Getting Apartments to 'Wow!'

To attract residents in today's competitive rental market, create design ideas that sell.

By David Nagahiro and David Ferris, CBT Architects

With rental offerings booming in most metropolitan cities and suburbs, how does a developer lure the best residents? An optimal design and unit layout that exudes the feeling of space, warmth and comfort, should spark a “Wow!” response from prospective renters in any price bracket.

Whether designing for a first-time renter or seasoned resident on the move, we know that first impressions count. A central objective for architects is to create that sense of “wow” as soon as a prospect walks in the front door. Lobbies need to be designed with security, access and the appropriate level of amenities and aesthetics in mind to convey an immediate sense of building identity and target market. There is a definite increase in the amount of common space offered in today’s more socially engaging apartment buildings, often because the unit size is decreasing for efficiency’s sake.

In these smaller multifamily units, the challenge is to design spaces in ways that read larger and avoid the impression of compact size or confined living.

Here are four design ideas to overcome this challenge, and make creative use of today’s smaller floorplans:

Start with light

Allowing natural light to extend throughout the unit adds warmth, character and appeal. One way to help small spaces feel bigger is to orient rooms toward the daylight, starting with the view upon stepping in the front door. Seeing directly through the unit, from the entry to the window wall, provides a sense of the space expanding beyond its borders.

Secondary interior rooms, especially bedrooms, should be designed with openings and doors facing the windows. This interior daylighting further enhances the sense of continuity and expansiveness, while allowing natural light to extend through the opening to the rest of the home. In units with tall ceilings and loft-style settings, this can be achieved by enclosing interior spaces with partial height walls that stop short a foot or so from the ceiling—high enough to delineate separation and afford privacy, but low enough through which valuable daylight can bounce.

Reduce foyers and corridors

With smaller layouts, the key living spaces can feel larger by borrowing square feet from foyers and corridors. One way to accomplish this is to create efficient unit layouts that create “looped circulation” versus dead-ended circulation. With a continuous loop offering more practical and spacious circulation, residents move more freely throughout the unit.

Efficient units can also feature directly adjoining living spaces, rather than the conventional layout where rooms are reached via foyers and corridors, to save critical extra space. A bedroom creatively connected to a living room, for example, can use what would otherwise be circulation space to increase room sizes. Unit layouts require individual access to many spaces. But in a compact apartment when living rooms can be connected to dining rooms, which are then connected to kitchens, or when entry foyers are open appendages to living spaces, all these elements read together. The result is perceived as a grander and more functional overall space.

Open up kitchens

An open approach to kitchen planning can greatly expand the sense of space. What typically served as an enclosed galley kitchen can become a part of the overall living area when the walls are removed. In this increasingly popular planning approach, a kitchen planned as an ell or single run can immediately be part of an overall larger room.

Make the kitchen a design element.  Attentive selection of materials and appliances can make the kitchen feel either as a part of the room “background”or as an integrated built-in element, depending on whether the finishes blend in or contrast with the room.  When developing the kitchen cabinet and countertop palette, use of lighter-colored upper cabinets and darker lower cabinets creates a more interesting kitchen composition and integrated aesthetic while reducing the purely utilitarian appearance kitchens often have in small units.

Choose materials to expand space

Selecting the right materials and finishes will provide a sense of openness and cohesion. For example, a consistent floor finish that extends from room to room will create a background that integrates all of the interior spaces. Contrasting floor finishes, on the other hand, create clearly separated individual rooms with a more confined experience.

Designs that create movable walls, such as large barn doors between adjacent living rooms and bedrooms that share the same window wall, expand the sense of space. In an open position, the combined spaces “live larger” via abundant light and found space. The option of closing these moveable walls for privacy is a valuable feature of their flexibility.

Another space-saving and cost-effective solution for tight residential spaces is to include movable closets. Built on castors, these flexible closets allow infinite storage possibilities and permit residents to customize or shape their space with the storage units acting as screen walls.

When designing today’s efficient multifamily apartment floorplans, the objective is to provide an environment that will be seen as customized to the target resident lifestyle while being flexible and transformable. Knowing the trends, needs and demographic-related preferences of the target market, and translating this knowledge into a successful unit design, is essential. Apartment design at its best pre-sells units and delivers that “Wow, I love this place!” response.

David Nagahiro is a principal and David Ferris is a senior associate at CBT Architects, a Boston-based architecture, interior design and urban design firm. They can be reached at and