The Plaza Hotel—the century-old Manhattan landmark renowned for white-gloved service and the prestigious guests—reopened its doors last March following a $400 million, two-and-a-half-year-long refurbishment. The property’s owner, the El-Ad Group, renovated 130 suites and 152 pied-a-terres and converted the remainder of the Beaux-Arts building into 178 private condominiums.

340 On the Park, a Chicago tower designed by Solomon Cordwell Buenz Architects
340 On the Park, a Chicago tower designed by Solomon Cordwell Buenz Architects
Photos ' James Steinkamp Photography/courtesy Related Midwest
At 340 On the Park (above), a Chicago tower designed by Solomon Cordwell Buenz Architects, condo owners are encouraged to follow remodeling guidelines that promote sustainability.

Long after the reopening celebrations ended, the sounds of construction could still be heard, as condo owners not content with the designated floor plan set out to reconfigure their new units. “We delivered apartments of different scenarios and they are fully delivered with a complete kitchen and bathroom,” says Gal Nauer, the Plaza’s interior design architect. “It is up to the owners to change them after they move in.”

When it comes to designing high-end residential towers with hundreds of units, catering to individual requests for customized kitchen cabinetry and appliance specifications could weigh down the construction process. To keep things moving along, owners often are left to wait until their condo is completed before they renovate. But this is an unsustainable practice that some in the design and construction industry are trying to curb.

For a 67-unit building at 1040 East New York Avenue, in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, Plaza LLC Development Group decided to complete a basic structural shell for the condos and let buyers customize the space. The buyer can either select one of several interior designers provided by the developer, or they can bring their own designer to work with the construction company overseeing the overall project. “The developer saves money for not having to put everything in place,” says Max Ribitzky, vice president of HQ Marketing Partners, the building’s sales and marketing agency. The condo owner also saves money, he says, and foregoes the remodeling waiting period. Ribitzky estimates that “about a quarter of apartments sold in Manhattan are redesigned after they are bought.”

Another strategy is to help condo owners make eco-friendly remodeling decisions. Such was the case with 340 On the Park, a 62-story Chicago tower designed by Solomon Cordwell Buenz Architects that earned a LEED Silver certification for its high-performance curtain wall and other sustainable components. The developer, Related Midwest, realized units would be altered—the penthouse most extensively. Kerry Dickson, senior vice president, says to minimize the negative effects of such renovations on the environment, his company “developed guidelines to be used by residents and their architects and designers to help them make design decisions with sustainability in mind as they consider future alterations.” 

In a similar vein, The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Foundation, in collaboration with the U.S. Green Building Council, last year introduced REGREEN, a program designed to provide resources for green home remodeling projects. The Web site offers information about water efficiency, energy conservation, and choosing eco-friendly products for renovation projects. 

For the inevitable gutting of new condos, organizations have sprouted up to ensure that tossed out materials don’t end up in the landfill. Nonprofits like Build It Green! NYC pick up brand-new appliances and kitchen cabinetry and sell them at a portion of the price. “We just received two Viking refrigerators that had never been used from a condo, each worth $6,000 to $7,000,” Nathaniel Develder, a warehouse manager for the organization, told RECORD last spring.   

According to an article in The New York Times, Green Demolitions, a Connecticut-based charity that sends in workers to deconstruct unwanted kitchens and bathrooms and then sells lighting, doors, countertops, and other materials at a fraction of the cost, generated $1.1 million after salvaging 225 kitchens in 2007. Last year, the organization’s revenue grew by more than 50 percent. Although the economic downturn has had a distressing impact on the construction industry, Green Demolitions doesn’t expect a slowdown in supply or demand, says Steve Feldman, founder and president. “There are thousands and thousands of kitchen renovations each year in the greater New York area,” he says. “People are looking for green solutions that make financial sense.”