By Paula Jastermsky, CMCA, AMS, CPO / Published December 2016
With all the new building taking place in Florida, many older condominium buildings are looking for ways to stay competitive in this very active marketplace, and sellers know you get one chance to make a first impression. The first area a prospective buyer sees, before they get to your fabulous apartment, is the lobby. A lobby that is 35-plus years old, with floors, finishes, furniture, and fake plants that may have been top of the line in their heyday but are now tired and dated, is the absolute kiss of death for a buyer looking for fresh and new, your fabulous apartment notwithstanding.
What to do? My condominium association, an impeccable but 34-year-old high-rise community on the ocean in Palm Beach, decided it was time to freshen up. The membership agreed and voted to renovate the main lobby and elevator lobby spaces, the exterior atrium fountain ponds, walkways in the community’s two towers, and the exterior porte cochere area of the building entries.
A renovation project of this magnitude was not one to be taken lightly and without thorough due diligence. While a great success once completed, our circuitous route to that completion should be a cautionary tale for any association that thinks they can just hire a design firm and call it good.
The project began in 2013 with the need to replace the original storefront lobby windows with energy-efficient, impact-rated material. A Design Committee of five members was formed, and the decision was made by the committee to bring in a well-known design firm from New York City. They did not consider any other design firm, local or otherwise, and that was the first mistake. The NY design firm’s personnel came to meet with the committee one time, took a load of pictures, and never returned. They worked from those photos to come up with a design that was lovely on paper but was in no way functional for the way the residents used the space.
The design committee was promised drawings that could be bid from. What was received were design drawings, which could be bid from if the community didn’t need to completely demolish the current lobby, not only to install the new impact windows but to implement the new design. The design firm did not provide any architectural, electrical, structural, or mechanical specifications, as that was not part of their design fee. Their lovely design could be pictured, but the community couldn’t build it and had to bring in a local architectural firm to produce the drawings needed to actually tear down and rebuild the lobby that the out-of-town designer envisioned. This was a tremendous expense that no one budgeted for.
The community was extraordinarily fortunate that the design committee chairman was an interior design professional in his own right. He lent his expertise to sourcing materials, furniture, fabrics, and wallcoverings that saved the association a considerable amount of money over the high-end choices the NY designer had made.
As a material change to the common area, the project needed to be voted on by the entire membership. Because it was necessary to reach out to 96 owners across the country to get written consent forms into the office, the project start date came down to the wire and the contractor started later than anticipated. Several people suggested doing only the windows and the floors the first year, stopping for the season, then starting again the following spring. That would have been a huge mistake.
Consider this: your committee chooses the new floor material. You rip out the old floors, which in turn is going to damage the baseboards and maybe some of the walls in the lobby. You discover electrical issues or structural problems you had no idea were there because your plans are not complete since you are only doing the floors. So you have to fix those problems—an expense you didn’t plan for. You get the floors done, and you replace baseboards that you are going to have to demolish next year when the big project gets underway. The new floors get walked on and used all season; maybe something gets damaged. You start the project again once the season is over, and the actual lobby destruction begins—all on your brand new floor! And of course, maybe someone has changed their mind on a fabric, a wallcovering, and the location of a wall. Now you’re tearing up the new floors and maybe you can’t match that tile, which is a big mistake.
Lastly, make sure everything is ready before you have your bid meeting with contractors. Bring in a “clerk of the works” to run the project before you go to bid, because your manager probably does not have the experience nor the construction expertise to make things happen. The community’s architectural consultant/clerk of the works was a local design professional who had both the design and construction experience to correct a shop drawing, make suggestions, source materials, work with suppliers and subs, and generally keep the manager sane. He organized the bid meeting, answered technical questions from the general contractor, reviewed all invoices, ran the weekly construction meeting, and was the go-to person whenever a decision had to be made when the committee was not around. He was worth every dime, and that should be figured at about 10 percent of the total cost of the project.
Let your clerk of the works review all the bids and make sure your total project package is complete, soup to nuts, before you present the costs to your membership. Don’t forget your soft costs. Don’t forget to budget for that clerk of the works and for engineering inspections and drawings you will need for air conditioning, structural issues, or plumbing. Don’t forget to budget for furniture, rugs, artwork, etc. The three contractor bids had been obtained but needed a lot of cutting from the original design plans to get down to a number that could be lived with—another reason to have a local design firm. Never be afraid to say “no” to a change order. At the end of the project, the final contract cost came in about $118,000 over the original contracted amount—just about three percent.
Most importantly, don’t rush! Take your time planning, make sure everyone is on the same page, and do it all at once—not bits at a time. It will be cleaner, faster, less expensive, and have more impact. For the amount of money your community will spend and the long-term impact it will make to your residents and potential residents, it’s worth doing right the first time!
Paula Jastermsky, CMCA, AMS, CPO
Paula Jastermsky, CMCA, AMS, CPO, has more than 28 years of resort, HOA, and condominium management experience. Her property management career began in 1988 at a ski resort in Warren, Vermont. While working in Vermont, Jastermsky was active in the Lamoille County Planning Commission, was Vice-Chair of the Lamoille County Republican Party, and was a board member of the Stowe Coop Nursery School and the Bishop Marshall School. In Florida, she was on the Board of the Palm Beach Community Managers Association. She currently lives and works in Palm Beach, Florida.