Our renovation has hit the wall — figuratively speaking. I’ve been in a holding pattern these past weeks, uncertain of how to move forward. Every step seems to bring me back to this wall that separates our kitchen from the living room. Scary stories about co-op renovations abound, from restrictive board rules to labyrinthian city permit processes to costly paid expediters, and the like. It’s enough to put off even a seasoned renovator. But finally I see my way clear. Yes, you CAN open a wall in a New York City co-op building, with just a few mitigating factors.
Will the Co-op Allow It?
Every co-op is different, and it should be reassuring to New York City renovators that the more dramatic anecdotes you will hear tend to spring from very exclusive buildings in Manhattan. Take a look at the terms of your co-op’s renovation agreement to suss out how open your board is going to be to homeowner renovations. Ours has a standard agreement that prohibits:
- Alterations to the building heating system, ventilation system, or air conditioning system
- Work that will interfere with or damage the building’s intercom system or gas, electric, or plumbing services
- Work that will penetrate exterior masonry walls or ceiling
- Construction of a low partition that’s bolted to a concrete floor or ceiling of the building
- Removal of rooms or adding rooms
- Removal or modification of structural elements, such as bearing walls, windows, concrete floors, and ceilings
The first five are no surprise. These provisions protect the property from any changes that might cause the type of leak or other damage that the co-op will be responsible for or that might interrupt services to neighbors — two things co-op boards want to avoid at all costs. From previous renovations in co-op buildings, I already knew, for example, that venting a range hood to the outside is a no go, because cutting into the building masonry could cause structural damage to the building and/or leaks. (Though, I’ve lived in co-ops that allowed the owners of garden apartments to enlarge windows into doors, so it’s worthwhile to check if it’s important to you.) I’m aware also that running a gas branch line from the main gas line is no big deal when you want to relocate a range or cooktop, but don’t even think about moving a main, which would require shutting off service to all your neighbors. Knowing these things, I planned accordingly.
It was that final stipulation that gave me pause. Taking down part of a wall wouldn’t modify structural elements. Or would it? Is that wall “structural”?
Is the Wall Load-Bearing?
If this were a single family dwelling or even a smaller residential building, we could trot down to the basement or climb up into the attic and see how the joists line up. However, co-ops have no attic and the basement contains communal laundry room, boiler room, trash compactor room, bike room, storage room, and parking garage, where in most spaces the ceiling is covered up. Not many clues to be had.
Do You Need to Hire a Structural Engineer?
Do You Need to Hire an Architect?
It seemed I couldn’t move forward without plans, but did I need an architect for this project? Other than opening part of the wall, my kitchen plan is straightforward. I’d already made to-scale drawings of the space in SketchUp and a floor plan with true measurements using the Ikea kitchen planner tool.
I called on the advice of a friend from my book club. A commercial real estate appraiser and planner for one of the largest real estate firms in New York City, she had recently gut-renovated a three-family building in Brooklyn, including an owner’s duplex where she and her family now live. She cautioned that architects are expensive, which I had gathered, and wondered if our job was big enough to interest one. She voiced my major concern: If it turned out I wasn’t going to need a permit, this would be a total waste of money and unnecessary drain on my renovation budget. (I had visions of my marble dream melting away!)
Do You Need a Permit?
According to Fontan Architecture in New York City, regulations and general best practices say you can remove a wall without a permit if it meets all of the following standards:
- The wall is in a residential building
- It’s not in a single room occupancy
Check, check, check, check, check, and check, but pause at number 7.
The NYC Department of Buildings, has a homeowners night every Tuesday from 4pm-7pm in each borough, where you can get questions answered in person. (You can also call 311.) They say you probably don’t need a permit if the wall is inside your unit, especially if you’re not removing the entire wall. I’m not — we’re definitely leaving a portion that contains gas, water, and waste lines. The exception: if the wall is load-bearing.
Is the Wall Load Bearing? (Ack! — Back to the Wall.)
Clearly, I needed to see building plans. Who besides an architect can help you find building plans? To break through the impasse, I had to do what so many co-op owners caution you not to do until you’ve got your renovation proposal all tied up neatly with a bow — I reached out to a member of our co-op board to see if the board kept building plans around or if anyone in our line had ever done this before.
The vice president of the board got back to me the very next day. He met me at the co-op board’s office in our building, where I was able to snap photos of the building plan, conveniently affixed to the wall. I was surprised at how simple “the plan” actually is. Where I’d been expecting something along the lines of blueprints or mechanical drawings, this was more like floor plans that you see attached to real estate listings, but on a larger scale that included adjoining walls to all the neighboring apartments. When you look at our unit in context of the whole building, it’s apparent the wall in question isn’t a load-bearing wall.
He pointed out our line, the M-line, and said he’s fairly certain other owners have done similar renovations. In any case, past renovations had definitely removed non-bearing interior walls. He explained that our building management would research all of this, and that they have even more detailed drawings if they need to refer to them.
So, it appears my next step is to submit my renovation agreement.
Before I do, I’ll want to secure my contractor’s window. We’re going to be living in our home during this renovation, so I want to kick it off at the beginning of summer, when Ross and I will be spending most weekends at the cottage. I fully expect our workaday weeks living in a construction zone will be hell; I’m under no delusions about that. But at least we’ll be able to get away from it all at the weekend, and we’re already saving up vacation days to extend some of those weekends.
Is the Contractor Licensed and Insured for Co-ops?
The final mitigating question is whether your contractor is licensed and insured for co-ops. If yours is experienced and reputable and has done a lot of work in co-ops in New York City, he or she will be. Ours is already familiar with our home and building, from the work he did after our purchase, including a gut renovation of the bathroom. I’ll work with Henry to write up the scope of work in terms that are specific enough to quell concerns, and submit it to the managing agent attached with a copy of his license and insurance.
Once we get the green light from the board, I can sign an agreement with my contractor and get this project off the ground!
It’s time for me to complete product sourcing and move onto product purchasing, which I recall from past projects moves so fast and is so expensive, it will make my head spin. Time also to make a final decision about the cabinets. Will I go with Ikea doors, which are least expensive; unfinished wood Semihandmade doors, which will need to be painted and so they’ll be the most expensive; or find a middle ground with Scherr’s shaker doors, which are also real wood and available in a standard “white”? Stay tuned.