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Fundamentals of Condominium Design

By Gianpiero Pugliese and Peter Darmos AUDAXarchitecture Originally published in 2009 in the first issue of AUDAXprofessional, a multidisciplinary publication featuring content from professionals within the real estate community

Introduction The design of residential condominiums is a complex process of juggling multiple variables to arrive at a desired end. Every development project has a unique set of circumstances but there are certain principals that can be applied to all projects. The following is a brief analysis of some of the principals behind residential condominium design. We will discuss the design process, the physical elements of this building type and the relationship to the financial proforma. Design Process The design process is an iterative one whereby parameters and objectives are identified. These parameters and objectives define the design problem that is to be solved and its solution is characterized by the physical arrangement of elements. While designing, potential solutions are put forward and they are tested against the objective and parameters. In doing so, new parameters arise and new solutions need to be invented. This cycle continues over time and as appropriate and desirable solutions are found, the physical form of the proposal begins to take shape. As physical elements (such as the location of the exits) are fixed, they then become parameters that resist change. The forward progress of the design depends on fixing these elements and reducing the need to reconsider scenarios that had been previously investigated. Nevertheless, there are occasions when a broad reevaluation must take place albeit most successful projects are those which advance smoothly and with clear intent. This is especially important in speculative real estate development where getting the design right at an early stage can result in considerable savings along the way. While many secondary objectives exist, the primary objective for the development of a residential condominium is to realize a financial return to the owner. Without successfully achieving this objective none of the secondary objectives can be obtained. Ignoring or dismissing this basic fact is to miss the opportunity to fulfill other objectives. The provision of urban housing, the stimulation of economic growth and the beautification of our cities are all made possible by many private sector developments. Quality design can be achieved while simultaneously resulting in a profitable project as many recent examples in our own city demonstrate. Good design and profitability are not mutually exclusive. The parameters that frame the project are all of the various factors which have an influence on the ultimate physical arrangement of elements. So, everything from the provisions of the zoning by-law and official plan, to market conditions to the political atmosphere affect the physical solution in some way. Once an initial design solution is put forward, those elements themselves become parameters that need to be considered in every new design decision. Understanding that there is a link between all the elements helps shed some light on the complexity inherent in development. For example, once the location of the access driveway is proposed, it affects the location of the loading, the configuration of the lobby, and the placement of the ramp for the underground parking. That decision may then impact the

neighbors in some way through the proposed location of the garbage storage. This may solve the logistical problem of the garbage storage, but may lead to a political battle if the neighbors are, or are perceived to be, adversely affected. The architect plays an important role by anticipating the future effects of these interconnected relationships before the design is fully realized. By doing so, costly remedies are avoided, and forward progress moves smoothly.

Elements of Condo Design While there are many physical elements that comprise buildings, below are some of the basic ones that need to be considered early on in the design of residential condominiums. Site: The site is the basic starting point for every project. Sometimes projects occupy numerous sites, sometimes they include a holdout to be negotiated with, and sometimes there are strategic opportunities to be exploited where a particular site has been tied up with a conditional offer and another site may be desirable to obtain. Often, a site is merely being investigated by the developer in order to evaluate the price they are willing to offer for it in relation to a host of other development options. All sites are unique in that they have a particular size, shape, orientation to the path of the sun, topographic conditions, access or lack thereof to roads, laneways and servicing. The zoning and official plan designation of a site may specify setbacks, density, building heights and other site specific requirements defining the general intent for which this site is to be used. During the initial design stage, proposals should take advantage of the inherent opportunities of the given site while mitigating any of its negative characteristics. Building Prototype: Within the building type of the residential condominium, there exist certain sub-prototypes. Two of the most common are the point tower and the slab building, which are sometimes used in combination. Point towers generally have smaller efficiency ratios than slab buildings but offer a more exclusive experience because the cores serve fewer units on any given floor. They also offer more opportunities for views and are generally a more elegant solution for very tall proposals. Conversely, slab buildings have higher efficiency ratios and typically have more units per floor. This sometimes reduces the residents experience due to long corridors and many suites per plate. In slab buildings there will generally be a preferred view on one side of the development. Each type offers advantages and disadvantages and each alternative must be weighed in order to determine the ideal option for a particular site. Grid: The underlying organizational element in most buildings is some form of grid. These can be manifested in either a regular fashion or according to some geometric relationship set out by the designer. The basic premise of the grid is to establish a system of points of reference which assist not only during the design process but are key during construction. Grids are derived from the Cartesian coordinate system which allows one to locate elements relative to one another in a spatial field. Grids are used to locate structural elements and create the basis for the distribution of parking and the residential units. Establishing the correct grid spacing from the inception of the project is vital to avoiding problems when designing unit layouts further along in the design process. Typically, one should establish the width of parking stalls for underground parking and coordinate that with the ideal room sizes in the building above when determining the appropriate amount of spacing between grids. Parking: When designing an efficient underground garage, one needs to establish the basic size of a typical stall as well as the width of the aisles that serve the stall. Parking layouts should allow for ease of access, proximity to elevator lobbies, efficient layouts of ramps and

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should as often as possible take advantage of double loaded aisles. Building underground garages can be very expensive due to excavation, construction of ramps and shoring. Generally in all buildings, one level of underground parking is practical because a basement foundation needs to be built in any case. However, as additional levels are needed the cost escalates disproportionately. The parking ratio is the key statistic that determines the number of spaces needed in establishing the physical configuration of parking. Even in the early stages of design, the architect can provide reliable statistical data which relate the number of spaces with the number of residential units and commercial leaseable areas. One should note that the residential parking requirement is not a function of total gross floor area (GFA) but is instead based on unit count, while the commercial requirement is based on area. Therefore, depending on the unit mix the parking requirement may change even though the residential GFA may remain the same. That being said, it should be noted that the minimum required may not always be what the market may demand. In downtown areas the developer may choose to reduce the parking ratio because sites are serviced by public transit and can be sold without parking. An emerging trend, especially in smaller infill projects in Toronto, has been the use of parking stackers which allow more yield from the same parking garage areas. Finally, with planning ideas that encourage sustainable design, alternatives to the private car are constantly being promoted which include auto sharing programs and increased usage of bicycles and motor scooters. Units: The heart of any condominium development is the residential unit which accounts for the primary source of revenue for the developer. There are two basic considerations in the design of units: the first is the unit mix and the second is the unit layout. The unit mix is typically defined by the size of the units, the number of bedrooms (and dens), the number of each type and the location of each unit. When determining the optimal unit mix, a market analysis should be studied. What is the anticipated absorption for the site? What types and sizes are in higher demand and at what price point? What is the current inventory relative to the overall demand in the particular market? While some developers choose to work closely with consultants in determining this, sophisticated developers have a very good sense of market demand. This information should be communicated to the architect at a relatively early stage because the unit mix is strongly tied to the parking ratios. For example, the design may be configured so as to avoid the need for a second level of underground parking which will lower construction costs and may make the project feasible or more profitable. The architect should provide detailed statistics which assist the client in understanding the financial implications of arriving at an ideal unit mix. One will note that there is an industry standard for the design of suite layouts, though consumer demand has resulted in new approaches to these layouts. Nevertheless, most one-bedroom condominium units have a similar layout, encompassing a 6.25 to 6.50 meter exterior face, with the bedroom and an open concept living/dining space sharing the exterior wall. Dens are often located near the entry, as are the laundry and the powder room. The area of a one-bedroom unit is typically around 625 to 650 square feet but varies with the location within a city. Some principles to look out for when designing units are to try to align walls where possible, to prevent views into more private spaces from the public areas and to reduce the need for corridors in a suite. Working closely with the realtors, marketing consultants and the interior design team is important in arriving at the best suite layouts. However, the basic building layout and structural grid has the biggest impact on opportunities available in creating unique and quality suite layouts. Other Elements: In addition to the aforementioned elements, retail spaces, amenity spaces, garbage storage, loading, exiting, lobbies, mechanical spaces, bike storage and lockers are also key to the design of residential condominiums. These often occur at grade or below

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grade and serve as the basis upon which the residential portion sits. Negotiating the structure and grid through the building is most challenging when dealing with these elements at grade. It parallels the construction process where once the ground floor is laid, construction moves more quickly. Each one of these elements has their own exigencies and resolving their physical configuration and relationship to one another often presents difficult design challenges.

Relationship to the Proforma As previously discussed, the primary objective for the development of a residential condominium is to realize a financial return to the owner. In order to have the tools to evaluate the feasibility of a project, statistical data should be compiled and revised on an ongoing basis. This data should be formatted in such a way that it is useful to the various parties. While more detailed information should be provided on an ongoing basis, below are some of the key statistics that should be provided early on: a) b) c) d) e) f) g) h) i) j) k) Site Area Total GFA Residential GFA Commercial GFA Amenity Area Saleable Residential Area Leasable Retail Area Garage Area Unit Mix Matrix Efficiency ratio calculations (net to gross) Parking Count

The statistics are a numerical representation of the physical attributes of the building. The financial proforma uses this numerical data as an input; therefore, the financial proforma is intrinsically linked to the physical form of the building. This is important because any change to the physical arrangement of the building will impact the financial proforma accordingly. For example, all other things being equal, reducing the area of corridors relative to sellable area of the units will increase the efficiency ratio. This will positively affect the proforma because that area does not generate direct revenue yet there is still a cost to build it. A judgment has to be made as to how efficient is too efficient for the quality of building one wishes to construct. Other less apparent variables will affect the proforma in terms of the time value of money. So, if the proposal results in a lengthy approval period this will reduce the (annual) rate of return accordingly. It may also affect the risk profile of the development, thus changing the return expectation. The owner together with the architect should assess the best strategy for developing the site whereby an exploration of the physical solution is measured against the financial objective on an ongoing basis. Ultimately, the goal is to have a project successfully optimize the given problem. The successful project is one which balances all of the given parameters and meets both primary and secondary objectives.

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