There’s a new business opportunity for kitchen and bath designers familiar with single-family home design: creating living spaces in high-rise condominiums. It has been widely reported that inner-city and coastal high-rise living is increasing in popularity. Baby Boomers and Matures are downsizing and, rather than moving to 55+ golf communities, they are drawn to pedestrian-friendly, culturally rich urban neighborhoods. At the same time, younger homeowners – those Generation Yers and Generation Xers – are not nearly as interested in suburbia: They also want to live in an active community. Many are not even getting driver licenses!
For designers who have not planned kitchens, bathrooms or other living spaces in high-rise environments, there are special construction concerns, challenging design limitations and great business opportunities when working on such projects. Until recently, I had very little experience in the constraints of condominium design – and the challenges of downsizing. That all changed in 2015.
Last year, I personally faced this challenge: My husband and I moved from a 4,500-sq.-ft. single-family home to a 1,400-sq.-ft. condominium – the first step in our retirement plan! It was an adventure – let me share with you what I learned.
To begin this discussion, first take a look at the “As Build” and “Design Solution” plans at right.
I found there were four major categories of design challenges associated with planning a new residence in a high-rise building:
- Having a strategy to aggressively downsize personal possessions (something a design professional can assist their client with in the early planning stages) to quantify the available storage space in the new home before the planning gets serious.
- Understanding that construction constraints and installation process changes must be identified before the planning and estimating phases of the project begins, not after a design concept is prepared!
- Solving the aesthetic challenge of maximizing the overall perceived visual sense of space in a smaller living area that may have few windows providing natural light.
- Concentrating on creative storage systems in all parts of the living areas as a key focus of the final planning details.
I will save a discussion of the first challenge – helping the client understand the necessity of downsizing their possessions to match the smaller footprint of their new home – for another article.
Let me concentrate on the remaining three challenges in this article.
When designing a high-rise environment, following are several key issues you must deal with during the layout and estimating phases of your proposal.
- Typically, the building will be built with concrete pillars and ceilings. The concrete elements cannot be altered, and do not offer space for recessed lighting. The condominium home often has various ceiling heights – some serving as HVAC chaseways, other times simply empty soffits, or as part of the concrete structure. You need to know which is which!
- Interior walls probably have steel studs that are 24″ on center, resulting in narrower walls (do not try to put a pocket door in!) that need blocking or additional studs to facilitate cabinet installation and bathroom accessory placement. A much more detailed construction plan layout should be prepared during the planning process for proper estimating. Extra preparation time for the tradespeople and drywall patching will be needed. If you plan on wood blocking, you will be required to use specially treated wood products that are more expensive than typical building materials.
- The building may have a sprinkler system – something very important for all workers to be extremely careful about! A “what to do if the sprinkler goes off” practice session with the building supervisor or maintenance man is a good idea.
- Major electrical service upgrades are probably not possible. Additionally, all wiring may be run in conduit. Therefore, your electrical rough-in will be more expensive than in a typical single-family home.
- Other than a few inches, relocating plumbing drain lines may not be possible, either. It is important to find out during the estimating phase if the unit has its own water shut-off, or if part of the building – or the entire building – will lose its water source during the plumbing work needed for your new design.
Note that you should not even think of working in a high-rise building if you do not have all of the proper insurance certificates and required permits to post on the jobsite!
The overall estimated time to complete work in a condominium setting will be greater than in any freestanding home. Here are some reasons why.
- There may be restrictions on the months of the year workers can be on site, as well as days of the week and time of day that work can be underway.
- There will be a long path for the installation crew to travel from their vehicles to the actual work space, which will involve common areas that must be protected as well as elevators that must be reserved – and protected.
- Where you can plan a staging area and how you dispose of trash or store items on their way to be recycled is something to discuss with the building manager or “super.” If the building has a loading dock: Can you place a dumpster there for a limited time? Does the building have refuse containers you can use? Where to keep molding, cabinetry and appliances as they arrive must be settled ahead of time!
Note that it is not a good idea for your client’s possessions to be delivered to their new home until all of the work has been completed. The workers need the open living spaces for staging immediate work, for setting up saws and such.
Once the designer has presented a preliminary estimate to the prospective client so everyone understands the additional time, effort and money it will take to work in a condominium environment, it is time to start planning the new living environment!
Next up is the aesthetic challenge of maximizing the overall perceived visual space of a smaller living area that may have few windows providing natural light.
The third challenge – which is also a great business opportunity – is for the kitchen and bathroom specialist to consider moving beyond the limited focus on these two rooms. Oftentimes in condominiums, the kitchen is part of one great, open living space. While a powder room will certainly be a separate area, the master bathroom might be incorporated partially into the bedroom, or share space with the master closet.
Additionally, prospective clients might plan on renovating their entire new environment – and being able to work with just one professional on the entire “interior architecture – all the hard surfaces” portion of the project (rather than being asked to work with several designers) will be considered a plus.
I think it is a good business extension: The kitchen and bathroom specialist has all of the trade specialists on-site already, and is a woodworking expert because of their cabinet experience. So, consider expanding the design proposal to look at the entire space. Here are several ideas that might be helpful to you.
Idea #1: Compensate for the limited natural light that may stream into the entire condominium. LED lighting systems are so sophisticated that they can be easily used in multiple locations to increase the lighting levels in the space.
Idea #2: Be aware of the need to maximize air circulation. Adding overhead ceiling fans in as many rooms as possible will help air movement in the new condominium, which may not have operable windows, or ones that are only opened infrequently.
Idea #3: Use the millwork and the door detailing to define the style of the space and impact the overall perceived visual nature of the space.
- Eliminate swinging doors wherever possible. If the wall thickness does not allow pocket door installation, consider surface-mounted hardware (oftentimes called “barn door hardware”) as an option. Doors swinging into rooms and single-purpose hallways “eat up” important square footage in smaller spaces. Therefore, try to eliminate halls, and minimize or eliminate swinging doors.
- Realize the impact the door and molding details can have on the overall design. Look at the door panel design and evaluate all the millwork in the home: baseboard, casing, crown. An interesting way to increase the visual size of a smaller space is to use over-scaled millwork that is very simple in its design.
- Another interesting design “trick” is to paint all of the casings, doors and walls the same color so there is no separation. Or, just a slight change in tone will accomplish the same goal, but add some differentiation in color, as well as sheen between the doors, trim and wall surfaces.
A special tip: Even if you will not be working with the entire space, measure the condo and give a set of the scaled drawings to the client to help them evaluate what pieces of furniture they can take with them and which ones they cannot. Show them how to create templates of their furniture: You will be thanked!
DETAILING STORAGE CENTERS
Once you have a clear idea of what items the clients will be bringing to their new home, the space planning can begin. Including special storage systems that have multi-purpose features will really help the new home meet the family’s needs and wants. Following are some suggestions for stretching smaller condominium living spaces.
In the master bathroom, consider using one vanity cabinet coupled with a pedestal sink, rather than two cabinet sections. This is great way to make a small space look bigger. Float the cabinets off of the finished floor. Select a pedestal with some counter space and use an extra-wide recessed medicine cabinet above it (an excellent one fits in a 24″-wide space).
In the hall bathroom, you can make the space seem larger by featuring a monochromatic color scheme and small-sized fixtures. Here are a few fixture ideas:
- Consider using a console furniture-type (off-the-floor) vanity to visually expand the space.
- Use as narrow a toilet as possible. Consider a wall-hung fixture if plumbing modifications are possible. The smaller the shape and profile of this fixture, the bigger the “feeling” of the bathroom space.
- If a tub/shower combination is used, consider a ceiling-mounted shower curtain, rather than a door system. This allows the overall openness of the space to extend to the back wall of the tub enclosure.
Of special note: Be sensitive to the family’s medicine management needs. If you have a more mature client downsizing from a large, stately, stand-alone house to a condominium, planning a private wellness center as part of the master bathroom/closet might be a good idea. The client may need space to keep medical records for diabetes management, an organized way to keep pill boxes and food supplements arranged as well as accessible storage that is needed infrequently.
A new need we must plan for in a small space is where to locate all of the electronic equipment even a “tiny house” needs. Everything from the Internet router or the cable box to a home-based printer and accessible charging stations for wireless speakers, personal tablets (and more) must be located somewhere.
Ask the client if they have a tall furniture piece that can be repurposed, or if you can wire a shelf area in the laundry room to serve as the electronic hub of the house. Remember to also check where the current Internet/TV cable is located, and help the client decide where they want it to be in the new furniture arrangement. If you want to move it, consider hiding the cable behind new baseboard if you cannot snake it through the walls (those pesky concrete columns may be blocking a clear path inside a wall to the new location of the entertainment center!).
THE LAUNDRY ROOM
You can get more creative in the laundry room, as well.
- First, switch to stacked units in place of side-by-side ones.
- Learn more about storage systems originally offered as garage solutions – they are an excellent way to outfit a small utility room. One system (Gladiator by Whirlpool) has a slat wall system that can be installed on the wall, and metal shelves that can be placed anywhere along the slat wall system. The advantage? These steel shelves are sturdy and require no corbels underneath them; therefore, each shelf length can be used to its maximum.
Even owners of small condominiums want large, inviting, open kitchens that interface well with the adjacent living space. Here are a few ideas for you to consider.
- When space is tight, utilizing the inside of every cabinet is critical. For an open kitchen, minimizing the countertop clutter is also important. Make sure you suggest to your prospective clients well-thought-out cabinet interior storage systems and drawer partition offerings to help them organize their new space as efficiently as possible.
- When it comes to appliances, make them disappear. Additionally, know what special appliances are available to expand the cooking systems available to the gourmet chef who is limited to a 30″ range.
- In the living space, look at creating custom furniture for your client to hide that large TV.
Designing kitchens, bathrooms and other living spaces in a small condominium is challenging. However, the challenge is worth the effort because such new home environments can expand the designer’s business base. I hope this review of initial construction concerns, installation process extra costs and the creative storage ideas included will help you create a great new home for clients you are serving as they transition from a larger home to a smaller one.
Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, CAPS, is a well-known author, designer, speaker and marketing specialist. A member of the NKBA Hall of Fame, Cheever gained prominence in the industry early on as the author of two design education textbooks. She manages an award-winning design firm, Ellen Cheever & Associates, and has been part of the management team of several major cabinet companies.
Editor’s Note: The condominium renovation highlighted in this feature was designed by Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, of Ellen Cheever & Associates in Wilmington, DE (www.ellencheever.com) and Pietro Giorgi, CMKBD, Giorgi Kitchens & Designs in Wilmington, DE (www.giorgikitchens.com). Photos: Peter Leach photography.