Demographics and Demand Drive Floor Plan Evolution

By Daniel P. Gehman, Thomas P. Cox: Architects (TCA)There was a time in the multifamily universe when product differentiation was not the holy grail of apartment design.  In fact, one size basically fit all.  Some iteration of the simplest 25-ft. x 36-ft., side-by-side one-bedroom dwelling has been used–successfully–for decades by everyone in this field.  A venerable workhorse, it provided a comfortable habitat for many singles, new couples and tiny families.  As the families grew, they moved up to a two-bedroom dwelling, which was often a clone of the one-bedroom with an additional bedroom suite stitched on.  Everybody was happy.    Then a remarkable phenomenon occurred:  diversity struck!  The number and variety of “household formations” exploded.  Where the market once anticipated and accommodated a simple option of single or married households, we now consider a vast array of “family” compositions.  These include single parents with full- or part-time children, unmarried couples, move-up or move-down empty- or never-nesters, multi-generational families, same-sex partners and more.  Multiply this by the special nuances of unique ethnic or cultural communities, and the range of suitable options grows exponentially.  “Getting it right” will demand flexibility and inventiveness on the part of designer and developer alike, requiring ever-greater creativity, sensitivity and research to develop designs that satisfy peculiar user expectations. Older, frequently historic, buildings that are renovated and re-used as new living spaces provide a stimulating canvas for the exploration of new unit layout ideas.  Design constraints include not only the raw space of the building, but the location of existing windows, structural components and the demands of heating, cooling and powering spaces that were never intended for 24/7 habitation.  The possibility of successfully using “off-the-shelf” floor plans in a made-over building rapidly approaches zero.Instead, the design team is compelled to re-imagine the absolute basics of a home’s spaces.  The layout of rooms becomes the endless quest for access to natural light and ventilation.  Unique and exciting plan permutations emerge as new ideas are run up the flagpole.  How will this kitchen work?  What circulation pattern will best serve the resident?  What happens if we rotate one (or more) of the major walls off the organizing grid?  No idea becomes too ridiculous to explore, and often yields delightful, entirely unexpected results.  What if some of these lessons were applied to a new, ground-up project?  Can an old dog be taught new tricks?  Consider the kitchen.  What if it were freed from its moorings and pushed nearer the light source?  Since many developers are already providing the upgraded cabinet and counter finishes that a number of residents expect, there’s no need to hide this functional zone.  Why not make it into a feature—the “food preparation entertainment area,” right in the heart of the home?  The fringe benefit of this move is the migration of the dining nook to the area near the front door, where it can remain “made up” much of the time if desired—like in a model home.  To take this thinking a step further, why not push the kitchen all the way out to the window wall?  If it’s going to function as an entertaining area, where friends hang out and cook together, shouldn’t it have a convenient access to the deck?  This design essentially inverts the standard arrangement of living and cooking spaces in the apartment—and places the living room near the front door, as it is in many single-family homes.      The same sort of techniques can be applied to the classic “split” two-bedroom unit, with equally satisfying results.  It becomes especially exciting with the introduction of a “twist”—the rotation of a key wall off the regular grid.  The angled walls, while allowing space to be strategically squeezed from one room into another, create dramatic spatial geometries that distinguish this apartment from others.      Flexibility can also be beneficial when pursuing design objectives other than the quality of the living spaces. In the Related Companies’ Hikari community in the Little Tokyo district of downtown Los Angeles, an interlocking cluster of a studio and a one-bedroom apartment occupies the same footprint as the two-bedroom plan described above.  This two-for-one swap ability allowed for quick adjustments of door counts and unit mixes in the planning process to get the balance of types and density just right, without changing the building’s overall floor plan.    As new multifamily communities become more focused on specific demographics, offering an expanding array of options to a constantly evolving population, fresh ideas will become critical to a project’s success. Some of these will spring from the imagination of the design and development team; others will arise from listening to the needs of prospective residents.  In any case, the future is an exciting and creative place, so…go forth and invent!Daniel Gehman, AIA, is a principal with Thomas P. Cox: Architects (TCA) in Los Angeles.