3 Common Design Mistakes That Keep Renters at Bay

5 min read

Today’s renters—accustomed to boutique hotels, smart coffee shops and restaurants where the décor is as important as the menu—are visually sophisticated and highly design conscious. They want spaces that look good, function well and feel just right.

By Mary Cook

While curb appeal is crucial to any multifamily building, getting prospective renters in the door is only half the battle. Location, price and amenities play a huge role in choosing one apartment over another. So does interior design. Today’s renters—accustomed to boutique hotels, smart coffee shops and restaurants where the décor is as important as the menu—are visually sophisticated and highly design conscious. They want spaces that look good, function well and feel just right.

When a market-priced, Class A multifamily building sees a lot of traffic but little in the way of sales or leases, there’s a good chance it’s the interior design that’s sinking the ship. Common spaces and model units may look fine at first glance, but if not developed with the end user in mind, no amount of artful styling will spell 100 percent occupancy.

And while good design may be more art than science, there are rock solid fundamentals that any successful project must nail: scale and proportion, function and livability, and lighting. But even a mastery of these building blocks can fall short without one clear objective: Who is my client, where do they live and what does that mean to how they live? It’s quite a challenge, and easy to slip up. Let’s look at how these design basics and a thorough understanding of the end user can lead to success.

Scale and Proportion Drive Comfort

A chair does not exist in a vacuum. It shares a relationship with the sofa and coffee table. And all furniture shares a relationship with the room it’s in. When the scale and proportion of the furniture is out of sync with the scale and proportion of the space around it, people are never 100 percent comfortable. They may not be able to put their finger on it, but they’ll instinctively know something is off.

Achieving the correct balance of scale and proportion can be difficult for designers, especially if they are not involved in the project from the very beginning. But a challenge can be an opportunity.

A large air return in the middle of a wall can undermine the most harmonious furniture placement. But treating that wall with a design element to conceal the air return, can bring the whole scheme back into line. When it comes to model units, it’s especially important to keep the target market in mind when thinking about scale and proportion. For example, Chicago’s Aqua Tower is marketed to single professional women. However, the original interior design failed to demonstrate how renters could comfortably live in a studio apartment without opening and closing a sofa bed every day. While the building’s architecture drew rave reviews, units went unleased because of poor design.

Aqua Tower - Before
Aqua Tower – Before
Aqua Tower - After
Aqua Tower – After


Function, Function, Function

Years ago, it was easy to read a home. A kitchen was for cooking. Bedrooms were for sleeping. Not anymore. Today’s kitchen is a social space. And a bedroom could well double as a home office. Understanding the many and varied functions that need to take place in a home is critical to effective design. And those functions may vary from one target market to another. That second bedroom tricked out as a gaming room may wow a Millennial, but fall short as the guest room a retiree wants for visiting grandchildren. Before outfitting a model unit, designers must consider the entire space and anticipate how the target market will experience and utilize every room.

At Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago, a one-bedroom condominium left prospects wondering if the bedroom was larger than the living/dining area due to a large undefined area. By reconfiguring the closet slightly, we were able to add a work-at-home space to the unit. Within the same square footage, we now had a one-bedroom + den vs. a one-bedroom. Brokers and buyers were thrilled at the increase in return on the investment. Ultimately, the Trump organization made that same change to all the units with that plan throughout the building.

Trump - Before Floor Plan
Trump – Before Floor Plan
Trump - After Floor Plan
Trump – After Floor Plan


Let There be Light

Lighting is perhaps the most mishandled element of interior design. Too often, people can be seduced by the look of a lamp or the thrill of ditching old school pendant fixtures for can lights. But not enough light makes a room unusable for many tasks and too much light washes out the mood-making details of a room’s décor. Comprehensive lighting plans that take a broad range of needs into account make a home attractive to renters and buyers. Layered lighting is the key to ensuring appropriate illumination. Start by accessing how natural light passes through the space throughout the day. Then add foundational lighting, complemented by light sources that brighten task-centered areas or add drama to spaces where a welcoming ambiance is key.

Applied strategically, scale and proportion, function and livability, and good lighting draw people in, again and again. At a mixed-use development in Omaha, the residents club was referred to as a “rec room,” and it felt like it too–functional but sterile. Redesigned with layers of lighting, great color, and purposeful seating areas that were proportional in scale suiting a variety of groups, the space achieved its full potential, generating a real sense of community.

Midtown Crossing - Before
Midtown Crossing – Before
Midtown Crossing - After
Midtown Crossing – After

These three tips will go a long way when it comes to creating the appropriate environment for your target market, a market that will be happy to call your project “home.”

Mary Cook HeadshotMary Cook is the founder and principal of Mary Cook Associates (MCA), a full-service national commercial interior design firm that focuses on the residential real estate development and hospitality industries. The firm’s projects for real estate developers include model homes, multifamily developments, clubhouses, senior housing communities, restaurants, bars and corporate offices.

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