New Life for Unused Rooms Re-Tooling Common Areas

 Media room, game room, common room, party room—regardless of what you call them, the purpose of these shared spaces in co-ops  and condos is to give residents a place to gather; to hold an in-house meeting,  throw a graduation party or screen a movie, just to name a few possibilities.  

 Charging a modest fee to rent the room—either to residents or outsiders—can even be a welcome revenue stream for a building as well. However, if nobody  is using a common room and it's just sitting there lonely and neglected, the  space can fall into disrepair. An underused, uncared-for common room becomes  even less appealing to residents, and can ultimately create a vicious cycle and  turn it from an amenity to a liability.  

 In tough economic times, when a building may be struggling to fund pressing  repairs and residents may be in arrears, how do you breathe life into a  languishing common area? If the roof is leaking, the media room's new flat  screen will just have to wait—and getting new pool cues or steam-cleaning the sofas suddenly doesn't seem  quite so important. But it doesn't have to be such an either-or choice. Some  keys to making your community space desirable and successful (and keeping it  that way) are in design, functionality, relevance and durability of the area—and they don't have to cost an arm and a leg.  

 Take a Good Hard Look

 Accessing the condition and atmosphere in your common room is pretty  straightforward; First and foremost, how do you feel about the space when you  walk in? Is it dated and dark? Is it dusty and unappealing? Or...is it just “not right?” Which parts of the room can you change, but not move (without incurring great  expense, that is) i.e. the walls and floor? Most everything else is negotiable on every level, from the cost of an upgrade  to arranging the furniture and so forth within the space. Lighting can also play an important role in making your room versatile and  appealing.  

 Once these areas are identified discussions regarding what to be done with them  can get under way. According to interior designer Jonathan Baron, who has clients in New York and  Chicago, the easiest ways to open a dialogue and elicit feedback from residents  on how they envision the room include putting an item in the building's  newsletter, dropping surveys in residents' mailboxes (either physical or  electronic), or online on the building's website.  

 Opening the floor for resident feedback doesn't mean launching a free-form  brainstorming session, however. Some concrete ideas or options should be nailed  down prior to the feedback stage, and those choices presented to residents via  surveys, emails and so forth. “That's where a designer or contractor comes in,” says Baron. “A designer visits the room and can give an estimate of what it would cost to  make the room habitable. They can take the space to the next level and offer  innovative solutions for problematic or underutilized areas.”  

 Baron says he approaches a design challenge by first studying the 'bones' and  basic structure of the space, and then helping the design committee to  formulate some specific, feasible options to present to the building community  at large. “I’ll create concepts and give a formal presentation,” he says. “This includes materials, color boards with samples, paint chips, samples of wall  coverings, pictures of the furnishings and a furniture plan of the lobby.”  

 Depending on the state of things—and whether the room in question was something other than a community space in  its former life—a professional designer can guide it to a more useful future. “Oftentimes these community rooms are [made out of] spaces that were never  intended to have people in them,” says Baron, “so there are awkward pipes hanging down or strange corners to contend with. Designers help to negotiate these difficult spaces and get the most out of each  room.”  

 What Makes a Room Work

 From a design standpoint, the pros say that successful common rooms tend to be  consistent with the overall design aesthetic of the building. Variance on the  theme of the aesthetic can assist in setting the backdrop for many different  occasions, but residents shouldn't necessarily feel like they are walking into  an entirely different structure. In the preliminary stages of a common room  overhaul, having a contractor strip and clean the room is key to starting with  a clean slate.  

 “One of the first things to be done in these rooms is to paint,” says Baron. “It can make a dramatic difference right off the bat, and is a great first step  toward change and functionality.”  

 Appropriate flooring is also high on the list of ingredients in a successful  design recipe. Upgrading scuffed, dingy laminate or snagged, grungy carpet can  gain you a lot of mileage in the overall look and feel of a common room.  

 “You have to be careful of floor surfaces in common areas,” says Barbara Pallat of Barbara Pallat Interiors in Burr Ridge, “You want to make sure that the floor surfaces don’t change too much because people that are elderly think that when there’s color changes there is a step. So you have to be mindful of that.”  

 Once basics like paint and flooring are decided on and dealt with, the  possibilities for what goes in the room and where are endless. Community rooms  have several different roles to play to meet everyone's needs, so versatility  and mobility in furnishings is of the utmost importance  

 In addition to these two elements, lighting also has the ability to transform  the room again and again. Most buildings—particularly older ones—are not equipped with recessed lights on dimmers, so a more versatile  combination of brighter 'work' and softer accent lighting is a great way to  give the room some options.  

 “Lighting is important for safety as well as highlighting points of interests  like art work,” says Plainfield-based interior designer Karen Dobbins. “Different types of lighting do different things. Lighting adds ambiance—it softens a space. Lighting sets the tone for the building.”  

 “Lighting is the most important aspect of any design in any area,” adds Pallat. “It depends on what the function of the room is. In a home theater you have  special lighting and in a room with a TV you have special lighting. The common  area in a building needs to be lit well enough for all age groups. You need to  keep in mind that the elderly need more lighting than teenagers. Besides the  brightness for the elderly, you want it to be inviting for everyone. You don’t want glaring light—you want light that can be adjusted to different times of the day. It’s good to use a lot of motion sensors in common areas. You can have it set to  soft lighting but when someone walks through it or into the space the lighting  will adjust accordingly.”  

 A Place to Gather

 Baron believes that a serving station or basic bar area of some sort is a must  have for a common room. “If you are so lucky to have it plumbed for a sink, all the better,” says Baron, but he adds “it's not what actually makes or breaks the bar feature.” The dimensions of the room and budget should dictate whether or not a  refrigerator and microwave are options. Clearly, having these two simple  appliances ups the room's functionality and versatility factor.  

 While adaptability is the name of the game when revamping a common room, it  doesn't hurt to promote the space for specific purposes. A surefire way to get  residents excited about using the space is to make it a designated media area. Flat-screen TVs are no longer the prohibitively expensive pieces of luxury  equipment they once were, and even mid-priced models offer a myriad of  functionality, from screening films to showing slide shows or PowerPoint  presentations. Also, simply having WiFi access and an area for a laptop  computer turns the space into a work station or study area.  

 A refreshed, revitalized common room confers a number of benefits to the building it calls home. The key is finding what your residents find most  valuable and targeting that area. A well-used, dynamic multi-household gathering space fosters a sense of  neighborliness and community cohesion, which in turn can inspire residents to  take more pride in where they live—and that's always a good thing, both for value and morale.  

 Not every building is lucky enough to have one of these rooms—and those that do may not be getting maximum use from what they do have.  Revitalizing your own common room may not be as daunting as you think. If your  co-op or condo falls into the latter category, it might be well worth it to  bring up the idea of an upgrade or re-imagining of your common room or rooms at  the next meeting's agenda.   

 David Garry is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator. Staff Writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.  

 

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