Designing Common Areas What Works Best?

In the past, developers would throw a few chairs and tables into a large room and call it a common area or a recreation room and leave it at that. Today, however, there’s more to designing, maintaining and upgrading a successful common area than just sweeping the floor and making sure the Nespresso machine is stocked with coffee pods. Over time, fitness centers, business centers, party rooms and movie theaters have been created for residents to enjoy, as tastes, technology and building demographics have changed. 

“Association trustees wrestle with updating common areas,” says John Thiboutot, vice president at The Niles Co., Inc., in Canton, Massachusetts. “Generally, updating common areas is at the bottom of the list because repair /maintenance takes precedence over aesthetics. Trustees know that there is value in updating common areas—however, they are generally reluctant to increase fees or approve special assessments in order to get these types of projects done. Updating projects usually take years to do from original conception, and they get done when there is a lull in maintenance items.”

Even so, he notes, at some point, condominium owners may tire of their too-familiar surroundings and decide that it’s time to take the plunge. “I find that residents want a community they are proud of,” he notes. “When common areas are updated and clean, residents have a sense of pride about them. It also creates a welcoming environment for residents and their guests.” 

Thiboutot cites the practical challenges—and the satisfaction—of getting a project off the ground and carried to completion. “I was involved in remodeling a common area entrance lobby to a building with 155 units. The renovation consisted of new tiles, carpeting, wall colors, lighting, and decorations. It was discussed for years, but other projects, such as a complete fire alarm replacement, took precedence over the renovation,” he recalls. “Finally, the decision was approved to start the project with a surplus from the previous year’s budget. It took a lot of coordination and communication because the main entrance could not be completely closed to traffic. The lobby took about two weeks to be completely transformed and the residents loved it. It gave a building that was built in the 1980s a modern feel and created some excitement in the building.”

Design Elements

Common areas in multifamily buildings and HOAs—particularly in denser urban areas where individual apartments may not exactly be spacious—“are often used as an extension of the residents’ home,” says Amy Courage, principal of DesignBar in Chicago, who has worked on the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Chicago which include a theater, billiard room and a wine lounge. “Today, owners are looking for social space, so the lounge space now has work tables where technology has been integrated. Before, the lounge space had been designed solely for watching TV, but now we provide work tables with plug-ins and comfortable chairs.”

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