Creating and executing impactful designs in spaces like a small bedroom or bathroom can be difficult, especially if the homeowner refuses to expand the footprint. And yet, all that and more is a reality for remodelers working in America’s cities.

Remodelers in sprawling metropolises face problems remodelers in other areas may never encounter—and not just a surplus of pigeons. Traffic, cramped spaces, tight corners, more traffic, and lack of storage hamper every project. But with careful planning, city remodelers adeptly deal with these hurdles.

Hidey-Ho Neighbors
Of the city remodelers interviewed, most said that they primarily renovate row/townhomes, condos, or apartments when working in the city. Therefore, one of the chief concerns for remodelers in the city is neighbors. In those conditions, renovations are happening on top of the neighbors—literally. To alleviate some of the stress that the work could cause neighbors, remodelers take preemptive action.

In a city, working closely do the neighbors doesn't always mean working on top of their home; sometimes it means working closely next to them. Case and her team had just six-inches of space in which to install new siding for their project (top image), so they attached it to a large panel and affixed the panel to the home (bottom image).
Images courtesy of Allyson Case In a city, working closely do the neighbors doesn't always mean working on top of their home; sometimes it means working closely next to them. Case and her team had just six-inches of space in which to install new siding for their project (top image), so they attached it to a large panel and affixed the panel to the home (bottom image).

Allyson Case, founder and CEO of Integro Rehab in Chicago, says that she and her client will go to neighbors’ homes to tell them about impending work. Before Case leaves the neighbors’ homes, she gives them her business card and the foreman’s business card.

“We encourage them to come to us directly with [any issues] and let us resolve them,” Case says. “We’re trying to avoid a formal complaint [to the city] from a neighbor because, particularly in Chicago, that can get ugly really fast.”

In New York, John Rusk, president of Rusk Renovations, will also visit the neighbors. When renovating a condo or apartment home, Rusk and his team will walk through the neighbors’ apartments to catalogue any existing issues, such as cracks in the wall or ceiling. This way, if the remodel going on nearby causes any problems for a neighbor, Rusk and his team know exactly what to fix.

Another issue for a neighbor in an apartment home is the potential for a leak from the renovation project. Unlike in a renovation of a single-family home, where a leak will damage only that particular structure, a leak in an apartment building could cause problems for multiple families.

“You could be above a line of apartments worth $20 million [each] that have all been recently renovated, all of whom have art collections in the millions,” Rusk says. “That’s why we do a lot to be safe.”

To minimize the possibility of water damage, Rusk’s company installs a slop sink in each remodel. The sink not only provides a place for water to drain out in case someone forgets to turn off the water valve completely, but also provides an area for workers to clean their tools and hands easily.

Neighbors can also prevent certain renovations from happening. Ethan Landis, principal at Landis Architects/Builders in Washington, D.C., says that if a remodel would change the structure of the home, such as by raising its height a few feet or making it a bit bigger, neighbors can write letters to the city saying they oppose the renovations.

Ben Johnson agrees. The partner at Four Brothers, also based in Washington, notes the resistance often happens in historic neighborhoods. “A neighbor can simply refuse to comply, thus shutting down the project,” he says.

Case encounters similar issues in Chicago, but she thinks that these issues are city-exclusive. She says that neighbors are on top of each other in the city, whereas in the suburbs, people have more space between them, so they aren’t as concerned with what the neighbors are doing to their homes.

Rules of the Reno
Working on the floor above the neighbors is challenging, but it’s not the only obstacle when remodeling in an apartment-style home. Specifically, remodeling in condos poses its own set of issues.

“The condo rules are kind of the code book when working in a condo building,” says David Supple CEO of NE Design + Construction, Boston. “It tells you when you can start, when you have to finish, which elevator you have to use. Sometimes, you can start at a certain time and set up, but you can’t run any power tools until a later time.”

“Right now, we are doing a project where we can only work from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” Dan Dragomir, president of dRemodeling in Philadelphia, says about a condo job. “If I have to shut off the water, I need to put in the request 72 hours in advance, and I only get a two-hour window to have the water off.”

Landis adds that each building has different regulations and stresses the importance of knowing those rules before pricing the job. Complying with the rules could mean additional operating expenses, such as an increase in overtime pay for employees. Additional restrictions may include limits on elevator use; often, workers can use only one elevator (the service elevator), which can make trips back to the truck time-consuming. Rusk says that when renovating at the Plaza residences, workers can be gone for up to an hour if they need to leave the jobsite for any reason.

Park and Ride
Predictably, parking was another issue for city remodelers. Scarce parking, compounded by the fact that many city homes lack driveways or designated spaces, requires remodelers to be crafty. A few remodelers say they will rent spaces from the city or pay off whatever parking tickets their staff may accrue. Rusk and his team typically travel in cabs or on the subway (as many New Yorkers probably do), while Landis says his team will meet at one place and carpool to the jobsite to cut down on the number of vehicles. No matter where or how workers park, parking affects the cost of the job and is a consideration for these remodelers when they are pricing out the projects.

Tight Fit

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Here are a few examples of the small spaces city remodelers deal with everyday. Could you handle it?

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Limited parking mirrors the limited storage space within the projects. City remodelers say that when possible, they will have materials delivered, scheduling the deliveries for exactly when the materials will be needed. Careful planning and organization is crucial. Dragomir, on the other hand, has one of his employees drive a truck to different jobsites to make deliveries—and to pick up trash.

Trash is another issue for remodelers. With limited space, a dumpster isn’t always an option. Instead, workers keep a designated spot within the project to put garbage as it accumulates. This is especially true for remodeling in apartments, where buildings often will not allow construction waste to be thrown into their dumpsters, nor will they allow workers to store it in the basement. Instead, most remodelers have a service come once or twice a week to pick up the debris.

Despite all these issues, it doesn’t sound as if these remodelers will be suburb-bound anytime soon.

“I get to work with the most talented people in the world, in a city with some of the most successful people in the world, building some of the most incredible projects,” Rusk says. “As a result, they really need what we can offer them.”