It wasn’t until the demolition began in early October 2019 that I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel for my apartment renovation saga.
The demolition only took a few days, and I swung by after work to check out the apartment—and wow! It was amazing to see it gutted. Without the dropped ceiling in particular the space felt significantly larger. I also got the chance to meet the onsite Bolster team. For the first time, I felt the project was finally on track and that the end was in sight!
This is part of a new series from Bolster, a New York City-based firm that has designed a radically transparent renovation experience. Here, a Chelsea condo owner describes the process of choosing an architect and collaborating on plans for his renovation project—and how the coronavirus pandemic impacted his project. Read Part I and Part II of his story.
The gas line mystery
The following week, there was a surprise. After removing the old appliances and cabinets and ripping up the old flooring, Bolster discovered that the gas line entered the apartment not from the utilities shaft (where my initial architect had drawn it on his plans), but from the middle of the floor in the kitchen. The architect should have realized this when he inspected the apartment to prepare the initial plans, but of course he did not (read more about this in Part I).
The placement of the gas line was incompatible with my plan to reconfigure of the kitchen—it would be a code violation since the distance between the line and the stove exceeded the maximum distance NYC permits for a flexible gas line.
My shrinking bathroom
And then—a second surprise! My previous architect’s measurements of the bathroom were incorrect. The bathroom was actually a foot narrower than the plans he drew. Once corrected for size, the standard door for the bathroom drawn on the plan was too big to swing into the bathroom (also a code requirement) because of where the toilet was positioned. Swinging out was not an option either, because it would interfere with the closet.
To fix the two issues, Bolster explained, would require a “post-effective amendment.” I dreaded having to communicate with my first architect and with the Department of Buildings, but Bolster assured me they could handle the process without my involvement—and they did. From that point on, I used Bolster’s in-house architect to make any tweaks to plans, to coordinate with my architect of record, and to deal with the Department of Buildings. (Bolster was able to successfully resolve the door issue with the Department of Buildings by arguing that the bathroom previously had a small door and we were simply keeping that same feature, a so called “preexisting condition.”)
A modern take on a walk-in closet
My project proceeded smoothly. Every other week or so, I would swing by the apartment to check the progress. My apartment originally had an L-shaped, walk-in closet. While the closet had decent space, it was cramped and dark. The L-shape accommodated a hallway closet that I thought was unnecessary. As part of my redesign, I eliminated the hallway closet and reclaimed the space for a bigger walk-in closet. I also wanted to limit the height of the closet walls so that they didn’t reach the ceiling, something I saw in other apartments in my building, to allow more light and make the apartment feel more open. But, I was slightly concerned about whether the idea would work and whether it would be one of those ghastly features you see on StreetEasy and think, “What on earth was the owner thinking?”
About 11 weeks in, I visited the apartment. All the plastering over the framing had been completed and the lights were installed and operational. I was pleased and relieved to see how the closet turned out— the apartment did in fact feel more open and the shorter walls added a modern aesthetic. Also, at this point, cabinets had been installed, flooring was laid down, lighting was in place and the bathroom was nearly done. The project felt so close to completion and was right on track!
Then the pandemic struck
But then came March 2020. With construction nearly complete and only a few minor items and final inspections remaining, Covid-19 spread through the city with a vengeance. Our building, like many others, issued a moratorium on construction and fully shut down, putting my project immediately into an indeterminate holding pattern. I was so close, and then suddenly so far.
Bolster immediately sprang into action. Shortly after the shutdown, Bolster rolled out Slack workspaces to manage project communications and workflow. On a regular basis, I was receiving clear instructions and updates, which included Bolster’s continuously updating plans and protocols incorporating city, state, and federal guidelines to minimize remobilization time.
Clear communication with Bolster
It was refreshing to work with an organization that understands how important frequent communications can be in times of uncertainty, and it was awesome to see them employ modern forms of technology. In contrast, my building’s management company wasn’t reachable by any means, and was never forthcoming with any real guidance during the Covid crisis.
The renovation project remained in limbo for about 12 weeks. All I could eke out of my management company as to when I could restart was a terse statement to the effect of, “First we will see what the governor says.” A quick phone call to the super also proved unhelpful (although my super is a fantastic guy). Bolster checked in frequently to update me on evolving policies and plans to remobilize, so as to be ready once the city was ready to go.
In early June, Governor Andrew Cuomo signaled a tentative date for New York City to enter Phase 2— which presumably meant that renovations could resume if authorized by my building. Bolster reached out immediately to remobilization and I was finally able to connect with my management company. They requested certain Covid-19 related amendments to my renovation contract, which Bolster executed quickly, and I was green lighted to restart.
By mid-July, I was finally on the verge of completion. I am thankful I’ve made the final part of this journey with Bolster (and I’m also kicking myself for making some poor decisions early on). I’ve also had a chance to reflect upon three key lessons from my project for my next renovation journey (should I ever be so brave as to attempt another renovation).
Lesson #1: Do your homework. My first mistake was choosing an architect who wasn’t what he purported to be. I didn’t know the right questions to ask, and he wasn’t forthcoming about his capabilities or credentials either. With more time and a bit more diligence, I probably could have uncovered his limitations. I could have studied his budget in closer detail and asked more questions, but I did not. I was too trusting and too focused on limiting costs. Much of the delay and pain in my project comes back to this bad decision. Had I started with Bolster, in all likelihood, my project would have been completed several years ago.
Lesson #2: Seek less cooks in the kitchen. I thought I could minimize project cost by selectively hiring lower cost professionals. What I didn’t appreciate was how much pain I was setting myself up for, and how the approach of building my own team would slow me down to a crawl. Work styles and capabilities differ, expectations and communication styles differ, and risk tolerances vary—the designer (or initial architect in my case) may be comfortable with one feature, but the architect of record may not, and the expeditor, who has no significant working relationship with either may not advocate aggressively on your behalf with the DOB. My architect also never seemed to want to take ownership and drive anything to completion. Many cooks meant I was the chef: I frequently found myself prodding and pinging the various professionals on next steps, and problems were further compounded because frankly I had no idea what I was doing. Bolster’s ability to fix my filed plans with the post-effective amendments gave me meaningful insight into how smooth and quick the process should be when the team rows together.
Lesson #3: Don’t be penny-wise and pound foolish. My early mistakes were based on my desire to minimize costs. When I reflect upon the project soup-to-nuts, and further factor in the costs, issues, and extensive progress delays before Bolster finally got involved, it’s clear that I came out significantly in the red. Once Bolster was on the scene, they executed like the pros they are. At the outset, they provided discrete line item breakdowns of the entire build phase that were diligent and complete. During the project, they kept me constantly in the loop and owned everything. The icing on the cake is that they are tech-savvy and employ modern technology. Once Covid-19 took hold, they adapted quickly to minimize the delays, and sprung back to action quickly once the situation returned to (relative) normalcy. I was thrilled to have them in my corner.
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