Sexy Building In The City

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 was on floors 3 – 5.

Wellington street house view building in the city

The street  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. The access “road” leading to the narrow private alley behind the 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.

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.

Linda Merrill design Back Bay Bachelor penthouse exterior

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!

B|A|D Talk panel Sexy Building in the city

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!

Sexy Building in the City tips

Have you done any building in the city? I’d love to hear your experiences and pearls of wisdom.

12 thoughts on “Sexy Building In The City”

  1. Oh wow – the parking is insane! I’ve only had one remodel in downtown (Calgary) and deliveries, trade parking were all a nightmare, not to mention the 4 stories we climbed every day.

    We have a major project here in Calgary that is called Westman Village ( It’s an interesting concept as it’s for a wide range of ages and is truly a village within a community. I think the developer has done a lot of planning – in terms of the different age brackets and what people are now looking for.

  2. Wonderful post, Linda, especially after the statement Gary Vee made earlier this year about encouraging people to rent, not buy. That, and many other factors, are driving Millennials and empty nesters to higher rents in more city-centric, urban areas. Along with those steep rents, the space and amenities have to be spot on, which means for many, a killer remodel!

  3. What a thorough and fascinating post Linda! I can only imagine the headaches that come with trying to remodel in a major city like Boston. All your photos made me really miss my old Backbay address on Park Drive. 🙂

  4. Amen to the Boston parking nightmare! It seems that most trades just park illegally and factor in the cost of tickets to the project cost. I’ve been fortunate to work in a handful of buildings where my clients had garage guest spots available to me…it makes me realize, once again, the importance of parking availability as a factor in moving to the city! I’ve always dreamed about living in the city myself, but my list of “requirements” well exceeds my budget!

    • Hi Janet – I know what you mean about your requirements exceeding your budget. I lived in the city when in my 20s and 30s and not again unless I can afford all the comforts!

  5. What an informative post, Linda. I can’t imagine having all of that extra hassle and cost added on to a project, but I understand that’s normal in a historic city like Boston Thanks for covering this!


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