The Condominium Association Review Process
(and the importance of a proper presentation)
The approval process for a proposed major remodeling project by a Condominium Review Committee or Board can have a dramatic impact on the outcome of the project. Many people assume that the process is straight forward, the rules are clear and the decision is black and white, yes or no. More often than not, nothing could be further from the truth. Association rules often give great latitude to the board regarding some aspects of remodeling while at the same time can be very specific on some details. Most of the review process falls under the heading of “architectural review”, which is generally understood to be a review of any element of a remodel that can be seen from, or impacts any part of the common areas in some way. The review process is often expanded by associations to include a much wider scope and may include items that have no “architectural” impact at all and are simply a matter of engineering. It is important to make this distinction, because architectural impact is often a matter of opinion, clearly the within purview of the association, while engineering considerations are generally a matter of fact, and are therefore less so.
Let me give you a couple case studies from projects we’ve worked on, all in Naples on the beach, but I won’t name the buildings. In one instance we worked on a design for a client that included adding a powder room bath, which is a very desirable feature and one that was important to them. When the plan was presented to the board, it was rejected immediately. Rather than accept the first rejection and delete the ½ bath from the plan, we inquired as to the reasoning and were told that the plumbing system was inadequate to accept the additional load. We then went through the plans for the building, did some investigation of the existing plumbing stacks and consulted with a mechanical engineer who provided us with a report concluding the system could handle the additional fixtures. We went back to the board with this additional information and were told that their rejection was also based upon the belief that the plumbing in the building was in very poor condition, and so our findings and report were not adequate. We eventually were able to reach an agreement that we would inspect the plumbing stacks during the demolition process and replace anything that was deteriorated to the point that it was inadequate. In the end, very little additional plumbing had to be done and the owners got their ½ bath.
In another instance we determined that an existing “beam” which was in an awkward location and negatively impacted an expanded living room in a dramatic way, was not necessary. We determined that it was not a “beam”, meaning that it was bearing the load of something above it, but rather a “drop header” that was there to support the head of a sliding glass door that had been removed. It was obvious to us that it was structurally unnecessary, but when we approached the board we were told that another builder, working on a similar unit the previous year, had asked the same question and an engineer that was consulted wrote a letter saying that it could not be removed. We asked to see a copy of the letter, and contacted the engineer in question. When we explained our theory and asked the engineer to review the building plans and visit the site, he concurred with our opinion. When we asked why he wrote the letter saying that it couldn’t be removed, he said the previous builder simply made a phone call and asked if it was possible to remove a “beam”, without any of the other information, and so he said no. We went back to the board and presented this new information, and were yet again rebuffed, since they now had 2 letters from the same engineer with opposite conclusions, and felt they could accept neither. We then asked if another engineer’s opinion would be acceptable, and were told the only thing they would accept was a letter from the engineer that originally designed the building in 1985. Well, that would seem to be a difficult task, since the engineer was from Miami and no longer in business. However, we were able to locate him and explain the situation. He remembered the building well, since it was one of the last “hand drawn” buildings he had done and he was happy to provide us a letter for the board. The removal of the beam was approved and the resulting project was much improved.
The point to these 2 stories is that successfully negotiating the approval process requires a specific skillset and is not as straightforward as it might appear. The old adage that you shouldn’t act as your own attorney applies in this instance as well. Hire a professional.