Renovating in a Highrise, Part 1: Planning, Planning, Planning

Preston Tower - Small

Want to renovate an older highrise unit? Planning and lists are your friends, says Jon Anderson.

By Jon Anderson
Special Contributor

Over the past few weeks you’ve read my bias towards buying and rehabilitating older high-rise condos. They’re cheaper, generally larger, and (in voce real estate-o) full of potential. But renovating is a bit of a headache no matter where it’s being done. So once you’ve settled on your location, location, location, it’s time to start planning, planning, planning.

Many of you may be thinking, “Heck, I’m not doing this, it’s my contractor/designer/architect’s problem,” which may be true.  But understanding these things will help you, your design, and securing more accurate quotes.  Many contractors haven’t worked in high-rises and so these nuances will not be discovered until the job is underway, opening you to surprise add-on charges (wallet-based surprises are rarely good).  Ultimately the total costs may not change, but wouldn’t you rather know up front and plan, versus being surprised in the middle?  I thought so.  Read on…

Before you begin

What I like about high-rises is that unit 101 is identical to 201, 301, 44001, etc.  This means others have likely done exactly what you want to do … and some have done things you’ve not even thought of.  Check out any open houses for the same floor plan.  Visit your building manager’s office.  Ask to see your original floor plan as well as a selection of architect’s plans used by other renovators with the same floor plan – these should be on file in the office.

Think of this as an idea bank. Magazines and websites only go so far as they’re usually slaves to single-family homes with tons of space.  If you really like what a neighbor has done, ask the manager to query the owner to make an introduction to show you what they did.  The owner may say “no,” but most renovators are proud and won’t mind scheduling a walk-through.  I suggest trying to walk-through because some people have difficulty extrapolating flat plans into 3-D reality in their head.

Athena - Small

In a building such as the Athena, units often have similar floorplans.

While you’re in the office, ask to see and discuss the building’s renovation application.  Some are more onerous than others.  Many high-rises (correctly) rely on City of Dallas building codes and inspectors to manage the compliance aspects of a build.  For them, the paperwork is more heads-up than anything else.  Others are full of HOA and committee busy-bodies with varying degrees of knowledge inserting themselves into every nook and cranny.  Understand the playing field before you begin and also know your rights (if you do see other renovated units, ask the owners how the process went – if it was a root canal, they’ll spill it all out).  It’s your home.  Don’t be steamrolled by building politics and trolls.

Once you have a feel for the rules and a slew of ideas, sketch them out and ask to meet with building maintenance personnel.  They know the guts of the buildings and should be able to guide you away from ideas that simply won’t work (e.g. “Can I put a bathtub on the patio like a Cialis ad?”).  Generally, toilets, showers and bathtubs are impossible to move because of the fixed floor drains.  Other plumbing is a bit more flexible.

Kitchen Plumbing Considerations

In a kitchen, the sink and dishwasher can generally be moved along the same wall and possibly around a corner.  Drains can’t cross a doorway and need enough slant to ensure drainage (b’cause…ya know, water runs downhill and all). Adding a water line for an icemaker is generally simple, because with no drain, the water line can be run above the ceiling, eliminating the taboo of crossing a doorway. Other appliances requiring water and drains follow the same rules.  Locations for fancy-schmancy coffee stations, steam ovens and the like will need to be factored into a kitchen remodel.

This renovated kitchen in the Athena has tons of upgraded fixtures. Consider what you want to add before making any final plans.

This renovated kitchen in the Athena has tons of upgraded fixtures. Consider what you want to add before making any final plans.

Bathroom Plumbing Considerations

In the bathroom, you may want to add a second sink.  If you have the space, this is pretty easy.  You’ll have to open the plumbing wall to attach everything; it just looks a little messy. Older buildings were seemingly built for hobbits so vanities and shower heads are quite low. Installing taller, kitchen height, vanities (36”), is simple and has no impact on plumbing — unless you’re using wall-hung sinks.  Because the original cabinet is lower (and likely enclosed) than where you’ll install the wall sink, the (now exposed) water supply lines and drain will also be lower and look odd.  For a “tighter” look, you’ll want to raise them.  This involves opening the plumbing wall which you’re probably doing already.

Shower plumbing should be raised also.  If not for you, for the next taller person (remember all those HGTV House Hunters shows where the house gets nixed because of the low shower?).  An added bonus is that raising the shower will let you install a nifty thermostatic valve where you set the temperature and every future shower defaults to the same temperature.  Newer valves also have scald shut-offs if the water temperature spikes.  TIP 1: Seriously consider whether you’d actually use all those trendy body sprays.  I wouldn’t, so I didn’t install them.  TIP 2: High rises likely have stupendous water pressure, but don’t be wasteful.  It’s not like Doritos, you can’t make more in a drought!

The water supply line for the toilet may need a lift too; some are pretty close to the floor.  TIP 1:  Request quarter-turn supply valves everywhere, instead of the turn-and-turn-and-turn ones you’ve probably got. TIP 2: If you’re buying European parts, water supply valves are often called “stopcocks.”

Washers and Dryers

If you have washer and dryer connections in your unit, rejoice. In older buildings, it’s a crapshoot whether they’re original or not.  Beginning in the 1980s, they became pretty standard.

In my 1966 building, there are original connections … unfortunately they’re in the kitchen … but at least they’re there. It is possible to move them but the same rules for kitchen plumbing apply.  It has to drain and can’t cross a doorway.  For the dryer, there is also a central vent to reconnect to.  Fairly simple.

If there are no washer connections, some buildings will let you add them.  The rules governing this vary building-to-building.  The new washer connection fishes back to another existing drain.  So it may connect to a bathroom sink drain or possibly the kitchen drain.  The building may attempt to spread out these additional connections so as not to overload drains. So some units may be pointed to a bathroom while others to the kitchen.  ASK. And install only front-loading washing machines.  They use tons less water and clean better.

Dryers are another issue.  While they don’t need plumbing, they need 220v electricity and a vent. Again, buildings with original connections will have venting.  Those buildings allowing residents to add will not have a centralized vent.  (And DON’T even think of connecting a dryer to any old existing vent pipe in the wall.  This is a fire hazard and a big no-no.)  For units without a centralized venting option, there are two choices – a ventless (condensation dryer) or an in-unit vent.

If you select a condensation dryer, be aware that clothes will take longer to dry.  Also be aware that quality varies greatly, so kill two birds and whip out your dentist’s handy-dandy waiting-room copy of Consumer Reports and do your research. Since your dryer is near your washer, some models allow the water collected to drain into the same drain (otherwise there will be a tank to empty).

Venting a dryer in-home is the fluffy option – literally!  There is a box filled with water that the dryer vent plugs into.  As the air wafts over the water, the lint is trapped…well, most of it.  Make sure the water is always full and the box regularly cleaned of wet lint.  Also, don’t use the dryer in an enclosed space or you’ll eventually wind up with a furry closet as the un-drowned lint sticks to your walls. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

Electrical Considerations

Before you begin, older buildings may have wiring running through rigid conduit; ask the building.  If it is and you’re changing electric, removing it will be time consuming (it took my electrician a full day – but I took down a few walls).

For the most part, the major rooms will have plenty of electricity because high-rises were built to commercial standard.  Single-family homes may not be as generous with outlets because codes were different.  You’ll definitely want to reassess electricity will be in kitchens, bathrooms and potentially for any laundry facilities.

Kitchen Electric

You’ll always want more outlets and lighting.  The older the kitchen, the fewer the outlets and the dimmer the lighting.  In the 1960s, you were lucky to have a couple of bare 60w bulbs, toaster, blender and an electric knife for Thanksgiving turkey. Now we have all manner of coffee paraphernalia, microwaves, Cuisinarts, Kitchen Aids, rice cookers, toaster ovens and stick mixers … not to mention ceiling, task and under-cabinet lighting.  And all that doesn’t count all the ancillary chargers, TVs and gadgets that make up our connected lives.

Most high-rises kitchens will also use electric ovens, cooktops, and/or ranges.  Will you want to add to or change what’s there?  How about separating the range into a cooktop and wall ovens? Are you used to gas and want to try Induction (versus takes-forever with little heat control) radiant cooktop?  As a gas-bigot without an option, I chose induction and I love it.  Heats water almost as fast as a microwave with better heat control than regular radiant/coil electric or even gas.  TIP for the bacon-eaters.  I cover the cooktop with paper towels and place the fry pan on top and cook my bacon.  All the spatters hit the paper towels (without igniting) making cleanup simple. This works for me, I take no responsibility if you set your house on fire.

Refrigeration is another potential electrical consideration.  If you’re just replacing what’s already there, you’re good.  But in the boozy 21st century there are wine refrigerators to think about.  Also, with a record number of single-person households, added freezer space is a godsend for single cooks.  You can make pots of soup, sauce and the like … Ziploc and freeze them for when you’re too lazy (or boozy) to cook.  But you need space and electricity.

In my remodeled kitchen I have lights galore, a jumbo fridge, a pair of under-counter freezer drawers, 78-bottle wine fridge, double ovens, induction cooktop, dishwasher, built-in microwave and assorted recessed electrical outlets all sucking juice out of the wall. (Yes, I moved a wall or five.)

Bathroom Electric

Pretty simple here.  Add more outlets around your sinks.  More than you need because who knows what must-have invention is on the horizon (and no one wants to see 10 things plugged into one dual-receptacle!).

BUT what you may NOT be thinking about is electricity near your toilet.  No, not for a morning jolt during stand-up tinkling. You may want one of those whiz-bang (pun completely intended) Toto Neorest toilets that heats the seat, spritzes your naughty bits and wafts them dry (I almost said “blows” but I know how you are).

Remember, this new stuff needs to fit and flow.  Plumbing has to be positioned correctly and electrical has to fit into the electric panel.  A larger electrical panel isn’t a huge deal, but another thing to factor in.

OK, now what?

At the end of it all, lists are your best friend.  Make copious notes on what you like, hate and have seen.  This will come in handy during the next phase.

Next time, we’ll chat about navigating the use of architects, designers and contractors.

 

One Comment

  • My parents live in a 1929 home they bought in 1996 and for the first few years, they did the water-filled cup option for their stackable washer and dryer in the kitchen and it worked well, except on those especially hot days when it turned the kitchen into a sauna. Needless to say laundry was either dried at night or out on their line during the summer.
    (Tip on the bacon, cook it in the oven. Wrap foil around a large baking sheet and lay out your bacon (I can put a whole package of the 365 line on one sheet). Place in a cold oven. Turn on to 400F, set the timer for 20 minutes and walk away. It is so easy even my kids can make bacon)