Uniformity in Condo Design Is There Value in Variation?

Here in the Garden State, the uniformity of condo exteriors is mind-numbing, with the vast majority seemingly identical. Typically, they feature tedious, monochromatic curb appeal, void of color or creative material elements. Within these buildings stand matching, cookie-cutter individual units and living spaces.  As condo prices increase, stylized variations slowly emerge, with features like expressive grays and bronze, custom-designed elements in the landscaping, and striking illumination. 

Frequently, association rules require uniformity. Maintenance and modernization may influence color tones, but uniformity is predictable, even among luxury properties. Although far from optically stimulating, this is not poor practice according to developers and designers. After all, few residents want to wake up one morning and discover a neighboring unit painted purple…especially given how property value is hugely influenced by color and design conformity. For instance, purple is difficult to sell. Beige is safe and timeless. Brick is solid. 

According to experts, color is much more than just a decorative tool. The importance of the psycho-physiological effects of color, and the relationship between visual ergonomics (design and color placement that provides the best sight conditions for locating specifics) and using the environment comfortably and color, are part of how an environment influences the well-being of residents.  

“Exterior color has been making a huge difference in multi- and single-family housing for some time,” says James Martin, president of The Color People, an architectural color consultation firm. “Color is becoming key to property values for condos and HOAs. In some condo communities, people want to feel comfortable and conservative, and in others, residents don’t want to feel that way. I’ll ask the clients how they want to feel and go from there. A building can look a little more fresh and up-to-date, and you can do that with color. You also keep your property value higher by looking up-to-date.” 

Dr. Jasmine Martirossian, Ph.D, the author of “Decision Making in Communities: Why Groups of Smart People Sometimes Make Bad Decisions,” says most trouble comes from homeowners who buy in, then want changes. Dr. Martirossian has interviewed thousands of subjects during her career and studies, and works in condominium governance and group dynamics, as well. 

“Part of the reason that people buy into condominium living is the predictability and assurances it offers—they have a sense they won’t have to suddenly deal with somebody’s purple house or orange gates,” Martirossian adds. “It brings most people peace of mind. Over two-thirds of condominium owners prefer that. It’s the other third that leads to conflict. They think the rules won’t apply to them. People need to buy into condominiums with recognition of the rules for conformity. Across the states and countries like Canada, the scenario is the same. If people are not informed about what condominium living entails, they’re not going to be happy residents. It’s not for some people, for sure.” 

Even when they want to make changes, disagreement puts a wrench in association plans. “There was one that virtually spent almost 10 years trying to do a major redesign,” Martirossian says. “They had over 900 units. It was such a torture to process that—in the end—they settled for very colorful carpet schemes that made your head swirl. It was almost psychedelic…hard to look at. They had an extremely colorful interior, but it was not worth 10 years of torture.”

In her own condominium residence, where there are only five units, Martirossian says the association couldn’t agree on anything—so much so that two contracted designers resigned. “They didn't want to deal with difficult clients,” she laughs. “I was new, so I had to step back. When you’re new, you have to. In the end, we paid $150 a roll for wallpaper—it was awfully expensive. You can’t even tell there’s wallpaper on the walls, because they chose such a neutral color…but it was a consensus. That’s a normal process. They ended up with one of those nasty compromise solutions.” 

Additionally, costs have weight—the predictability, the economies of scale in maintenance. “Cost adds up,” Martirossian says. “Usually, (associations) gravitate toward more neutral tones because they’re thinking about resale values. Very few ground-breaking changes result.”

“In terms of color, nationally, we are in a flux right now,” says Martin. “We’re coming out of historically inspired architecture stuff with arts and crafts style, maybe a Victorian style or a colonial style, even though they are not necessarily multi-family. A color palette has been in that realm for more than a decade now, which is darker, richer, earth-centric tones, and more ‘warm and comfortable’ has been the driving feeling in condos across the country. It all depends on how eccentric or conservative your condo community is, in terms of what color you are attracted to.”

Check Your Documents

The media frequently features stories about people in condos, in the name of uniformity, dealing with restrictions from installing flags or religious items. Barbara Cadranel’s case was well-publicized. A Stratford, Connecticut resident, she was fined by her condo association for attaching a mezuzah (a small religious item affixed by Velcro) to her doorframe, which was forbidden her condo association bylaw, but required by Jewish law.  Eventually, the condo association allowed Cadranel to hang her mezuzah to her door frame and also announced that it will allow future residents to place a mezuzah, or any other religious symbol, on the door frames without necessary approval.

“The whole point of when you are buying in a community is that everybody is going to live by a certain set of standards,” says David R. Dahan, a partner with the law firm Hyland Levin in Marlton. “Especially aesthetically so it is common, in fact it’s expected, that in community association documents you are going to have a set of rules and regulations that all homeowners have to live by. For example, there may be restrictions in the governing documents that say what the color or the exterior of the unit should be, or what type of shingles you may be able to use on the roof, or signs you may be able to put up in a window.”

In most cases, condominium documents require uniformity unless the board makes an exception. Perhaps real estate values are increased by uniformity as opposed to someone painting their house purple. Everything is a question of extremes. Though, some designers feel that flexibility actually increases value because certain prospective buyers want that. 

“Governing documents for community associations typically contain a variety of rules and restrictions concerning the exterior appearances of homes, which encourage uniformity to promote value and the general good of the community,” adds Tana Bucca, shareholder attorney at Stark & Stark in Cedar Knolls. “These restrictions often dictate the color and types of upgrades that can be installed on the exterior of the home.”

Small deviations may be overlooked, but even temporary ones like holiday decorations can become contentious, underlining the need for uniformity. Painted decks and other non-conforming choices lead to disagreements. 

“Most governing documents also contain guidelines for holiday decorating, including limitations on when homeowners can put up decorations and when they have to take down outdoor decorations,” says Bucca.  “Homeowners should be mindful of their community’s rules to avoid any issues this holiday season.”

“You have to be careful with holidays because it deals with religion and you don’t want to offend anyone or be too restrictive or someone can claim that you are preventing them from expressing themselves religiously,” says Dahan. “It’s a sensitive area and you have to be careful.”

According to experts, when moving into a co-op or condo, residents are giving up certain rights, and one of them seems to be a right of individuality and self-expression.

Ann Connery Frantz is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer. Freelance writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.

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