New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Feasibility Studies

Amenities are getting more exotic by the day – IMAX theater, anyone? – but it’s possible for co-op and condo boards to be competitive by adding or improving far less spectacular amenities. Better amenities can enhance the quality of life for residents, increase the value and salability of units, and sometimes even generate income – such as monthly fees for gyms or storage lockers.

While space is usually at a premium, unused or underutilized areas can sometimes be found in oversized laundry rooms and staff spaces, unfinished basement areas, or inefficiently designed storage rooms. Many owners switch from oil to gas and suddenly find themselves with a freed-up room that once housed an oil storage tank. 

With some creative thinking and careful planning, these spaces can be converted into functional and attractive offerings. However, effectively repurposing space can be a challenge. To make it less daunting, the first step a board should take before starting any major construction project is to hire an engineer or architect to conduct an evaluation and analysis of the property, known as a feasibility study. 

Deciding to Go Forward

A feasibility study, when done properly, will identify potential concerns, assess costs, and predict how a project will affect not only the designated space but also the building as a whole. Once all significant factors are considered, the board decides whether the go forward with the project.

If it does, the engineering/architecture firm conducting the study should stage an introductory planning session with the board to discuss goals regarding the scope of the proposed alterations, as well as budget restrictions, project concerns, and desired options. The board will also provide any relevant plans and drawings of existing conditions. 

Surveying the Space

Next, the engineer/architect will conduct visual observations of the existing and adjacent space configuration and conditions and take photos and measurements. Localized investigative probes may be recommended as part of the study, to supplement visual  observations and better determine underlying conditions and construction.  Depending on the nature of the project, there are a number of considerations the site evaluation will cover, including:

• Lighting/availability of natural light
• Natural or mechanical ventilation
• Mechanical systems (heating/air
   conditioning)
• Electrical power
• Fire sprinkler systems
• Plumbing system piping
• Insulation
• Ceiling height
• Access to the space and egress
• Potential hazards (lead, asbestos,
  oil contamination, or mold)

If the engineer/architect suspects that a hazard exists, he or she may recommend a third- party environmental testing agency to conduct an environmental due-diligence survey.

Code and Zoning Research

Reviewing city regulations is a critical step. While the field evaluation may determine that the project is physically feasible, a project can be stopped dead if it does not comply with all applicable codes. 

If the property is situated in a historic district, a code and zoning expert on the feasibility study team will research all available records and plans on file concerning legal use and occupancy requirements at the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB), as well as at the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The study must also address what the DOB calls “life safety” issues,
such as fire protection and handicap accessibility, to ensure that the project is in line with New York City zoning resolutions, building codes, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When converting spaces and changing their use, egress, or occupancy from the original design, the DOB requires building owners to amend the Certificate of Occupancy (C of O). The feasibility study will evaluate the steps required to amend the C of O, which can be an onerous process, depending on the number of open applications on file with the DOB.

If the project involves altering a space for use as a commercial or community facility, zoning analysis will determine if this is allowable. The architect/engineer will determine the building’s maximum allowable floor area ratio (FAR). Changes to the building cannot exceed that FAR figure unless approved by the appropriate city agencies, usually the Board of Standards and Appeals, and the City Planning Commission.

The Report

After completing their research, your professionals will establish a preliminary report on scope of work, and they will determine the project’s viability. The report will discuss several conversion options; establish preliminary budget projections for each option; provide design layouts; and set up a general timeline of the design and development process.

The feasibility study should contain sufficient detail and a planning framework to carry on to the next phase in the project. If properly prepared, this study can be a worthwhile investment that helps build confidence in the project, avoids big surprises once work begins, and saves money in the long run.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Stephen Varone, an architect, and Peter Varsalona, an engineer, are principals at RAND Engineering & Architecture.

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