Design Strategies to Create Curb Appeal in Multifamily Settings

New York designer Marianne Cusato’s new book, “The Value of Design,” discusses how to achieve curb appeal though simple design. Here, MHN Associate Editor Erika Schnitzer talks to Cusato about applying her principles and universal themes (less is more, use common sense, design matters and everything relates) to multifamily settings.MHN: How can you achieve curb appeal in both urban and suburban multifamily settings?Cusato: It is actually quite easy: keep it simple rather than attempting to achieve diversity at a small scale. Look at multifamily being built now. Each unit has a million things on it. If you design multifamily as a big picture thing and put diversity on a larger scale, you create a more coherent composition. The goal of creating diversity is good–you want that interest–but by putting the interest at the individual level, you lose interest at the street or building level. The more people try to make individual units look different, the worse they end up looking. The intent is right on, but the way it’s executed ends up having the complete opposite effect. When a building is completely chaotic, it falls apart. You get buildings where the complexity is at such a small scale that it makes them more expensive and difficult to build and doesn’t create places that feel like places. The goal should be to create outdoor space.In the most successful developments—say, in Greenwich Village—building lines are cut straight, within the same palette. Developments that were built within the same era all speak the same language. The area also has some of the most expensive real estate in the country because buildings don’t try to be individual buildings; instead, they work together.MHN: How can your universal themes (less is more, use common sense, design matters, everything relates) be applied to multifamily housing?Cusato: Don’t try and put all these small details in. Keep it calm and think about the bigger picture, not individual units. For example, don’t put in little shutters that could never cover the huge windows.Bad design erodes our confidence in the building, even if we don’t understand why. It’s our natural human ability to understand design. We don’t know why a building looks wrong, but we know it does and that’s why it looks cheap and flimsy. Keep little details out. You’ll save on your budget and put better-quality materials in.I see a lot of developments that seem to just have landed. Developers just put parking lots around them and a tree is planted, and that’s the development. Of course that will feel bad to a lot of people, because the developments don’t have a front or backyard. The unit seems so secluded. When you line up buildings on streets, think of them as more than individual units and create a place where people can walk outside and have space, you add value. There’s a limit to the value of apartment buildings sitting in a sea of asphalt. There’s no experience beyond the individual unit, and when a building is taken to that level, no interior finishes can make up for the site plan.As long as multifamily is thought of as individual units, it will continue to look chaotic and be next to impossible to pull it together.  It won’t have community, and the value in real estate is trending towards community.MHN: In your book, you note that while many multifamily developments tend to be unattractive, there are exceptions to the rule in some larger cities. What are some designs that work well in multifamily settings? Cusato: So often we get these completely secluded multifamily pods, and if you look at some of the greatest neighborhoods, multifamily is included. When it is, the value of everything goes up. It’s not about just making pods look good; it’s about making the streetscape look good. If it’s done on a consistent urban scale, you’ll have a place that looks good and you won’t even process the difference between multi- and single-family. Really good design feels right and you don’t have to think about it. Bad design feels wrong and you don’t know why. Design is something we feel and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but at the heart of good design are our principles of common sense, of keeping it simple, of using things when appropriate and building to the bigger picture. With really beautiful streets that people flock to, what you’ll see is the consistency. At first glance, you think that the architecture is so ornate, but when you stop and look at it, every window is the same. If you look at these places, people identify themselves by the street they live on. The desires to have individuality and to create diversity are very real, but our default settings for achieving these are actually doing more harm.