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Exterior Color for Multi-Family Dwellings

Specifying exterior color for multi- family dwellings is a wholly different animal than for single family homes. The ownership, the goals, the sheer size of the complexes offer a completely different set of challenges. When done right the outcome can be stunning, increasing property values and the joy of home ownership. Proper color application for built environments enhances the human experience. Join Amy and Amy as they discuss the ins and outs of how to do it.

Ep 15: Exterior Color for Multi-Family Dwellings

Krane: Welcome to Let’s Talk Color.

Woolf: I’m Amy Woolf, principal designer at Amy Woolf Color and Design.

Krane: And I’m Amy Krane founding designer at Amy Krane Color. We’re both professional color experts who specialize in architectural color. We met while training and years later the conversation is still going strong.

Woolf: We both live our lives immersed in color and design. We often agree, but sometimes we don’t because color is personal. Color truths, however, are universal.

Krane: In each episode we’ll unravel the mystery of choosing color for your home or business, both inside and out.

Krane: Hi there. This is episode 15 and today Amy and I will be talking about specifying color for multi-family residences. This is a very different animal than a single family home in every respect, from the size of the buildings to the ownership, to what the process is and what your goals are. For instance, the building itself can be an apartment building or a condo or co-op building, or it could be a community of many of them. It can be a small four unit building or a six unit or eight unit building where the owner lives there or doesn't. It can be a resort with hundreds of buildings with many, many community buildings that serve many different functions. It can be an over 55 community. It could be a co-housing community. And in every instance, how you do what you do will be very different than if you were specifying exterior color for a single family. So Amy, why don't you start? Tell us a little bit about the different kinds of buildings and communities you've worked with, how the ownership or the people you communicated with were different and how the process was different.

Woolf: So the very first multifamily project I ever did was for a co-housing community here in my area in Western Massachusetts. And for those of you who don't know what co-housing is, it's basically where each home, each, shall we say family group or homeowner group owns their own house within a cluster of buildings, but all decisions need to be made by consensus. And when I say consensus, that means every single person in the group. So in a community of, let's say, 25 homes, everyone either needs to say yes or to abstain. If there is one no, then the whole thing gets scrapped. So yeah, that's how I got started. And so what's really interesting about that is to date, it's been probably the most challenging multifamily specification I've done because of the process of getting to consensus with 25 owner groups. And then at the other end of the extreme, I've done a number of apartment complexes. One of them is here in Western Mass. One of them was in Texas. And when that is the case, we have the opposite end where you're working with a management company which is like working with a single owner. And in some ways it's more analogous to doing color for an individual because you really have one small group. And then in between, which has been most of my projects, are condo communities where everybody owns their own property. You don't need full consensus. You don't need 100% yeses. You just need a majority. And that's usually 51%. But in some communities, it's 70%. So there's still a pitching to a great number of people. So I did 200 plus condos in Florida on the West Coast at one point, and we needed to have I think a 70% agreement rate. And there was a whole big legal process. And they have, you know, it's all written up in their bylaws, how they go about seeking approval from the entire community, which even boils down to knocking door to door with paint schematics. And what's interesting is that all of these jobs, except obviously the ones here that were local to me in Western Massachusetts, have been done virtually. I've done a bunch of projects in Florida: A high rise building, a set of townhouses midsize and then a very large complex on Harbor Island in Tampa, which were, you know, multi level but low rise apartments. So yeah, the technical process of getting through the approval is very different, as you mentioned in the opening, based on ownership. I've always felt that the co-housing challenge was deep, you know. Getting 25 homeowner groups to agree really taught me a lot and has informed all these other projects that I've done in terms of, how you present when making a case for the color schemes I was proposing. The concept of best practices really comes into play in a new and very powerful way. You know, I'm thinking about resale. I'm thinking about the architectural appropriateness, sort of going back to what we talked about in the last episode. What is the style of the architecture? What makes sense for that? And that's what I'm talking about with best practices. We were doing a five color plan or maybe I think the painter said five and then we had to drop to four. I can't remember. But for me, the important piece was keeping all the trim the same. And that was sort of the best practices issue. People wanted to be able to use some of the field colors as trim. So we were doing a green, a soft red, a yellow, a blue, and some of the folks wanted to use green for trim or get creative. And I was like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Krane: I think that's a good idea. Well in a situation like that, I mean, I think if people choose to live in co-housing or something like that, they're choosing a way of life and they're choosing a tighter connection to one another. And so I do think, I mean, we were going to talk about considerations a little bit later in the podcast but I think tying the houses together in some way is incredibly important. And certainly using the same trim is a great way to do that, especially if you have multiple colors in the whole community. I've worked on a large resort community with four or 500 residential units that were both freestanding and attached that also had multiple community buildings- places you eat, places where they taught, utility buildings, a stable, a giant rec area and community center with a pool, gate houses, fencing... I mean, there were many structures to take into consideration besides the living units themselves. And I've done a number of condo communities in Seattle, also virtually, where they were getting major renovations. So they had been in existence for maybe 20 or 30 years and it was time for a total facelift. I was contacted by a project management company, one single individual who was my contact point. Like you said, sometimes there's a single person who's like a homeowner, except he had to then go on and talk to the boards. So what the process was in that scenario was very different. I came up with the color palette choices. They told me how many colors they wanted, how many palette choices they wanted. And then they came back to me and if there were adjustments that they wanted. And he dealt with the board who was then selling it to the condo owners. And I was just dealing with him and that was super streamlined. But with the resort community in Connecticut, it was an architectural board that was put together by the Board of Directors. And so I was presenting to them and they were presenting to the directors and then the directors. So the interaction was being filtered through two layers and eventually went on to all of the owners. We tested the options on a building and the color schemes were also disseminated to all 400-500 unit owners and then they voted. I don't know what their approval percentages needed to be, how many people had to approve of it. I was really pushing for the community buildings to be a different coordinating color with all the residences from the standpoint of variety and interest sake, as well as the fact that color can signal function so readily. So it became easy to tell that those kinds of buildings were not for living in. I don't know when it was painted previously, but it was all tan with brown trim. You know, really dated. So you know, it looks so refreshed and so modern now that I definitely think it was a success. Yeah, of course the timeline is different also. I mean, you know, you have to come up with a timeline. When do you want to go to your community and ask for approval? Then what's the process on your side? How much time until the painters will come and questions like that. You sort of back out of some end date and come up with a timeline that works for everyone.

That's one thing that I'm really on top of, maybe from my producing days. It's like, here's when you're going to get your first round. This is when I expect comments or any changes. This is when you'll get revisions. This is when you plan on approvals. And so, you can plot out the whole thing from the beginning, which is really helpful to not be flailing in the wind, wondering when you're going to hear back about this, that, or the other thing.

Woolf: When I'm doing color for condo communities and apartment buildings in Florida, we are driven by the rainy season, you know, so we need to get started well in advance of the rain because once the rain comes in Florida, it's much harder to do the painting.

Krane: Sure. Same in Seattle.

Woolf: Oh, come on. It's always raining in Seattle. It only doesn't rain in June, right?

Krane: Yeah. So let's talk about what the considerations are. You know, obviously a resort community is going to be different than a condo, but you know, generalizing. I was contacted by a co-op building community on the East coast of Florida. And they wanted a refresh because they were older than the brand new, high end, beautiful buildings in their area. Right there near them on the water. They were they were competing for new co-op owners basically. They wanted the same target demographic as those buildings, but they were the older building. So they wanted to really give themself a facelift so that people would be just as attracted to them as their neighbors. So, there are many different things that you must take into consideration for buildings and communities like this that are completely irrelevant for single family homeowners who of course think about resale, but it's very different, right?

Woolf: It is. And I would agree with you. I'd say the majority of the Florida projects I've done have been older buildings in areas that have been built up. There's a lot of new construction all around them. And it's funny because what we've been doing is getting rid of a lot of that sort of peachy pink, you know, terracotta type colors that were popular in the eighties, maybe the nineties. I mean, they stayed popular in Florida for a long time. And it's kind of sad because that color sort of has that Florida look and that vibe, but of course everything around it is all going gray and oyster white. Gray in order to send the signal that these buildings and these communities are up to date and current, because I do think that color sends that kind of a signal. You know, the instant you look at a dated color, you think, "Oh, that building's old." Whereas if you see a color that fits in more with the new construction, I think it sends a subconscious signal that, you know, things aren't quite so old.

Krane: It's so amazing. It's so amazing how the gray thing just traveled throughout the country, even to places where the the light is so bright and the sun is out all the time. Which is actually not the best scenario for painting a building gray. I mean, the association is with elegance of course. And so, you know, people in warmer locales like Florida kind of glommed onto that universal belief that gray meant current and sophisticated. And I get wanting that, but it's too bad because it's a missed opportunity to add great appropriate color. You know, geographic location is so important when you pick color and you want it to be appropriate for the architectural style as well as where it is. And to just go gray is sad. I get it, but it's sad, you know?

Woolf: I was really determined with these two particular projects I'm thinking of... One was a very, it was a colorful gray. It was a darker value. It wasn't like whitish gray. And that was really about the surroundings. This was up in Tampa on Harbor Island. And that set of buildings was really nestled into lush, lush, beautiful plantings, gorgeous landscape, really just yummy. So I think, you know, by using a darker gray that helped those buildings, settle into the landscape and not stand out like stark white would have. But, but for that project and for another project I'm thinking of in Fort Lauderdale, I definitely used color as accents. You know, color on doors... I did not use color on railings in Tampa. In the Fort Lauderdale project every unit had a balcony and all the balcony ceilings got pale blue so that from a distance, the building looked like it was an oyster color. But then when you got up close to it and you look straight up, you could see this accent of blue going up the sides of the buildings where the balconies were located. So you know, we did a little something fun.

Krane: Well, certainly it's true that when you're talking about skyscrapers, you know, great, great vertical expanses or horizontal expanses, it gives you the opportunity to use rhythm, more so than in a house because you've got the space, you've got the real estate to repeat and alternate. And that certainly creates a rhythm. I mean, I think in terms of just how you specify it... Really an outstanding difference in my mind between residences and multifamily like this, the big one is that you're able to use multiple colors on it because if you take this big monolith of a single building or many buildings next to each other, often whose shape and form is exactly the same, you could do two things. You can paint whole buildings one color, but alternate between the buildings. But much more common to do, and I think rightly so, is to paint each building a multitude of colors. And you know, you have to do it with skill. Obviously it can't be garish, can't be silly. They have to coordinate with one another. They have to enhance one another and create a pattern, creating a rhythm as you look at the buildings, as you go past the buildings it's really fun and exciting to look at and create.

You know, one of the most interesting parts of my two hour ride on Amtrak from Hudson, New York to New York City is passing big communities as you get closer and closer to the city. They're in Yonkers, they're in Westchester, they're kind of all over and there's some really big ones. And I'm always snapping pictures of them because I think it's just so interesting how differently people assign color to large buildings. But especially if you're in a moving vehicle, as you're going past it, you really get to experience the rhythm and the change of the colors and the pattern in a different way, kind of more enhanced way than if you're just standing in front of the building and moving your head and looking at building versus building.

You know, many, many buildings have undulating facades, bump outs and recesses, which is really a great way to think about alternating colors. And then you get to have that discussion with yourself about, light colors coming forward and dark colors receding. So do you want to enhance that or do you want to buck that and do the reverse? And I actually think that it looks better if you don't buck it. So to put the lighter colors on the advancing part of the architecture and the darker ones on the receding ones just kind of enhances the undulation of the facade and it benefits it. And you know, of course I'm not talking about black versus white or gray versus white. It's all done with colors, but as we've talked about so many times, colors have different values. So yeah, you're dealing with the usual three things that we deal with -chroma, which is saturation, value, which is lightness/ darkness, and hue, which is color. And you use all three of those tools to come up with a pattern that in the end is really pleasing. So what kind of, what kind of problems have you seen when you've, when you've passed buildings?

Woolf: Oh, when I've passed buildings? Probably the things that makes me cringe the most are two things. One is when the whole building is just dark and dreary and sad, you know, like really dark gray, charcoal, black with, with no respite. To me feels like a trend gone really wrong. I have a hard time with that. And then, big shock, I have a really hard time with a high contrast where an exterior combines black and white. I feel like I have seen this out in California and I know it's like a thing and trendy. But I also feel like those buildings are going to be dated. You know, you gotta wonder what's it's going to look like in 2030. Like at what point are all these gray and white buildings or black and white buildings going to start to look like harvest gold and avocado green to people, you know? But in the meantime, I think just ergonomically the harsh black and white, it's just not humane. It just doesn't feel good. You know, I think what we want to do in our urban landscape is create a more humane experience. I mean, yes, we have to live in cities, but do we have to live in cities that are black and white and gray? You know, can't we live in cities that are, you know, gray green? You know, can't, can't we live in cities that, that provide a little humane color? I think the answer could be yes.

Krane: Yeah, no, I agree. I mean too many colors, too few colors... I mean one whole monolith of singular color is incredibly boring. I mean, that harkens back more to the days when those buildings were all brick and the brick was all one color. I certainly see bad color combinations and not good interplay of dark versus light. Those are all the kinds of problems that I've seen. What else?

Woolf: And things, things that just don't make sense. You know, there's a little community of cottages, down the hill from me here in New England that are painted what looks to me it looks Bahamian. You know, like Caribbean colors. And it's a housing community for single moms, I think. It just feels out of place and weird. I also think that's a great way to use interior color instead. And I'd put money down that the exteriors are Caribbean colors and the interiors are all linen white. And so my contention would be, let's keep the colors outside New England and let's give these people a little bit of color inside, you know, which obviously is harder to maintain.

Krane: I mean, like you started off saying, color can be so supportive to how people live their lives, their well-being, their health, their mental state and all of that. It's definitely a missed opportunity if you don't use color to enhance both the appeal of a building from the outside, but even more importantly, how you feel when you live inside. Absolutely. Right, right.

Woolf: And I mean, I think that's an important thing to think about, you know, what's the demographic, you know, who are we coloring these buildings for? You know? I did a big rental community in Texas and it was kind of an entry level price point. Kind of what I would say, starter homes, you know, young families, lots of kids. It wasn't for an upscale retirement rental or condo. And I think that's a different demographic. And, and for that group of people, we did something a little more lighthearted, a little less serious, a little less austere, you know, a little more color. Again, trying to honor the landscape and you know, the surroundings. But also thinking about, okay, who's our target market? Who's going to be living here? What's their age? What, going to please them?

So thanks for joining us. We love having you here and we hope you enjoyed this episode about paint color for multifamily residential dwellings. We invite you to leave a review for us if you've enjoyed this episode. So like it, share it, subscribe. You can find us anywhere podcasts are disseminated and you can always write to us at

Krane: We'll see you next time. Hope you've learned a little bit more about color for the built world.


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