Condo living is becoming ever more popular in metropolitan Washington, DC, and especially so in the surrounding jurisdictions of Friendship Heights, Bethesda and Arlington. Be it empty nesters wanting to downsize, young professionals moving closer to the office, couples seeking luxury and convenience, or families looking to enjoy walkable neighborhoods, the demand for urban residences is at a high.
Generally, condominiums in Washington, DC and the surrounding neighborhoods fall into three categories:
Condos in older multi-story buildings such as the Watergate Condos in Foggy Bottom, the Somerset House Condos in Chevy Chase, or the Elizabeth in Friendship Heights.
Luxury condominiums in large developments such as the City Center DC, the Stonehall in Bethesda or the Quarry in Potomac.
New units in former single-family row homes in neighborhoods like Georgetown, Dupont Circle, and Columbia Heights that have been converted to condos by a developer.
Whether the existing construction is new or old, condominium owners are frequently looking to remodel. While the design and renovation of condos in each category present their own unique challenges, for the most part, the desired program includes a combination of: upgrading dated systems (plumbing/electrical/HVAC), modernizing or opening the floor plan, and replacing finishes and fixtures.
Design Considerations When Remodeling a Condo
Creating a design for a condo that is buildable (and permissible) is quite different than designing for a free-standing home or row house. Condo design can be puzzling and seemingly restrictive as there are some important considerations to keep in mind.
Building rules and ownership: While every building is different, all are generally governed by a board of directors and book of building rules. There are always restrictions on specific materials, appliances and fixtures that can be installed in addition to limitations on fasteners that can be inserted into the condo floors and ceilings. Condo exteriors along with common interior areas are typically property of the building. Therefore, window replacement, façade upgrades and changes to entry doors and adjoining walls are scrutinized closely.
Building Construction: Multi-unit buildings (both old and new) are generally of concrete construction with support pillars and poured-concrete floors and ceilings (whether post-tension or steel-reinforced). As a rule, it’s easy to move interior walls but relocating condo kitchens and bathrooms can present a challenge.
Plumbing: Water supply and waste lines generally run in risers that pass through the concrete slabs via pre-determined penetrations. Unless your condo is located in a building with framed construction, toilet and shower drain locations are nearly impossible to move without building approval, neighbor participation and additional expense incurred through patching and painting in neighboring units.
Electrical: The electrical service coming into most condominiums is predetermined and cannot be upgraded. Unless your condo is located on the top floor, it’s usually not possible to move the electrical panel. Additionally, due to the concrete construction of the floors and ceilings, recessed lighting (outside of areas where the ceiling has been dropped), is not an option.
HVAC: By and large, heating and cooling units are part of the larger building system – whether wall mounted convectors, radiators or ducted forced air. There are always limits to moving, replacing and altering equipment in your individual condo. Many condo and co-op buildings have a preferred HVAC contractor that must do all work on their systems. Options to vent condo bathroom exhaust fans and kitchen hoods are limited and sometimes forbidden outright.
Considering these restrictions, on the surface it may seem an impossible task to vastly improve the design of a condo. Quite the opposite is true! Four Brothers’ architects and designers can transform your dated condominium into an efficient living arrangement or even a luxurious penthouse oasis if you so desire.
Condo Renovation Design Process
Despite the challenges outlined above, the actual design process for remodeling a condo is linear and very similar to that of a full home, addition, kitchen or bath remodel. Whether it’s a kitchen condo remodel, bathroom condo remodel or full condo renovation, Four Brothers’ architects and interior designers follow the steps outlined below.
Initial Design Consultation: This meeting takes place in your condo and is critical in establishing the direction of the project. Visiting with you in your home and having an open conversation allows us to understand your vision for your finished condo. Issues with the current kitchens, baths and floor plans in general are just as important for us to understand as how you want to use the new space. Do you entertain frequently? Are you a passionate chef? Do you desire his and hers bathrooms? These are just a few of the questions our design team will ask. This meeting should be informal and conversational and our team will also run through inspirational images on Houzz and Pintrest.
Schematic Design: We’ll draft a set of as-built drawings, along with a number of iterations of the proposed design program. These will include floor plans, elevations, three-dimensional renderings and digital storyboards for finish concepts. For spaces that are particularly hard to envision, we’ll give you the option of a virtual walkthrough using our Oculus hardware and software.
Schematic Revisions: Based on your feedback following the initial schematic meeting, our architects and designers will refine and develop the design package; all of which will be presented at a second schematic design meeting. Typically, within a week of this meeting, clients provide the necessary feedback for us to finalize the conceptual plan. We often combine elements of the various design options that were presented in the first meeting to arrive at the final schematic layout.
Trade Partner Walkthrough: Once you’ve signed off on the schematic design, Four Brothers will schedule a walkthrough with our trade partners. We’ll spend a good part of a day in your individual condominium and building at large with plumbers, electricians, engineers, and others. These trades women and men comprise a critical part of the Four Brothers construction team so it’s important that we communicate well at an early stage. Trade partner feedback will also allow us to develop accurate project pricing.
Finish Selections: By this point, we will have a good idea of your aesthetic and will likely have the finishes defined in broad strokes. However, we will now need to begin the process of selecting, pricing, and documenting the specific finishes that will be used in each part of the condo remodel. We will help you prioritize selections by lead time and connect you with appropriate showrooms. Many Four Brothers’ clients finalize the majority of their finish selections in our showroom and office. Others prefer to spend the time to visit tile, counter, and appliance vendors with whom we have existing relationships and negotiated discounts. Yet other clients employee a combination of both strategies.
Construction Documents: Once finish selections have been finalized, plans will be brought to a level needed to communicate the design intent to our in-house construction team. While some of these drawings are boring and technical, other elements are critical to make sure the final condo renovation is refined and detailed. We’ll need your input from time to time, but our design team will work largely independently at this point.
Condo Permitting in Metro Washington DC
Obtaining a building permit for a condo renovation in Washington, DC, Montgomery County, Arlington, and other surrounding counties is usually straight forward. Unlike permitting an addition or full home remodeling project, there are no zoning, structural or historic considerations. Reconfiguration is largely confined to the interior and the permit can be “walked through” in several hours.
There are exceptions where obtaining the building permit can be more time consuming however. Of note are occasions when the condo building is taller than twelve stories, management is unable to locate the certificate of occupancy, when core-drilling is required to move plumbing lines or when the exterior façade of the condo building is being altered. Four Brothers’ in-house architects and designers are experienced and adept at navigating any of these circumstances.
Condo Construction and Logistics
The actual construction involved in a condo renovation is typically less challenging than the work involved in building an addition or completing a full home remodel. This can be attributed to the absence of structural, exterior and site work among other things. (Although there are some exceptions, such as when complicated soundproofing details are a part of the remodel.)
However, working in a condo building presents logistical challenges otherwise not seen in residential remodeling. These include, but are not limited to:
Parking This is frequently limited or nonexistent for contractors.
Work hours: Construction can often occur only between the hours of 9am – 5pm.
Waste removal: Placing a dumpster in condominium parking lot is generally forbidden.
Water shut-offs: Turning off the water for an individual unit generally means shutting down a full tier.
Material deliveries: Large items such as full sheets of drywall don’t fit in standard elevators.
General access: Contractors are frequently relegated to obscure and inconvenient “service” entrances.
And then there are the general calisthenics involved in keeping multiple parties with diverging interests happy: neighbors, trade partners, building management, vendors and most importantly, our direct client. This juggling act is perhaps the most taxing part of remodeling a condominium!
So daunting are these challenges, that many firms simply avoid condo remodeling altogether, preferring to focus on projects in areas of the city that are easier to navigate. Four Brothers on the other hand has perfected systems and processes that make both the design and construction phases of a condo remodel run seamlessly. We welcome the opportunity to work for condo owners throughout the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Be it condo kitchen remodel, condo bath remodel, or full condo design and renovation, we welcome the challenge!
“Four Brothers, LLC thoughtfully redesigned and skillfully performed a total renovation of our 1300 square foot condo in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of DC. And they did it while we were absent; living and working in Africa.”