For co-op and condo boards, redoing public spaces – lobbies, hallways, health clubs, roof decks, elevators, even laundry rooms – can be like “walking across a minefield,” in the words of one veteran property manager. One problem, of course, is that there’s no explaining taste. Another is that getting people to agree on questions of aesthetics is close to impossible.
But, as the board discovered at the Bay Club, a 1,037-unit high-rise condominium in Bayside, Queens, hard work and perseverance can sometimes defy expectations. In the Bay Club’s case, the board not only successfully renovated its public hallways for millions of dollars but did it in an eco-friendly way as well.
“The most difficult thing for a board to do is decorate,” says Jay Shusterhoff, the Bay Club’s board president who was involved in earlier makeovers of the lobbies in both 21-story buildings as well as at the condo’s health club. “Every resident has his or her own individual taste. It’s impossible to meet everyone’s expectations. We just hope that when this hallway project’s complete, the majority are impressed.”
Today, as work gets under way on the eight-month, $3.5 million “green” hallway renovation, it looks almost certain that Shusterhoff’s wish will come true. If it does, it will be because the board made and executed a perfect plan.
Fulfilling a Tall Order
People at the Bay Club had been talking about the need to redo the hallways for the past 10 years. It wasn’t until 2007, though, that the nine-member board decided the time had come to do something about the frowzy condition of the 70,000 square feet of hallways in the two towers, which opened in 1981.
The first thing it did was impose an assessment, ranging from $75 to $175 per apartment per month, to run for three years. The assessment would raise $1.2 million a year, enough to cover the projected cost of the project. There was surprisingly little belly-aching. “The unit-owners understood the need for the assessment,” says Shusterhoff. “They’ve been looking forward to this project for years.”
With the financing in line, the board turned its attention to the aesthetic and environmental issues. In keeping with the trend of the times, they wanted to do the job with materials and construction techniques that took into account the environment along with the shareholders’ health, peace of mind, and bank accounts. As the board would soon discover, that is a tall order.
“Where economically feasible, we wanted to inject green designs into the hallway project,” says property manager Eugene Gardner of John B. Lovett & Associates, who has managed the Bay Club since 1985. “I’ve always tried to institute green programs and energy-conserving projects. But when you’re dealing with a project the size of these hallways, it’s hard to be as green as you could be if you were just doing your own home. A line has to be drawn somewhere.”
To help them decide where to draw that line, the board recruited volunteers for a thirteen-member hallway committee in 2007. The following year it created an eight-member green committee. The second committee came up with lists of desirable and undesirable materials for the project. In the former category were such natural products as sisal, jute, sea grass, and flax, plus paints and adhesives that contain low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals that evaporate at room temperature; in the latter category were such things as pressed fiberboard, petroleum-based wall coverings, nylon carpeting, and synthetic dyes.
“We did our research,” says David Bressler, a co-chairman of the green commitee who also serves as the board’s treasurer. “We searched articles, the internet, and we talked to designers. The first order of business was to establish desirable materials not only for the hallways, but for all common areas. Another objective was to educate unit-owners about things they can do in their own apartments – environmentally friendly cleaning products, carpeting, wallpaper, paint. We did this through newsletters, mail, and speakers.”
“Although David and I had knowledge in the everyday aapect of our lives on what we wanted to do, there were members of the committee who were much more knowledgable than we were,” adds Bob Saunders, the other co-chairman of the committee. “So we used them as a guide to further the whole green initiative.”
Meanwhile, the board got busy interviewing designers. After a lengthy audition process, it hired Forbes-Ergas Design Associates in the summer of 2008. “We had to do a lot of work to get the job, which shows the due diligence the board did,” says Joel Ergas, a principal in the design firm. “We took the job on as a challenge. We realize this is where everything is going. We saw it as a chance to educate board members for this project and for future projects.”
Ergas’s first move was to bring in Grazyna Pilatowicz, an interior designer and assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, to help him research. They were guided by three considerations: environmental impact, cost, and durability, or what’s often called “sustainability.” As Ergas puts it: “What’s the point of using very green materials if you have to replace them next year?”
The building’s two superintendents, John Wambser and Gary Brenner, were involved in discussions from the beginning, providing valuable information about the long-term maintenance and durability of the proposed materials. Ergas presented his research findings at a joint meeting of the hallway committee, the green committee, and the full board in late 2008. This was the moment when idealism met reality.
“It was at that meeting that Joel made an effort to inform the green committee which of their proposals he was going to be able to use,” says Gardner, the property manager. “You can’t go with hemp and grass. It’s just not going to hold up.”
Adds Shusterhoff, the president: “The board recognized that the materials Joel Ergas was recommending provided a combination of durability and green. For instance, Type 2 vinyl for the wallpaper. While the committee would have preferred a more natural material, they understood that this was best for our circumstances. And the committee favored wool carpet, but it wasn’t practical, so we went with a solution-dyed nylon carpet. It was a reasonable compromise. There were some members of the green committee who were more militant. They weren’t thrilled, but they understood.”
Now Ergas could begin the design process. There were visions, then revisions, then more revisions. There were also unexpected delays, such as when it was decided that the “popcorn” ceilings should be removed and replaced with plaster. The ceilings were analyzed, and it was determined that they contained no asbestos.
By December 2009, Ergas was ready to present his final design, along with sample materials, to the board and an open meeting of unit-owners. “It was something we don’t like to do, but it was written into our contract,” he says. “We went there to back the board politically. They needed to come away from that meeting knowing that all the factions would be reasonably satisfied. We didn’t go there to justify the design, we went there to explain it.”
More than 200 residents showed up. Shusterhoff describes the meeting as “very upbeat.” When it ended, the board and Ergas had what they’d come for: not unanimous agreement but widespread acceptance of the proposed design and materials.
Ergas and the board came up with a list of 11 potential general contractors and six carpeting contractors. The contractors submitted sealed bids on April 5, and the next day members of the hallway and maintenance committees opened the bids. Ergas produced a spreadsheet breaking each down by cost and a rough time schedule.
The pool was then narrowed to four general and three carpeting contractors. The general contractor finalists submitted details on how they planned to handle removal of the “popcorn” ceiling, which included such things as air filters, plastic sheeting, and daily vacuuming. The finalists then met with the maintenance committee and most of the board. On May 18, at a special meeting, the board agreed to hire New York City Hallways & Lobbies, as general contractor and Robert M. Weiss & Company, as carpeting contractor.
The board plans to build a single mock-up of the drop ceiling and lighting cluster that will be installed on every floor where the Y-shaped building’s wings converge by the elevators. The mock-up will allow the board to examine the lighting cluster’s aesthetics as well as its practicality in terms of maintenance and the moving of furniture.
Considering the magnitude and expense of the project, Shusterhoff has come away feeling that the planning process was surprisingly smooth. “It flowed from beginning to end, but it took a lot longer than we expected. There were so many design options to consider, and there were a lot of frank discussions. At the end of the day, the committee and the board were very pleased by the final design.”
GRAND & GREEN IN BROOKLYN
When Jonathan Baron was hired to redesign the lobby and hallways of a 78-unit Art Deco co-op overlooking Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, he understood that he faced a number of very different challenges. First, he wanted to use environmentally friendly materials. Second, he would have to come up with a design scheme that was aesthetically pleasing to the majority of the shareholders – never an easy task. And third – and perhaps most important of all – he would have to climb inside the shareholders’ heads.
In other words, he would need to wear the hats of environmentalist, interior designer, and statesman. It’s a delicate balancing act he’d learned while redoing the public space in a Brooklyn Heights co-op, where choosing a color scheme for the apartments’ hallway doors had turned into such a volatile issue that shouting matches erupted and the board president resigned.
“The first thing I did [at the Brooklyn Heights building] was call a meeting in the lobby and ask for shareholders to explain their thinking and their opinions,” says Baron, 51, who has run Baron Design in Manhattan since 1995. “It turns out the problem wasn’t about color. It was that people felt they weren’t being heard and taken care of. They felt they were being ignored. There’s always going to be someone who’s going to try to dominate – and someone who’s going to be insulted. It’s treacherous when you’re dealing with people’s emotions.”
After smoothing feathers and completing the Brooklyn Heights job, Baron applied the lessons he’d learned to the $250,000 job at Grand Army Plaza. “It was a very democratic building,” he says with audible relief. “My goal is to help consumers learn about environmentally friendly and sustainable products. Many new products are coming on the market. My job is to help people find the appropriate products for their project, in terms of wearability, maintainability, aesthetics, and price. I already knew they wanted to use low-VOC [volatile organic compound] paint because several residents had requested it.”
The board had appointed a design committee, which voted on Baron’s design schemes and proposed materials. The board made the final calls, then Baron met with shareholders to explain the decisions.
“There were some disappointments over the aesthetics,” he says. “For example, I wanted to paint some plaster molding in the lobby with metallic gold paint. Some shareholders got very bent out of shape about that. When they saw gold, they saw gaudy. I think these Art Deco buildings need a touch of elegance, a little touch of jewelry. There was a board vote, finally, and they decided to go ahead with it.”
But the designer’s power goes only so far. The board insisted on using a new Benjamin-Moore low-VOC paint on the metal hallway doors. Though priced at a whopping $65 a gallon, the paint failed to adhere to the metal, and Baron was forced to find an alternative paint. He also used a solution-dyed nylon carpet made with recycled carpet because it was environmentally friendly, stain-resistant, easy to clean, color-fast, and affordable.
“As a designer,” Baron concludes, “you have to be sensitive to the fact that people take these common spaces very personally.”