A full-service architecture firm based in DUMBO, Brooklyn, Cheung Showman Architects primarily focuses on residential projects ranging from apartment renovations to upgrading 100+ unit buildings for a client base that includes individuals, real estate developers, and building owners.
We spoke with the two founding partners, Esther Cheung and George Showman, for this Q&A.
What are some of the biggest challenges you see in older buildings?
“In general, older buildings require more from a building management perspective,” says Showman. “The systems are older and may not be brand name, meaning there is little to no documentation you can look up, and the knowledge is held by the maintenance company. This is most common with elevators and boilers. This makes the relationship with the maintenance team really important. It also falls on building management to have the right contacts and a record of what was last done and when.”
Energy standards are also changing, with new codes and stricter rules around upgrades, says Cheung. “Older buildings had lower standards for heat and energy. You will see leakier windows, walls with no insulation. It can be pretty costly to upgrade because it’s the building envelope.”
Showman adds, “Every older building is getting an ‘energy grade.’ For these buildings, it’s all about where they are in their cycle. For instance, every 20 years is good to plan for upgrading the windows. These are expensive—sometimes multi-million dollar projects—and you need to plan for them.”
What about challenges you see with newer construction?
The number one problem with new construction? “Things are not built quite right. As the first buyer in, you are going to discover what’s wrong,” advises Showman. “You’ll discover things inside the walls that are not quite expected. For condo buyers, sometimes it’s a leak.”
Speaking of leaks… it is an unfortunately common problem for buildings. What are the first few steps a building should take if they discover a leak?
“Don’t have any qualms about opening up what needs to be opened up. You need a scorched earth approach,” urges Showman. “Figuring out where a leak is coming from can be a nightmare—but there is no shortcut to it. It can be expensive, but leaks are very serious. As an architect, a leak sows doubt on every level.”
Figuring out where a leak is coming from can be a nightmare—but there is no shortcut to it.
As far as who is responsible for what, “a leak is generally a building problem because it’s coming through the envelope,” Showman adds. “The discovery phase the building should cover with specialists. Once you figure out what the problem is, you can agree on who covers the work based on whoever’s piece of the building it is.”
Lastly, because you’re going to have to plan to open things up to know what’s going on, Showman also recommends planning for the patchwork and restoring walls after the leak. “Plumbers who are experts at fixing the leak are not always the best sheetrock workers. It’s not a hard job, but you should invest in someone who knows what they’re doing with sheetrock.”
What are some of the smartest renovations you’ve seen buildings invest in?
Lobbies and lighting are a good place to start, says the team at Cheung Showman. “We did a lobby renovation on 211 Trinity Street on the Lower East Side,” says Cheung. “Before, it was like the entry to a prison. It was really scary! We tried to restore it to its roots, creating a semi-historical brownstone surrounding the front area. Lobbies are a place you pass by every day if you live there. Just by doing that, it’s changed the perception of the building completely. It went from a dodgy building to a nice place—and the rent increased significantly afterwards.”
“One of the lowest hanging fruits as far as upgrades in a building is lighting,” says Showman. “Upgrading light fixtures and bulbs is not expensive, and you can get massive energy savings to go to LED. But you have to choose the right LEDs so the color isn’t institutional and cold.”
Finding a great contractor can be really hard. What are things to look out for? What advice would you give building managers and boards in the vetting process?
First: right-size the contractor to the job. “Know the size of project that contractor is used to doing,” instructs Cheung. “Someone who will do a $50,000 renovation is different from a handyman that will do a $50 job. Get referrals, look at past projects they’ve done for the right size.”
Showman adds: “The way someone is when they’re trying to land the job is pretty close to how they will be when they’re doing the job. You want someone who is responsive during the bidding process. Someone who listens and asks good questions. They should understand the importance of being there in-person and come to a walk-through. If a contractor tries to simplify the job into one thing they can put a price on, it’s likely that during construction they will also be doing that and not paying attention to the details of the job.”
He also cautions to avoid contractors that make quick assumptions. “Once you open up a wall, it’s never what you think. A good contractor will know that.”
Is it ever okay to cut corners? And if so, what are the right corners to cut?
One place where you may see a difference by price point is in the administration and organization, and it’s up to the building on whether they want to bear that work. Showman says: “As you go up in price in your renovation, at a certain point you’ll see better paperwork, things happening over email versus text message, itemized invoices."
"At a lower price point, they probably don’t have a person supporting them on this and are doing it all on their own. That can be fine, but it can end up with open issues if you’re not on top of it because they may not have a good system for tracking every little thing.”
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