency’s perspective. Plus, he’s a very humorous guy. Knowing how to work with these agencies, condo associations, building committees and historic district commissions will make or break a project.
One takeaway from the talk regarding the new luxury condo and apartment hi-rises is that people are looking for smaller individual units, but more luxurious common areas and amenities within the building.
Millennium Tower in Boston boasts “some of the nicest common spaces in the city. Some of the features include an owners lounge with private bar, restaurant, gym, swimming pool, jacuzzi, steam room, rain showers in the locker rooms, spa treatment facilities, a 24/7 concierge, security,and garage valet parking.”
While the individual units are smaller, homeowners are still looking for large master bedroom suites, luxurious master bath and gourmet kitchens. Plus, storage, storage, storage. Most often, they are immediately tearing out the new kitchen’s that come with the unit and starting over. Generally speaking, the footprints and plumbing cannot be changed within any existing multi-unit building and often there is oversight about what can be done within the spaces. Neighbors and condo associations will need to be appeased and often give approval for work to be done. It can be quite a gauntlet of approvals.
The talk was very interesting and you can listen to it in podcast format here.
So, my takeaways for successful building in the city include:
- Hire your designer, builder and architect at the outset in order to get your plans in place as early as possible. No matter how much money you have, there are still limits and laws that have to be followed.
- Your design/build professionals should have experience dealing with the special aspects of building in dense urban and historic districts. They need to know who all the players are – from city and state agencies, historic district commissions, condo associations and neighbors.
- If possible, bring in a professional before you buy to get their thoughts on what can be done, and what can’t. It might save a lot of money and heartache in the long run.
- Have a clear list of your needs and then wants. Can you live in a smaller space? Are you looking to mix and mingle with your neighbors in the common spaces?
- Are you willing/able to tolerate the renovation project while living in the space, or can you move out (or delay moving in)?
As I mentioned, the podcast of the talk is here and has lots of additional information and resources from the professionals who do this every day.
Feel free to pin the image below to reference back to this article!
Have you done any building in the city? I’d love to hear your experiences and pearls of wisdom.