Published by: Jim Morrison – Banker & Tradesman Staff
Much ink has been dedicated to the luxury tower building boom in Greater Boston – including in the pages of this newspaper. Less well explored are the realities of the people living in the towers, many of whom are dropping an additional million or more to customize their luxurious living space. They are quickly learning that adding a few lights or moving a plumbing fixture is a lot harder – and often more expensive – than they think.
What Owners Want
Many new luxury owners are moving from wood-framed houses in the suburbs and are quickly confronted with the realities of urban living: space constraints, time limits, noise considerations and the sad realization that some projects simply cannot be accomplished.
Mike Resteghini, project manager at Hopkinton-based F.H. Perry Builder, has seen the migration of suburbanites to the city firsthand. Often their reno requirements include revamping lighting and gutting unused high-end kitchens – and they are always looking for ways to create more storage space.
“Some of the master bedroom closets get carried away,” he said. “They’ll spend more on the closet than the kitchen. We’ve installed fireproof safes with multiple levels of security that can cost from $5,000 to $25,000. Some clients ask for jewelry drawers lined with fine cloth and those also have security. It gets pretty involved.”
The designers of the buildings can’t know where the owners are going to put their furniture or art, so the lighting almost always has to be redesigned – at a starting price point of around $10,000, said Bob Ernst, owner of FBN Construction and president of the Builders’ Association of Greater Boston (BRAGB), who has been customizing condos in Boston for 20 years.
Renovations are usually not cheap, but there’s a certain sticker shock for these particular clients, he said. Owners are often surprised at the cost of moving lights and plumbing fixtures, and Ernst often finds himself explaining the costs and difficulties association with cutting into concrete floors and avoiding sprinkler lines.
The cost of the renovation projects can run upwards of $2 million to $3 million, he said, but some of the unusual challenges can also be fun.
“We did one a few years ago on a penthouse unit in the InterContinental,” Ernst said. “The project was over $1 million and one of the requirements was a sound studio. The client’s daughter was a student at Berklee College of Music and they wanted a studio for her rock band to practice in. We were in the center of the building on the 21st floor and we were able to achieve it. It was an interesting, difficult project.”
The construction limits of every building are different, making the process more complicated – and unusual client requests can add to the challenge.
“A lot of our clients get inspiration from their travels,” said Paul Guitard, business development officer at Woodmeister Master Builders. “We had one situation where the designer found a piece of ore [that was] 3 feet long and 2 feet tall in New York City that they wanted to use as an art statement and incorporate into the renovation, which we did.”
What Buildings Want
In addition to the obvious cost-drivers of traffic and parking difficulties, each building has different rules about which elevators can be used by workers and when, when construction work can start and end, noise and dirt containment, and even which pipes and vents can be altered and how.
Ernst learned these lessons the hard way.
“Our first one was in the Boston Harbor Towers in 1997 or 1998. It was a particularly difficult time,” he said. “The Big Dig was going on and every day it was a different route to get there and get home. Also working with concrete floors and ceilings is difficult. The limits of customization, particularly in bathrooms, was hard to explain to the client.”
“We built some beautiful cabinets for the client, but we never thought to measure the elevators. We had to saw some cabinets in half and then put them back together,” he said. “We made them some crown moldings and the crew had to carry them up, hand-over-hand through the stairwell to the 36th floor. Knowing what I know now, we would have been faster and charged more – I don’t think we made money on that one, [though it] really launched our career in the city.”
Each building has different requirements of construction and renovation, and familiarity with the construction of each building and the people who run them can make the difference.
“We can never move a bathroom,” Resteghini said. “The building usually has to approve plumbing changes. It helps to have a rapport with them. Some allow customized heating controls, some don’t.”
While the projects can expensive and complex, it’s worth it in the end when the client feels like they’re finally getting their dream home, said Allison Iantosca, owner of F.H. Perry Builder.
“These buildouts have a lot of meaning to the people who move into them,” she said. “It’s like there’s a sense of them finally getting the house they want. People should really let their imaginations run wild. We try to honor what’s there and not be wasteful.”