Renovating in a Highrise, Part 2: How and When to use Architects and Designers

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4242 Lomo AltoCrestpark Highland Park Condo
Are you planning to renovate a condo? Jon Anderson has a ton of great tips for you.

By Jon Anderson
Special Contributor

Armed with the renovation application, ideas, and sketches it’s probably time to find an architect, a designer, and a contractor.

Building Permits

You may or may not need architectural blueprints. A rule of thumb is that if you’re changing the configuration of the unit or require a City of Dallas building permit; you will need professional architect’s plans. A building permit is required when you’re moving, adding or changing electrical, plumbing or major structures. For example, replacing a bathroom vanity, sink and faucet will not need a permit. But if you’re adding a second sink or moving its location, you will. If you’re replacing like-for-like, I’d say you’re generally safe from needing a permit. One exception being if you’re going to replace a bathtub with a walk-in shower. Technically, you’re not messing with, moving or adding anything, but this particular “change” requires a permit.

When in doubt, call the city permitting office. It’s a good thought to call just to make sure. Even if you’ve renovated a residence before, the rules are slightly different for high-rises due to the commercial construction methods used.

TIP: If you can’t speak with someone at the permitting office, keep calling but don’t bother to leave a message. It will never be returned. While voicemail came free with the system, city employees are probably tested to see how long they can ignore a blinking message waiting light. In truth, they’re probably understaffed. But I don’t understand how a department that generates revenue based on permits issued can ever be understaffed. More building permits? Hire more people. Less? Reduce. If permit revenues don’t cover expenses, raise them … anyway …


Regardless of permit requirements, if you want to move things around, an architect is probably much better at space allocation than you are. (You, not me of course. LOL) Find one that knows highrises. Some highrises have “house” architects they use for their needs or can give you a list of ones neighbors have used. While not a guarantee, it’s a place to start. Personally, I used HPD. Regardless of whether you work with “H,” “P,” or “D,” they’re fast, thorough, and have highrise experience. I gave them a copy of the building-supplied blueprints, my basic sketches, and poof, a couple of weeks later, I had my plans.

The folks at HPD even host a monthly Happy Hour for folks in the “trade.” It’s a great place to meet contacts in the biz – designers and the like.

HOA Challenge: Many buildings supply owners with copies of their unit’s “original” paper blueprint to give to architects. This forces every renovator to pay to have the paper scanned and converted into a computer file. The de facto standard computer program used by architects is AutoCAD – and has been for a long time. I challenge these paper-centric buildings to stop wasting their residents’ money spent repetitively converting paper blueprints to AutoCAD files. While it’s not a lot of money (<$200 when I had it done in 2012), it’s annoying that this simple thing isn’t done for residents.

Also, all high-rises should be archiving (creating a double-backup) the newly revised AutoCAD plans (and a PDF copy) for future renovators to have as a starting point when whatever you’re doing goes out of style. It’s just courtesy.


Original Kitchen 1
A neighbor’s “Before” Kitchen


Designers are a love/hate thing with me. They have access to cool stuff the great unwashed consumer doesn’t (a continual mystery to me). Here’s where I have to get down on Dallas a bit. Where I grew up, the Chicago Merchandise Mart is open to anyone, or as Lily Tomlin would say, “everyone from presidents and kings to the scum of the Earth.” Now we unwashed consumers can’t purchase anything because these showrooms aren’t setup to pay sales tax (and they don’t want to be, which is a whole other rant). But you can look, take pictures and ask questions – and the staffs are nothing but helpful and courteous.

However, in Dallas’ fugly box known as the Dallas Market Center, you need a permission slip and a DNA sample to get a visitor’s badge just to approach the elevators. It’s as though being seen by mere consumers would cause these baubles to burst into flame. Consumers get treated better by cable TV company call centers.

Now the Design District on the west side of Oaklawn and Stemmons is (almost) a whole other story. Of all the showrooms I’ve been in there, I’ve been welcomed by all but one…fabric house Pindler & Pindler. I was dumbfounded by the snobby witch at the counter who wouldn’t let me in to see/feel her precious fabric swatches I was considering for a custom sofa. Strikingly, just next door is Kravet who have tons of non-camera shy fabric, no shortage of pen and paper and an eager staff (particularly the manager Kevin Shortridge) happy to answer questions. It was the Ralph Lauren fabric I molested there that now coddles many a bum in my home.

Why am I telling you this? Because even if I’m working with a designer, I find it helpful to do some pre-work myself. While it obviously helps them figure out my taste, unexpectedly, it helps ME figure out MY taste – which has radically changed over the years. Nothing is more time-consuming and frustrating than trying to help, “I’ll know it when I see it” people. And you sure don’t want a Trading Spaces moment! (jump to 1:13)

Sure there are some folks who’ll pick a designer, write a check and love everything. There are some designers who only work this way. Me? I have big-time trust (and budget) issues.

Some of you may be thinking off-the-rack Haverty’s and Weir’s are just fine … and they may be. But sometimes they’re not and sometimes when we hear “Design District” we think of $20,000 umbrella stands. While there are certainly insanely priced items in these showrooms, it’s not universal. My custom sofa wasn’t vastly more expensive than off-the-shelf, but I had the chaise made a foot longer than anything I’d seen in a store. So finally, when I stretched out, my legs didn’t hang over the end. It’s the same reason I have my bathrobes custom made…because I’m tall and they’re ankle length and keep my legs warmer.


Kitchen 2
Same Kitchen “After”


My experiences with contractors have been similar to my experiences with lottery tickets. I pay for them but somehow I never seem to hit the jackpot. I’ve sued one, had several walk out, had some do a poor job and had one flood my house. So I’m not one to ask. In fact, I don’t know who to ask. Everyone has references, checking them may be largely fruitless because the names you’re given are known to give glowing reviews. If they’ve screwed anyone, you’ll never know. That’s why we have CandysDirt-approved home-builders here on this site — we know and trust these people, and we don’t let anyone in just because they can write a check. Places like the Better Business Bureau may help and the highrise may know who’s been successful in the building.

The only advice I have is to make sure that after the first upfront partial payment (called a “draw”) you’re not paying for work that’s not been done. If your contractor doesn’t have enough of a business to carry you to the end of each phase before being paid, perhaps this isn’t where you want to be. Control your purse strings!

Also, be meticulous with quotes. Make sure everything you want is on it. Make sure it’s only what you want. If you want more detail, ask it to be spelled out in the contract. And make sure everything that’s on the contract is done before you write that last check.

Contractors can SOMETIMES be used as the designer (success varies greatly) for smaller jobs. But be aware of the limitations especially if you’re anally retentive (like me).

TIP: Measure every dimension of the freight elevator in your building – and the access to it (in my building there are giant pipes running in front of the elevator that impact access). You may even want to get a big piece of cardboard to see how large you can maneuver something into the elevator. If you’re thinking of oversized furniture, giant kitchen islands or looong countertops and equally loooong custom cabinetry, you’ll want to know it’ll fit. Depending on what you’re doing, you may also want to ask building management if oversize items can be brought up on the roof of the freight elevator where there’s obviously no ceiling. I’ve even seen one penthouse owner use a helicopter to fly in granite slabs to use as flooring. I’ve seen others use pulleys and window-washing equipment to hoist items up the side of a building. Find out what your building will allow.

How much do you want to see and touch?

My rule of thumb is that a designer will show you ten faucets to choose from. A contractor will show you three-to-five (or send you to Home Depot).   Meanwhile there are over 1,000 faucets being made by various manufacturers in all price-points. I want to see Every. Last. One. and choose the very best one for me.

The best part about faucets, sinks, appliances and toilets is that you’ll likely to be able to buy any manufacturer without a designer and you’re almost guaranteed to find a better price online (stay tuned for a column on buying tips).

Natural Quartzite countertop I’d have sold my soul for


Countertops are the same. What material, color, pattern? I visit multiple stone yards multiple times to view hundreds of slabs. The first thing I tell staff at a stone yard is, “I don’t want to see anything a builder uses – no Ubatuba, Baltic brown, absolute black, etc..”   I personally select not only the variety of stone, but the individual slabs and work the countertop template layout so the cool veining is in the most noticeable place … and don’t eeeeeeeven ask me about tile.

My level of involvement is maddening for designers and contractors. But I get exactly what I want and not what everyone settles for. When I’m the client they do less work and make less because I’ve spent my time (which equates to money). I do this because human nature brings people back to what they know. Designers and contractors often show the same faucet, sink, tile, and cabinet combinations because they’ve used it before and know how to work with it. Me? I never use the same thing twice except some appliances (which I’ll cover in my buying guide).

In the end, I get more “Ooooo’s” than “Ewwww’s” but it’s a LOT of time and work — and definitely not for everyone (hence the existence of architects, designers and contractors). It’s up to you to decide your level of involvement (based on the project) and not to fear the Dallas Design District.


Remember: Do you have an HOA story to tell? A little highrise history? How about a home in need of a renovation or one that’s complete with flying colors? Shoot Jon an email:

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Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson is's condo/HOA and developer columnist, but also covers second home trends on An award-winning columnist, Jon has earned silver and bronze awards for his columns from the National Association of Real Estate Editors in both 2016, 2017 and 2018. When he isn't in Hawaii, Jon enjoys life in the sky in Dallas.

Reader Interactions


  1. Jenn says

    I didn’t think about the need for a designer when going through a renovation, but it makes sense. A contractor is a no-brainer, but a designer can add some flair to the finished building. Remodeling is a multi-stage process, and it’s important to involve a professional at every step.

  2. Handy Home says

    Choose the right expert for your next project. Depending on your project, an architect, designer, or draftsman might be the best choice for capturing your ideas. Thanks

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