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Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Smooth Moves

The lobby and hallways of the Brevard, a 410-unit co-op in midtown Manhattan, set a tone of grace and sophistication. But until recently, the building’s four elevators were a far cry from classy. According to board president Steven Avitable, residents would walk from a modern and elegant lobby into a blast from an uglier past: aging elevator cabs right out of the 1970s. “There was a startling disconnect,” he notes.

Unlike lobbies, which are often a source of pride, elevators suffer the fate of the forsaken stepsibling. They move people up and down and, unless they’re not working, no one wants to spend the money on them.

Nonetheless, there are certain times in a building’s life when reconsidering that worn wood paneling might be in order, such as when you’re doing a mechanical upgrade. In fact, if a board plans to take the elevator out of service for repairs, it should consider investing in a new cab. Otherwise, shareholders might be disappointed to step into a rehabilitated machine that looks just as sad as its predecessor.

“If you’re going to spend $100,000 on an elevator, you’d better change the cab as well or no one is going to know you actually did the work,” says Gerard J. Picaso, president of the property management company Gerard J. Picaso Inc.

Overdue Facelift

For the Brevard, the time to revisit the elevators came when the mechanical systems needed to be replaced. The cabs – outfitted with Formica, wood-grained panels, and mirrors – had not been updated ever since the 29-story co-op was built in 1977. So, when the board embarked on a $900,000 elevator replacement project, it decided to give the passenger cars a facelift similar to what the lobby had received three years earlier.

The board turned to Forbes-Ergas Design Associates, which had redesigned the lobby and hallways. Together, they selected materials that were both elegant and durable. The building set aside $130,000 of its elevator budget for the four cabs.

If that sounds like a hefty sum, it’s not. In general, new cabs don’t come cheap, costing anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000, depending on the finishes. But, unlike a hallway, an elevator is designed to move, and different materials can affect that movement. In the end, board members settled on a mix of woven metal in a stainless steel varnish with bronze finishes. Work on the first elevator finished in October.

“Elevators really run the gamut in terms of quality,” says Susan Lauren, president of Lauren & Chase Design Group. “You can tell the difference. You really can.”

Another common time to redo an elevator is when a building remodels its lobby and hallways. After a lobby has been renovated at great expense, those forsaken elevators look that much worse, drawing attention straight from the brand-new leather sofas to the tired cab interiors. “When you walk into a building and you walk through the lobby and you take the elevator, your experience should be one of harmony and unity,” says Joel M. Ergas, president of Forbes-Ergas.

However, many buildings are hesitant to shell out thousands of dollars on a largely aesthetic project. To save money, Lauren suggests leaving the interiors alone and simply re-cladding the external doors and frames, which would cost about $6,000.

Executive Decisions

In general, boards do not involve shareholders in the particulars of an elevator redesign. Most residents simply want to know when the machine will be out of service and for how long – they don’t particularly care whether or not it will have a Fritztile floor. Sometimes a building establishes a committee to consider design elements and then bring recommendations to the full board.

When Chatham Green redesigned its six elevator cabs as part of a $1.4 million overhaul, however, the board decided against a design committee. “We were considering a committee, but in the past whenever we got an outside decorating committee, a lot of time it went nowhere,” says Richard Scorce, secretary of the 420-unit co-op complex in lower Manhattan.

The Chatham board members took an active role in the project, inspecting elevators at other buildings to get ideas. The biggest challenge was agreeing on a color scheme. In the end, they selected light laminate walls and black floors with stainless steel studs. The project cost $35,000 per elevator cab.

According to experts, boards should consider how the elevator will be used when selecting materials. For example, if the building does not have a freight elevator, easily damaged materials are best avoided. “It’s really nice to have wood panels, but the first refrigerator that gets moved in is going to scratch that wood up,” says Mike Mottola, a project manager at Vertical Systems Analysis, an elevator consultant.

Also, if a building doesn’t have a live-in super or staff to wipe children’s fingerprints off mirrors, it should opt for sturdy and low-maintenance materials.

If the cab interior is a low priority and residents merely want a machine that runs well and looks presentable, set a budget and discuss it with the elevator consultant to find a solution that works. “There’s only so much money,” says Beth Markowitz, the principal at Merlot Management. “Do you really have $50,000 to spare for the elevator?”

The biggest risk to a cab redesign is forgetting to deal with it all. It is not uncommon for the board to become so consumed with the mechanical side of an upgrade that it forgets to pick out the tiles and walls. In the worst-case scenario, the elevator has been out of service for several weeks while the mechanical parts are being rebuilt and suddenly contractors are scrambling to order stone-veneer wall coverings, delaying a project that has already frustrated residents.

“You don’t want that project held up because the cab isn’t ready,” warns Picaso. “If you get it in on time and everything opens up according to schedule, everyone will be happy.”

Design Dilemmas

The aesthetics of an elevator are not like a lobby – a sofa is a sofa, after all. The types of finish you choose for an elevator can affect how the machine operates. If a board hires an interior designer for the project, involve an elevator consultant to address the mechanical issues. Stone floors, for example, are heavy and could affect how the device is balanced. If a designer changes the panels for switches and buttons, it could mean changing the electrical wiring. Any alterations to the mechanical system mean the elevator will have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The elevator consultant often ends up playing the role of designer, as was the case for the Upper West Side co-op that replaced its only elevator in a $140,000 project. Mottola provided the board with material samples. When board members debated whether to install high-maintenance materials like mirrored walls, he reminded them that their building needn’t worry: it has a live-in staff.

“We chose the most cost-effective wall coverings and floors. We just didn’t go crazy with all that,” says Melanie Keenan, a member of the board. “We wanted the money in our reserve fund for other things.” Not a whole lot of time was spent looking at color schemes. “How did we choose the colors? The guys were like, ‘Let’s get this over with,’” she recalls. In total, a single meeting was spent making a choice: light colors and a sleek, modern look.

In fact, the board was so quick in dealing with design matters that by the time the elevator reopened, Keenan didn’t even remember what colors had been selected. So she was as delighted – and surprised – by the result as the other residents. “Everyone loves it,” she says.

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