How Most New Projects Weave in Wellness

8 min read

Designers discuss the health-minded elements that are becoming standard in multifamily development.

Low VOC materials and enhanced filtration create wellness-essential indoor air. Credit: Cooper Cary

From students to seniors and affordable to affluent, apartment communities offering wellness features have strong appeal. Features will vary by region and population, so determining which ones make sense for your property will be a customized experience. Here’s what seven industry pros have found in their work.

“At least 70 percent of the newer communities in a market will contain a fitness center,” remarked Kimberly Byrum, multifamily managing principal with Newport Beach-based housing market research firm Zonda. Walkability and pedestrian friendly design, as well as ample, accessible green space and native landscaping are also popular.

Within individual rental units, Byrum pointed to patios and floor-to-ceiling windows for high-rise-buildings. Her firm’s findings suggest healthy/nontoxic/non-off-gassing building materials, hard surface flooring throughout instead of carpeting and improved ventilation appeal to prospective tenants for Class A developers.

Fitness facilities, nature connections and indoor air quality are widely accepted as essential wellness features across all rental categories. How those show up varies by location, user profile and market level.

“Enhanced air filtration and low volatile organic compound materials are the features that we specify on every project,” declared Krista Dumkrieger, principal with the Atlanta-based mixed-use residential studio in Cooper Carry. “Being thoughtful in material specification is one of the most cost effective ways to provide a healthy space for residents.”

Outdoor space is also imperative. “Preferably each unit will have its own dedicated space, even if it’s small. At a minimum, an outdoor area on the property that’s not completely paved,” the architect added. She noted that with so many working from home and spending more time there, this imperative is more important than ever.

Wellness for Students

One of the most-used amenities for student housing properties is the in-building fitness center, declared Jay Pearlman, senior vice president with The Scion Group, a Chicago-headquartered advisory services for student housing communities. “Residents want up-to-date fitness technology such as subscription-based cycling,” he said. “Today’s student residents also have a broader definition of wellness and seek ways to counteract stressors.” His firm is seeing increased demand for yoga and meditation rooms, as well as outdoor space for gathering, fitness and quiet solitude.

Wellness for Seniors

“Many of the must-have wellness features in senior living are those that connect residents with nature,” shared Johnny Dagher, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, principal at Orlando-based Baker Barrios Architects.

Natural connections extend indoors with biophilia-inspired elements like garden walls, water features and natural lighting, the architect added. “There is a great deal of research showing the connection between natural elements and well-being,” he said. “For example, sitting by a fire is a multi-sensory experience, promoting social interaction and relaxation, but for senior living, particularly assisted living and memory care, we need to be sensitive to safety concerns.” Water vapor fireplaces, which don’t produce heat, is one option to add this feature safely.

Multi-purpose spaces, pet amenities and gardening beds are all affordable, appealing ways to add wellness features with a solid return on investment, Dagher added.

Fireplaces are multi-sensory wellness features, rendered with water vapor for safer senior gatherings. Credit: Baker Barrios / Tuscan Garden

When it comes to the unit itself, high ceilings and larger windows promote well-being, he comments. “Vinyl plank flooring is also a good option for creating a home-like feeling while more low-maintenance compared to traditional wood or carpet,” he said.

Technology integration is a top priority for senior living communities, Dagher noted. Examples include adding spaces dedicated to telemedicine and in-unit smart home technology. He also predicted the appeal of AI technologies to help prevent falls, improve indoor air quality and even offer virtual reality spaces.

It is also essential to understand the needs of future residents, especially in the senior housing space. Tomorrow’s Gen X senior, Dagher pointed out, will be a different tenant than today’s Greatest Generation resident. It’s entirely possible that your mother will spend some of her golden years in the metaverse, as well as in her apartment.

Wellness for Affordable Communities

Affordable projects may lack water walls and connected fitness centers, but their creators, like San Francisco Bay Area-based Community Housing Opportunities Corp., want their properties to enhance the well-being of their lower-income tenants, too. Amenities for the nonprofit community developer’s Palm Springs 60-unit neighborhood include a dog park, splash pad and two BBQ areas.

Another desert region project on CHOC’s planning boards will feature unit terraces with nature views. “Other areas we’re looking at include wider stairways to encourage socialization and ease of use,” shared the project’s architect, Maria Song, AIA, LEED & AP, principal of Interactive Design Corp. “‘Active staircases’ encourage taking the stairs rather than the elevator. This promotes exercise as well. Typically, we include an indoor/outdoor fitness area, or an on-site fitness center if possible. Other areas that developers may explore include creating smaller courtyards which will work for an intimate space for gathering.”


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Within the affordable units, cross ventilations through window placement design in addition to air-conditioning and natural lighting serve as wellness features. “We also design accessible kitchens and bathrooms, private balconies on the upper floors and private porches on the first floors to allow outdoor access,” Song said. She predicted more work from home spaces, smart technology for security, more outdoor spaces and on-site wellness amenities like shared kitchens and community centers.

One resource available to affordable communities wanting to be wellness-focused is Fannie Mae’s Healthy Housing Rewards program. Introduced in 2017 for multifamily borrowers who incorporate wellness design features—certified through partners like the Center for Active Design’s Fitwel program—the program provides pricing breaks for new or renovated rental properties.

“We recognized that the success of affordable multifamily properties is directly tied to the health and stability of the residents,” said Karyn Sper, Fannie Mae’s senior director of multifamily customer and partner management. The program is small but growing, “But it’s not for every multifamily owner,” Sper added. “There is a commitment both in terms of meeting the affordability requirement—at least 50 percent of units must be restricted to households earning no more than 80 percent of Area Median Income—and obtaining and maintaining the required certifications.” Sper recommends that those interested in applying should start early.

Wellness for Market Rate Communities

Market rate communities must have club-level fitness facilities. Credit: PMG / Society Living / X Miami Apartments

Fitness, fitness, fitness! All Society Living communities have pool decks, large gyms and a studio for trainer-led classes. There’s also a yoga lawn for outdoor group workouts and wellness-related programming like nutrition.

“Hosting frequent fitness events and keeping a large gym well-operating can be expensive, but it’s a marketing and retention tool that brings major value,” observed Ryan Shear, managing partner at Miami-headquartered developer PMG. The firm is exploring fresh food vending machines, meditation pods and individualized training as opportunities for ancillary revenue.

Gym facilities and programming are the most in-demand amenities, he said, and they must be competitive with private health clubs in the area—not just other communities. The trend is toward more free weights, functional training and group classes and away from plate-loaded machines, he notes.

Within Society Living’s units are enhanced air filtration, large windows and natural light. PMG is “exploring enhanced water purification and air filtration systems in upcoming developments,” Shear commented.

Luxury communities also have pools, yoga studios, fitness centers and classes, as you’d expect. Optima adds saunas and massage rooms (connected to an app for booking services) in their wellness complexes. Given Chicago’s frigid winters, climate control is key.

Premium wellness facilities like saunas are hallmarks of luxury living. Credit: Optima / Optima Lakeview / Michael Duerinckx Photography

“Optima Lakeview boasts the region’s only heated, year-round rooftop swimming pool,” shared David Hovey Jr., AIA, president and principal architect of Illinois and Arizona-based real estate developer Optima, Inc. There’s also a heated dog park. Pickleball and Pilates have been popular, so the developer is looking at expanding those offerings to other communities.

Suburban Chicago Optima Verdana will also have an herb garden and a garden lounge, as well as three outdoor terraces, all designed for year-round use when it opens in 2023. “We believe people will continue to seek usable outdoor space, as we learned during the pandemic the importance of fresh air and being outside,” Hovey shared. This is even true in Chicago winters, he adds.

Within Optima’s units, expansive terraces—some with private grills—and floor-to-ceiling windows are extremely popular. “The most searched for wellness design features are the views from our terraces,” Hovey reports.

“Covid really took a growing interest in holistic wellness and supercharged it,” Cooper Carry’s Dumkrieger observeds, noting how the pandemic also brought mental health conversations and the underappreciated benefits of biophilia into the mainstream. Those biophilic offerings include the green spaces and nature views communities across all categories are incorporating. “Preferably each unit will have its own dedicated space, even if it’s small,” she suggested.

“Developers play a key role in how affordable housing is created,” observed affordable housing nonprofit CHOC’s chief strategy officer Joy Silver. “Our focus is providing quality housing, which serves as a foundation for the future of the children who live there.  A house is not just a house, it is a home. And there’s no place like home.” Even when it’s rented.

Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS, MCCWC is a Forbes.com contributor, wellness design consultant, industry speaker, and award-winning author of Wellness by Design (Tiller Press, 2020).

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