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What's Happening in Design Adapting Common Spaces to the New Normal

While the initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic may have stopped much of our normal economic activity in its tracks, the gradual revival of business and commerce is inspiring some new thinking and new solutions for individual unit owners, co-op and condo communities, and the boards that oversee them. Some of the changes we’ve seen as a result of the pandemic, such as working from home, distance learning, and gym-less exercise to name a few, may be here to stay - and are already affecting a broad swath of industries and professional relationships.

Falling Off a Cliff

With shutdown orders affecting everything from going to work and school to buying and selling homes, moving, renovating, and accessing amenities both private and public, more than a few commentators jumped on the bandwagon to trumpet the looming demise of New York City. While the market is clearly in flux, and the political climate uncertain and dramatic to say the least, how it will all work out over the longer term is anybody’s guess. For the moment, most brokers are reporting increasing activity by both sellers and buyers, and just this week, CBS News reported that according to NYC-based moving companies, moves both out of and into New York City have increased dramatically since the beginning of the year; in fact, many movers say they are working at capacity.

An interesting side effect of this reshuffling of residents and residences - as well as the work-from-home revolution - is an uptick in business for design professionals, including architects, interior designers, decorators, stylists, and their adjacent colleagues. Marilyn Sygrove, a Manhattan-based interior designer and President of Sygrove Associates Design Group Inc., says that “When COVID hit, I was prepared for the worst - for no business at all. But in fact, the opposite is true for us. We have been getting quite a few new business calls precisely because more people are working from home and have canceled their flights for their summer vacations.”  Owners are seeking ways to adapt their spaces to the realities of working from home, educating their children from home, and maintaining their health through exercise at home.

The Reality of Now

Sygrove reports that unit owners are using ingenuity to reconfigure their spaces. It’s more than just eating, sleeping, and entertaining; “Now residents work, exercise, cook more than ever, supervise remote learning, meet on Zoom gatherings, and sometimes require multiple virtual access at one time. There is a lot of creativity going on to separate spaces, coordinate schedules, survive, and thrive!  Dining tables in particular, are doing multiple duty.”

Boards are active as well. With so many residents home all the time, they’re hearing more complaints about everything from noise to bedraggled-looking common spaces than pre-pandemic, when more people were spending the bulk of their waking hours elsewhere. “Looking at unsightly, dim hallways, or pyramids of packages lining up in the lobby because their package room isn’t large enough to accommodate the surplus of people ordering things every single day from home while home is aggravating to board members and residents alike,” says Sygrove, adding that a byproduct of COVID is the concern that apartment values may plummet. “Now more than ever, they figure they need to up their game to compete now for sales.”

What Are Owners & Boards Seeking?

“Storage always has been - and still is - the number one issue in apartments,” says Sygrove. “Now with many apartment dwellers collecting multiple packages of paper towels, wipes, disinfectant, and toilet paper because there were shortages, our personal spaces are exploding. Closets are being outfitted more precisely for the types of storage needed. People are seriously purging items that they don’t need so they can recapture that space. We have requests from families with kids doing everything on the dining table. I’m designing a multi-purpose dining/work/craft table [for one such client] to accommodate the additional duties this table must perform. The work is challenging and stimulating at the same time.”

Sygrove is also receiving inquiries from building boards.  “In particular, we have come up with a unique design for doorperson stations that protects the staff, as well as incoming residents and visitors. Our desks are now designed with an integral recessed groove to accept the kind of frameless protection screen you’re seeing crop up everywhere. When COVID is over, this groove can also be used for changing signage about building activities, instructions that all visitors must be announced, the name of the door staff on duty - whatever is needed. It’s designed for both function and aesthetic. We are also designing functional space into the desk that we call a ‘sanitation station,’ right at the doorperson’s fingertips. It can house wipes, disinfectant spray, surgical gloves and masks so that he or she does not have to go elsewhere to get these supplies. We’ve also designed enclosed trash receptacles into our desks so things don’t fall out and have to be picked up later. There’s a trash cabinet with a door and a slot so the door staff can simply dispose of trash through the slot.”

A Deeper Dive

Co-op and condo owners and boards are looking more deeply into upgrades that may be less immediate but are no less necessary, adds Sygrove - like cleanable upholstery and surface materials. Prior to the pandemic, interior designers working in residential buildings didn’t often look at products designed specifically for the healthcare industry, but now have found these materials very handy for use in high-traffic common areas that require the kind of regular cleaning and disinfection protocols that formerly were the domain of hospitals and other care facilities. Of course, along with using easily cleaned or disinfected materials, it’s also important that building staff knows how to clean every item, and what cleaning products to use. For her part, Sygrove provides a manual for her clients with all of this information.

Outdoor space has become even more important than ever for co-op and condo communities, particularly now that things are a bit more open, but people still need room to observe prudent social distancing. Boards are looking into the viability of adding roof decks to their buildings, or turning ground-level courtyards into usable residents-only outdoor spaces. Outdoor amenities may be the key to holding value in the future; Sygrove says she’s working with a building now where earlier this year the board had deferred investing in the outdoor space until the lobby and hallway design projects were completed. Recognizing not just the monetary value of outdoor space, but also the morale-boosting effect such a space would have on residents after so many weeks and months cooped up at home, the board are focusing on fortifying and upgrading their outdoor space now; “It’s a clean space with a central sculpture as the focus point, limited seating but enough for residents to enjoy the out of doors,” says Sygrove. 

No matter whether your building is a sprawling development or a small, tight-knit walk-up of just a few units, smart, functional design can not only help make things a little easier during this stressful time, but can also help retain - or even increase - the values of the homes in your community. 

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