- Dec 28, 2016
Design often impacts prospective renters and buyers subliminally, rather than consciously. So says Randy Fifield, co-principal of Fifield Cos. Visiting a property where quality design is lacking, a prospective resident or investor “might not be able to say anything other than, ‘It just doesn’t look right to me,’” she remarked.
When design is right, though, it achieves a kind of harmony. “There should be threads of the design carried through the entry, hallways, apartments and amenity space,” Fifield said. “It should go together with the colors of the wood and the fabric colors, looking like it was meant to be. Thematic design brings about a luxurious and seamless, symbiotic presentation.”
Fifield is characteristic of a wave of leading developers that deem design critical to their success. They are navigating shifting trends and budgets to deliver design that sells.
If design is driving development, luxury is driving design. That’s the view of Rosemary Dwyer, Chicago director of market-rate and special projects for The Habitat Co. The firm develops, owns and manages properties in Chicago, Missouri, Michigan and Florida.
“What I’m seeing as a Chicago director is high-rise (development). And because construction costs are so high, they have to target neighborhoods and rents that support those construction costs,” she said. “So design tends to mean higher-end features and finishes, which in turn attract the demographic seeking residences in those neighborhoods.”
Habitat apartments are featuring cooler-toned palettes; mixed cabinetry with lighter or white woods on top and slightly darker finishes on the bottom; and high-end closet organizer systems, especially movable, modular systems. Residents appear to prefer finishes that are either simple and classic or cutting edge.
“If it’s something that’s bled down to the big-box store, it’s perceived as slightly dated,” Dwyer said. “Something more cutting edge is better accepted by this market.”
Design sensibilities vary dramatically by geography. In Southern California, where Fifield is debuting the Chelsea Santa Monica in the oceanside city, contemporary design wows.
“We’re using Viking appliances, an upgraded line you’d see in a high-end home,” Fifield said. “Rather than just having doors, we have storage drawers that function much better than cabinets. … Five-point bathrooms have double-bowl vanities, freestanding private showers, deep soaking tubs and private areas for commodes. These are very upgraded. Two people can comfortably get ready at the same time.”
Chelsea offers floor-to-ceiling windows, as well as exterior balconies measuring as much as 800 square feet. For those that don’t have room-size balconies, the courtyard features al fresco dining areas that can be reserved for private events, Fifield noted.
Other design trends reflect residents’ pursuit of healthy living and a growing tendency for developers to provide on-site storage.
The push for health calls for dedicated space to accommodate elaborate fitness centers, said David Kennedy, principal at KTGY Architecture + Planning in Chicago. “Typically, these are carved out of an amenity floor,” he said.
“You may end up taking that space from a parking garage, which you can do in a transit-oriented development. As they take out cars and design for smaller units, some developers I know are using that extra space for storage within the building. There’s a high demand for storage, and what better use is there for space that’s right up against a party wall or a space that has no windows? That storage can be rented out.”
Surveying the landscape
Sustainability continues to rise in importance as a factor in marketing, especially among Millennial residents, but it doesn’t necessarily impart an architectural influence. “With construction rates going up, developers of market-rate apartments are reluctant to spend a lot of money on sustainable elements,” Kennedy said. “They want them in there for marketability and lower energy costs.” However, that doesn’t necessarily translate to investing in formal LEED certification, which can often run to a six-figure price tag. “With the base code compliance today, you’re virtually at LEED (certification) anyway, because they demand a more energy-efficient building envelope,” he added.
Sustainability exerts considerably greater sway in landscape architecture. At Lifescapes International in Newport Beach, Calif., landscape design is meticulously mapped out to generate positive first impressions while simultaneously remaining sensitive to the state’s drought conditions.
The company plants large trees and small shrubs in multifamily properties’ entry areas. In other places, it uses a combination of drought-resistant and subtropical plants.
“You only get one chance to make a first impression,” company president Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs said. “Focus on the most lush and appealing areas, where your guests and residents congregate. You want to use plant materials in a very successful way, so residents get a sense that, though they live in a condo or apartment, it feels like a resort hotel.”
Drought-resistant plantings require higher budgets and more maintenance. “But if (it’s) done right, you’re going to … have happy buyers and happy residents,” she said.
Gen Y appeal
Designing for Millennials requires catering to residents that tend to place a higher value on experience than on material acquisition, Dwyer noted. Moreover, she observed, no previous generation
would have welcomed micro-units quite so warmly. Millennials rent not just the unit but the amenity floor and the first-floor retail. Accustomed to working from nearly anywhere, they also feel less tethered to home.
That’s why developers are favoring what Dwyer calls “this huge push toward diversity of amenities.” Millennials want dog parks, game rooms, putting greens, demonstration kitchens, golf simulators, basketball courts and even micro-pubs.
Dwyer also believes that Millennials prefer high-end finishes to larger apartments, and will gladly go smaller if it means their domiciles contain Nest thermostats or other swank touches.
Developers design not just for Millennials but also their visiting parents and siblings. “Sometimes it’s a separate rental unit that can be rented for that family visit,” Kennedy said.
Approaches to design are also being shaped by rising construction costs and growing competition among multifamily developers. “We have to find the most economical structural solution, staying away from the heavier construction elements like cast-in-place concrete, and going more toward lighter framing, either with wood or light-gauge steel framing allowed by code,” Kennedy said. “The other thing is open shop bidding. … Some developers are looking to develop without use of union trades, or with a mix of union and non-union trades.”
Budgetary constraints also affect some practical considerations. For instance, bathrooms in some Fifield properties look like Cararra marble, “but we’re using porcelain,” Fifield said. “We’re finding things that are more durable and get you a lot of bang for the buck. You must be disciplined when you’re holding the line with the budgets.”
Choices of materials, styles and amenities may vary, but on one point there is little doubt. Developers are more focused on design than they used to be. “Given the competition in the marketplace,” Kennedy said, “they’re learning it sells.”
Images courtesy of Sudbery Properties
Originally appearing in the December 2016 issue of MHN.