MHN takes a look ahead at next-generation apartment features that renters will demand.

When Mark Humphreys, CEO of Dallas-based Humphreys & Partners Architects, asks his 20-something children what they think of granite countertops, he’s likely to be met with rolling eyes and a dismissive comeback.

“Ooooh, c’mon, Dad, that’s what you have,” he recalls them responding.

Says Humphreys: “In new building materials and finishes, granite countertops are out. Granite is over, done. It’s been overused.”

The movement away from granite countertops in new buildings of the kind designed by Humphreys’ firm, one of the nation’s busiest apartment architects, is just one of many design and development trends likely to emerge or be sustained in 2014 and beyond. From smaller units to wellness initiatives, use of componentized construction and more, the following are the trends to watch this year.

Micro apartments

Once, apartments of 550 square feet were considered small. But the standard has been reduced, and today, 380 is the new small, Humphreys says.
“It’s a price-point thing,” he adds. “We’ve seen rents going up over the last couple of years. So by making apartments smaller, as a property owner you’re lowering the rent per month, but your rent per square foot is going up. I call it the Manhattanization of the rest of the United States.

“The Kansas City, Dallas and Minneapolis markets are on fire in their urban core [areas]. The rents have gone up so much in these urban cores, it’s becoming almost prohibitively expensive for young people to afford apartments, and the answer is to make them smaller. These aren’t studios. They are one bedroom [units], or have a separate sleeping room.”
Also remarking on the small apartment trend is Neil Brown, an Atlanta-based private investor-developer who was formerly chief development officer for Denver-based Archstone. “There are a number of people starting to experiment with these, and it’s going to be interesting to see how they perform. I think they’ll do fine at least initially… [But] I wonder if the same trend we saw in people moving up from starter homes will happen here.”

Componentized construction

Along with the rising rents mentioned by Humphreys has come a higher cost to build the upscale apartments renters seek these days. That is leading to cost-saving innovations in the way apartment buildings are designed and built.

So says Michael J. Krych, partner with BKV Group, a Minneapolis architectural and engineering firm specializing in multifamily. “It is becoming more and more of a challenge to continue providing these great amenities that people now expect, like enclosed pools, fire pits, water features, rooftop sky parks, saunas, clubrooms, fitness centers, you name it,” he says.

How to pay for them? Krych and colleagues are trying to reduce the cost but still offer the same quality, by means of componentized construction, in which wall panels, balconies, baths and kitchens are prefabricated. In a sense, quality in these components is improved, because they are built in a controlled setting off site, shipped to the construction site and installed in place. “The goal is to try to maintain the expected level of amenities that have been trend setters in the market, but creatively find new ways to afford them,” he says. “We’re talking about both the units and the structural systems of the building.”

Wellness built in

Those heading to Las Vegas can book one of the StayWell rooms at the MGM Grand Hotel, which promote wellness through features that include air purification, lighting systems and even Vitamin C-infused showers, Brown says.

“They claim they can generate a 30 percent premium versus one without the features they offer. But you spend far more time in your apartment than you would in a hotel,” he adds. “Some of these things are bound to make their way into the apartment industry. For example in a project Archstone did in D.C., we had a ‘green wall’ of live plants on one side of the fitness center. The wall helps generate oxygen and it also looks nice.”

Also likely to be witnessed are more bike storage and bike repair spaces, and a continued increase in the quality of equipment in exercise rooms. “Thirty years ago, you equipped those rooms with the cheapest equipment available,” Brown recalls. “Now, you have a focus on the widest array of equipment of the highest quality, because people do use the equipment.”

Greater wireless control

The cost of energy will continue to increase faster than inflation, Brown says. That trend is certain to propel greater use of devices and systems that save energy and enhance lifestyle. For instance, we’ll see wider use of Nest Learning Thermostats that not only can be adjusted via smart phones, but that also learn residents’ behavior, recognize they like their living rooms at, say, 72 degrees, and automatically adjust when they enter or leave the room, Brown reports.

Today, considerable Cat-5 wiring exists in apartments, but it isn’t used anymore because so many residents have gone wireless. “You don’t have to put as much wire into the unit,” Brown says. “And as apartment developers, you also don’t have to guess wrong about where to allow space for residents’ TVs.”

Technology moves very fast, and if developers try too hard to build it into a space, it will be outdated just as fast, Brown says. “You need to try to make the space adaptable, so you don’t incur these upfront costs.”

Charging stations

With the all-electric Tesla rapidly assuming the title of the nation’s most talked-about and—among the affluent—highly-sought vehicle, watch for more buildings to feature charging stations for electric cars, Humphreys says.

“We were starting to do that a while back, but with the Tesla’s success, particularly in California where they have knocked the door off the market, we’ve had no second thoughts,” he said. “If you have a Tesla, where are you going to live? If we build a high-density building, and we have not allocated for charging, it’s very tough to retrofit. Our designs allow for a certain number of charging stations now, and more can be added later if demand requires.”

Remanufactured products

You’ve had to wait until now for the answer to the logical question raised at top: “If granite countertops are out, what’s in?”

The answer is recycled glass, recycled mirrors, recycled windshields, and recycled porcelain, according to Humphreys. “We’re actually using some broken bottles from manufacturers,” he reports. “That’s the ultimate green product. You’re using a remanufactured product, and that is the highest level of green.”

Granite, on the other hand, is a first-time use, typically taken from the earth in a distant part of the globe and shipped all the way to the U.S.

“Your carbon footprint is large,” Humphreys says. “But recycled materials from the U.S. involve very low transportation and shipment costs.” Besides, consider granite’s diminished cache. As Humphreys points out, “Granite has lost a lot of its exclusiveness when you see it in public washrooms at the airport.”

To comment, e-mail Diana Mosher