Health and Wellness Features to Gain Prominence in 2023

Design experts at the International Builders’ Show offered insights on how multifamily development can foster well-being.

At the 2023 International Builders’ Show, Sanford Steinberg, Steinberg Dickey Collaborative moderated a panel about multifamily design trends with David Senden, KTGY; Angela Harris, TRIO and Bobby Long, KEPHART. Photo by Diana Mosher

Multifamily development is continuously evolving in response to new design ideas and ever-changing resident demands, as evidenced by the attention being garnered by properties’ emphasis on health and wellness.

Which design features are adding the most value now and promise to be a safe bet for the future? According to experts speaking on a panel moderated by Sanford Steinberg, founding principal at architecture firm Steinberg Dickey Collaborative, at the 2023 International Builders Show in Las Vegas, the focus will be on creating authentic apartment communities that encourage physical and mental wellness.

One of the overarching trends guiding successful multifamily development is an understanding of authenticity of place and how to create a property that has depth, according to Bobby Long, principal and director of design at residential architectural design firm KEPHART.

“People want an [apartment home] where they can feel connected, they can have shared economy and shared experiences—that’s very specific to a place. That’s not something you can generally cookie cutter around,” said Long.

The Happiness Effect

In their quest to bring meaningful housing products to market, the multifamily industry has been delving into findings from the extensive Harvard Study of Adult Development, an ongoing project which has studied human happiness since 1938.

KTGY’s macro unit concept for rentals and condos reintroduces the idea of communal living in 350-sq. ft. micro units with shared kitchens and bathrooms that encourage social interaction with roommates. Photo by Diana Mosher

The longest-running research on human happiness, the study reveals that interpersonal relationships are critical to our well-being and strong social bonds make people happier and feel more fulfilled than money or I.Q. “A lot of what we’re doing is focused on that,” said David Senden, a principal and board member at architectural firm KTGY.

One way to encourage social bonds is to reimagine underutilized ground floor retail space in downtown projects as places for social interaction, said Senden. KTGY is also doing research into student housing, with their Thrive Hall university housing concept designed with mental health and wellness considerations in mind.

“We did a lot of research around suicide rates in universities,” said Senden. Those rates rose during Covid, and so has the awareness of how design can actually help mental health. Pulling students out of their rooms by moving their desks into a shared study space is a simple, but effective, way to decrease isolation and reinforce a sense of community.

A Shift Toward Wellness

Mental Health America reports a 500 percent post-pandemic increase in people completing a mental health screening for depression and anxiety. According to Angela Harris, CEO and principal at design firm TRIO, the multifamily industry has responded by shifting some of the concentration to wellness, health, fitness and overall wellbeing.

“Biophilic design is much more than just putting a green wall in your project,” said Harris. “It has so much more to do with natural light (in apartment units as well as amenity spaces), the views from your site, the natural finishes and the sense of curiosity that you’re creating through the corridors.”

Having the interior architects and designers at the table with the exterior architects and site planners early in the process is key. “We want to know where we’re going to start to see the building push and pull so that we can capitalize on those interior courtyards or exterior courtyards,” explained Harris. “We can integrate that all throughout the entire project so it doesn’t just stop at the site, but it actually gets integrated into the interiors.”

Creating Conversation Starters

Amenity spaces are the first experience that prospective residents are going to have with the building. Custom artwork and unique lighting can help create a feeling of authenticity and create an emotional connection. It can also become an effective conversation starter with the leasing agent.

Multi-use amenity spaces with a range of seating options appeal to residents who are planning on working from home. Meditation pods have also increased in popularity, offering a space that apartment residents can use for work, to take a break or to socialize.

According to Harris, raw natural materials like exposed concrete are trending. Structural columns have become an asset. Research shows that humans actually prefer natural finishes that create a connection to nature. While multifamily projects are driven by price and budget, Harris suggested staying away from overtly synthetic characteristics and instead utilizing materials that successfully mimic natural ones.

Panelists also reported they are still seeing a mix of cabinet colors and finishes with more simple, contemporary cabinetry styles. Residents are spending longer hours in their apartment homes—and many are still working from home part-time or full-time. They need more storage options in every room, and they welcome new ideas (like a movable kitchen island, for example) for flexible living space that can change throughout the day.

According to these panelists, the industry has an obligation to create authentic, healthy apartment communities where people can live their best lives and thrive. Covid has brought these priorities to the forefront. Going forward, expect design decisions to be made less based on trends and more on having a better, deeper understanding of how we all live as humans and on what connects us.

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