Thinking Outside the 350-SF Box

National Apartment Association members convened at the group’s recent Education Conference to address key topics, from maximizing ROI through design to cultivating the next generation of talent.

By Sanyu Kyeyune

Rebekah Fischer

Rebekah Fischer

Multifamily housing industry stalwarts recently gathered in Atlanta for the National Apartment Association‘s Education Conference & Exposition. Topics at the forefront of discussions included engineering homes to suit the changing tastes of renters, grooming industry leaders and maintaining a competitive edge through captivating design.

Tiny Apartments, Big Results

Previously, state and local policies and procedures served as obstacles to constructing micro-units, which are defined as living spaces fewer than 350 square feet with a fully functioning kitchen and bath. Those regulations have slackened, and along with demographic shifts and the rise of the sharing economy, they have increased the appeal of smaller units, especially among unencumbered Millennials. Considering many members of this consumer group—which has outnumbered Baby Boomers in the U.S.—are postponing homeownership and choosing access to experiences over possession of goods, it is no surprise that micro-units will comprise a larger share of rental housing stock in coming years.

Based on surveying renters, Rebekah Fischer, portfolio manager for Cardinal Group Management, named some “must-haves” for tiny apartments, including thoughtful design choices that maximize space, namely storage, large windows, and locations in transit-adjacent, dense urban areas. “Now that you’re in a tiny apartment, you need to be able to get out and social. People want state-of-the-art fitness centers and WeWork-style meeting areas instead of clubhouses,” she noted.

Fischer called micro-units “a goldmine for developers, who can still implement high-end finishes in higher-density, higher-yield spaces.” One way that developers can maximize the cost-per-square-foot of a tiny apartment is to use sliding modular dividers, which enable occupants to effortlessly transform their dwellings into new configurations with minimal effort. Offering this degree of choice to renters can also distinguish a micro-unit from a conventional apartment. 

While micro-units may not solve the nation’s affordability crisis, they can be designed to accommodate entire families, instead of single renters.”In the future,” said Fischer, “You can take some of these micro-unit concepts and design them for a two- or three-bedroom household, so that families can live in a desirable area at an affordable rent.”

Engineering Creativity and Innovation

Sarah Prevette

Sarah Prevette

Sarah Prevette, founder of the Future Design School, led a session on how to implement design thinking within a workplace culture. In her presentation, she emphasized that understanding a prospect’s journey throughout the sales process is key to engaging customers.

Because design thinking hinges on visualization, managers can use this framework to map out a customer’s interactions, from the initial point of engagement to, ideally, closing a sale.

It’s important to ask at the beginning—before breaking ground—what does the customer want?” she mentioned, offering occupants of student housing buildings as an example of how important it is to comprehend what customers value in their living environments.

Prevette commented that the results of this exercise were surprising. “They had less interest in the functionality of things, and more interest in having enough outlets to plug in all of their devices. Instead of common areas, certain students would prefer quiet places to study.”

When working with large employers, Prevette makes sure that leadership is prepared to create a cohesive vision around innovation, rather than mandating change from the top down. Once members of an organization speak the same language, they can more effectively bring shared goals to fruition. Managers’ roles stretch beyond just delegating, Prevette added, and include giving employees the flexibility to think creatively about the issues that surround them.

It doesn’t matter what role you’re in, you’re always solving a problem,” she explained. “So if you feel empowered to solve it, and your company values you solving it, then you can lead from where you are.

Interior Investments

Sarah Fishburne and Liz Ballard

Sarah Fishburne and Liz Ballard

With renters facing more options, property owners and managers must increasingly seek new ways to draw in prospects with selective capital investments. The Home Depot’s Sarah Fishburne and Liz Ballard shared quick, easy and affordable fixes to attract and retain occupants with compelling design.

Visitors tend to notice the condition and style of kitchen features when touring a new property, so this is an area of the apartment in which property owners and managers should focus, explained Ballard, manager of trends and design at The Home Depot. Because faucets and sinks are most frequently used in the kitchen, it’s crucial to include these expenditures in a capital improvement program. 

A place where you don’t have to make a huge investment is bathroom cabinetry, by simply switching out the handles on a vanity,” commented Ballard. “If you do this when you update your units, you can easily give them a modern look.”

Often overlooked, lighting is another way to make an impact in multifamily communities, Ballard noted. Whereas traditional design concepts tend to favor uniform fixtures throughout an apartment, a new trend has surfaced: mixing and matching hardware.

We’ve seen at trade shows LED strip lights run along the interior of vanity cabinetry, alongside copper hardware,” said Ballard. Making small adjustments that incorporate different textures and materials gives each room a custom look. Additionally, running LED lights beneath or within cabinetry serves a practical purpose, by making it easier for occupants to identify contents.

Gone are the days of beige and yellow walls; taupes and grays have emerged as popular hues for creating an inviting atmosphere in bedrooms, common areas and bathrooms. “Paint is the most affordable way to make a property feel fresh and new, but it can also date a property pretty quickly,” said Sarah Fishburne, The Home Depot’s design and trend director. 

We know that carpeting still plays a large role in multifamily communities, so it’s important to be innovative even when carpet is involved.” Ballard cited stain resistance as an important feature to owners and managers of new developments, who need to find cost-effective ways to protect units against wear and tear, especially in pet-friendly communities. “LifeProof comes in 800 different style and color combinations, and all at different price points,” she added. “They also just released PetProof carpet.”  In addition to carpeting, innovations in flooring—including waterproof laminate panels that click into place—have not only lengthened the life of floors, but have also helped to cut down on labor hours due to ease of installation.

Modernizing a space does not need to be burdensome; by investing in the most cost-effective, visually compelling features first, multifamily owners can get a leg up on the competition.


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