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March 8, 2007

It’s what’s inside condos that counts

  • Living space is ultimately what residents bond with as time goes on.
    Weber + Thompson

    Image courtesy of Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue
    Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue’s openness creates larger perceived living areas in homes measuring up to 2,860 square feet. A glass room opens outdoors, eliminating the need for terraces while adding year-round interior space. Susan Marinello Interiors designed the interiors.

    While many people gravitate to a particular condominium development because of its exterior architecture or fabulous location, it is the interior design that should really be the focus.

    It’s true that in this era, with the allure of hot neighborhoods running high, that is tough to do. It’s a lot more fun to daydream about socializing in the wine bar across the street or luxuriating in the spa downstairs.

    But if a person is really serious about condo living, she will think much more about her actual living space than what shops, restaurants and galleries are down the street.

    Because there is immense truth to the cliché that home is where the heart is, interior designers focus their work on the abode itself. Yes, the neighborhood around the home — whether single-family or condo — is important and helps drive interior design. But ultimately, the living space is what residents will really bond with for years to come.

    While interior designers rarely, if ever, know who precisely will move into a new condo building, we do know from market research what types of people future residents will be. Having a strong idea of these people and their lifestyle is the critical first step in successfully designing a distinctive interior environment.

    Getting inside their heads

    Once designers know who the prospective buyers are, we seek to get inside their heads and understand how they live. This directs the space planning and helps us identify features not only for the homes but common areas as well. Design features, buyer upgrades and customization are considered as a package that targets a specific buyer group or several buyer groups for a project with multiple price points. Then, working closely with the developer’s marketing team, the designers create a distinct interior image for the project that speaks to future buyers, potentially affecting the velocity of sales.

    A successful interior design takes into account the entire building, from the main entry through the lobby to the elevators. The garage entry, where most people enter on a daily basis, must also be considered. Care and attention to the experience leading people to their home as well as the experience at the “front porch” is critical to how residents feel about where they live. The selection and integration of lighting and signage into the interior architecture as well as the layering of color and texture are a statement about the attitude and quality of the project and the attention to the resident’s experience.

    At the resident’s personal entry, interior planning must create maximum impact when the door is opened. Designers focus on an interior element, such as a striking wall to put art on or a great view beyond the walls, while avoiding awkward scenes such as walking in and seeing the entry closet.

    Once inside the home, space planning should be individualized to each project and respond to buyer profiles while working within the confines of the available space. Much depends upon the size of the homes.

    From small to large

    Photo courtesy of Weber + Thompson
    Screens are used to separate living from sleeping areas at Bagley Lofts. They have a variety of textures, such as translucent panels, punched metal screen and opaque sections.

    In smaller units, one successful space-planning approach is an open-plan concept. The focus is on minimizing walls and enclosures to maximize the feeling of openness and spaciousness. This concept is also successful in two-bedroom homes, where one bedroom is treated as a flexible space with a movable partition or sliding panels that connect with the larger great room living space.

    In larger residences, the bedroom and bath can have a clearer delineation from living and entertaining functions. This creates a feeling of retreat within the residence, a personal oasis for homeowners to keep out of sight from visitors.

    In any size condo, creating a space that encompasses living, dining and kitchen functions in an open, flexible way is key to livability. Minimizing circulation is also key because all available space is devoted to living rather than transition spaces.

    Flexible spaces, such as desk nooks tucked off of living areas or kitchens, are essential. These small spaces can be used as a home office or hobby space. Flexible elements, such as movable eating/prep bars, make small kitchens more efficient. Other interior design decisions, including full-height cabinetry, narrow pullout pantries next to refrigerators or pullout linen closets next to tubs, allow maximum storage within a small footprint.

    The design of feature elements goes hand in hand with space planning. These elements help make the residences distinct and memorable, which resonates with the potential buyer. Signature features for a project can include elements of storage or display, such as an art wall at the entry with a built-in ledge with accent lighting or built-in cabinetry that allows for storage and display in the kitchen or living area.

    Sliding doors or movable panels create flexibility and can be personalized with color or material, such as wood, glass or metal.

    Storage and more storage

    Storage is always important when moving into condos, especially for people moving from larger homes. Allowing homeowners to customize closets to their personal needs can greatly help maximize any size of closet. By tucking away visual clutter with special features such as storage elements or sliding doors, small spaces become more livable and serene.

    On-property storage is also important to many potential buyers. Owners need a place to rotate seasonal clothing, store skis and other sports equipment, or just put away the holiday decorations.

    A matter of choice

    Condo projects that involve owner customization in the sales process can be very successful in the personalization of the residences. Buyer customization options can be offered in predetermined packages that allow personalization while limiting options to ease the implementation of changes during construction.

    Such options may include pre-wiring for A/V equipment, stereo speakers and home-theater systems. Or, buyers could have the option to locate J-boxes for buyer-supplied light fixtures. This gives buyers flexibility to use their living spaces in a variety of ways. Other packaged upgrades may include limited finish material upgrades, such as carpet to hardwoods or tile countertops to slab material countertops.

    Without a thorough understanding of who the buyer is and what their lifestyle is like, a designer can be hard pressed to create a condo that will appeal to the market. Carefully considering the future resident is almost as important as the design. Taking that information and translating it into a livable space is what separates a condo that residents bond with from simply a place to sleep and eat.

    Donna Bergeron, ASID, is principal of interior design at Weber + Thompson, a West Coast architecture, interior design and planning firm based in Seattle. Her specialty includes residential and hospitality design. Among the projects she has led are the interior design of Cristalla, Madison Tower and Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar.

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