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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 community 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 community association 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.  

 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 Dawn Causa of Causa Design Group in Fort Lauderdale, the easiest  ways to open a dialogue and elicit feedback from residents on how they envision  the room include meeting with the design committee and spending time with the  residents.  

 “You can’t just pick up and move on a design quickly. If you want it to be a successful  project you have to spend time with the community,” says Causa. “It might take a couple of hours or it might take a couple of days, but you have  to understand how the community lives. You have individuals, and you have to  understand how they live as individuals. Then there’s a community, and you have to understand how they live as a community.”  

 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.  

 “How much money they want to spend is the most important thing—once that’s figured out, you go from there,” says Pepe Calderin of Pepe Calderin Design Inc. in Miami. “Here in Florida there are a lot of people who are from out of town, and this is  their second home. They come here once or twice a year so they don't really care if the lobby is  spectacular because they are hardly here. Then there’s the other group who are here year round, and they tend to be very vocal about  what they want.”  

 Causa says she 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’m going to look at the condition of what’s existing. How old the space is?” she says. “If I see any issues like water damage or severe wear and tear, that has to be  addressed. We take lots and lots of pictures, and sometimes clippings of things  we need to assess the type of material that was there before. Then I’ll come up with some ideas and give a presentation.”  

 “The first challenge of designing a space is understanding your client,” adds Calderin. “You do that by meeting with them. No one tells you everything up front. You have  to get to know them. It might take a few meetings—or it might take a lot of meetings, but it’s very important. I’ll photograph the whole job, and then I come home and I breathe patiently and  meditate over it.”  

 What Makes a Room Work

 From a design standpoint, the pros say that the most successful common rooms  tend to be consistent with the overall design aesthetic of the buildings.  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. “I believe that strong architecture is important,” says Calderin, “And working with that architecture will make a common room successful.”  

 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. And  high-traffic floor treatments have come a long way since the days of  checkerboard institutional linoleum tiles.  

 “The footprint and the layout are very important,” says Causa. “You might have a beautiful room but it might not have a good traffic pattern.  You have to be able to maneuver around the space. That’s very important in a common room.”  

 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 more versatile 'work' and  accent lighting is a great way to give the room some options.  

 “Lighting is extremely important. It sets the mood. You have to have proper task  lighting,” says Causa. “There’s nothing worse than walking into a space and there’s not enough light or too much light.”  

 Grace Jones, a senior designer with The Design Firm in Key Largo agrees. “Lighting is always important in a common room,” says Jones. “Common rooms are going to be used for different purposes, everything from a baby  shower to a business meeting—so the lighting has to suit multiple purposes.”  

 A Place to Gather

 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.  

 “I find that a lot of the new buildings in South Florida have multimedia tech  rooms,” says Causa. “So the residents can have business meetings or students can study. It’s put together technologically well. You’ll have flat screen TVs, computers, wireless access—your computer can link right to the television screen. Another trend I’m seeing in South Florida is that in exercise rooms they will take a portion of  that room and convert it into a meditation space. Just a few years ago you  wouldn’t see them at all.”  

 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 community 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 South  Florida Cooperator. Staff Writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this  article.

 

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