IBS Special Report: Wellness and Community Trump Luxury

At the International Builders' Show, architects discussed what amenities renters truly value in today's competitive multifamily environment.

500480p09It’s easy to be impressed at first glance by multifamily communities with extravagant amenities like Jumbotrons by resort-like pools with laser light shows, but in reality, renter’s priorities are more focused on the quality of their lives rather than the quantity of perks when it comes to where they want to live. At a panel discussion during the National Association of Home Builders’ (NAHB) International Builder’s Week conference, three architects and design experts addressed which amenities really draw modern residents of all demographics in.

Based on a study of 20,000 renters across the country about what they care about when it comes to their living situation, Rohit Anand, principal at KTGY Architecture and Planning, said “wellness” was one of the most common denominator in the study, with focuses on outdoor activities and healthy living.

“The word ‘community’ is up there pretty strongly, and I think that essentially speaks to belonging to something. What’s interesting, I think to us, is that both the idea of community and wellness overlap. The activities that you are carrying out in terms of the whole wellness are actually helping you be part of that community. We see a great confluence between those things,” he added.

While the terms reflected from the study were received from renters of many different ages, locations and professions, there are certain commonalities that connect all of them. “Just because we are demographically very different but we may be similar in terms of what we want and need,” commented Jong Chung, vice president of design at AvalonBay Communities.

Health and wellness

Today, it isn’t enough to put a few treadmills in the basement of a community and call it a fitness center. Modern renters of all ages are looking to incorporate health and wellness into all aspects of their lives in convenient ways. Chung posed the question, “How do you capture (wellness), both in the product that you’re offering and in the setting, and how does that get translated to the aesthetic of the built environment?” According to Daniel Gehman, studio director at Humphreys & Partners Architects’ Newport Beach office, wellness in design today means integrating fitness, health and sustainability. “Sustainability has moved from just being solar panels on the roof and composting in the kitchen,” he explained. “Sustainability is your wellness in every aspect of your life. I’m welcoming seeing that shift as a discussion topic.”

While renters clearly have a desire to live a healthy lifestyle, they also still have the everyday constraints of jobs, families and other obligations. A multifamily community can foster a healthy environment in a convenient and interesting way by offering a diverse schedule of activities. “We have fitness trainers coming into a lot of our facilities now, they’re all organized yoga classes or fitness classes,” said Gehman. “We have a space specifically now for bike dudes to come in once a week, and if you have a problem with your bike and you really don’t want to get greasy or figure it out, he’s there.”

Chung warned that while fancy bike fixing studios or workshops might seem like they’d draw in the health-conscious, sustainable crowd, communities have to keep in mind that most renters prioritize convenience. He cited an AvalonBay community in Boston, where there is a large bike riding community, but the concept of a do-it-yourself garage didn’t take off. “They’d rather have someone else service (their bike),” he said. “Just because it checks all the boxes and you think it’s going to work; it doesn’t always work.”

Anand echoed the convenience theme and added that training doesn’t have to be in person for it to be customized. “We’ve also seen a lot more fitness-on-demand. Essentially, your apartment community can have a contract with somebody that’s specifically providing fitness (online). This could be yoga, any kind of weight sessions with a third-party company, and this is provided to you through the Internet. So you could be doing the same workout in D.C. as your friend in San Francisco,” he said. “That gets into the idea of community in a very virtual way.”

Food on the go

While trying to stay healthy and living a busy lifestyle at the same time, residents need easy and quick options for food that are still in line with their goals. “The number one amenity that comes back from surveys, aside from the fitness center, consistently, is a grocery store in the building,” Anand said, while adding, “Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s seem to be the top priorities.”

The panelists agreed that Amazon’s new grocery store concept is an intriguing one for multifamily. Amazon Go is a new idea from the online retail giant and it’s essentially a grocery store with no checkout. Time-crunched shoppers can grab what they need, and as they leave the Amazon Go location, their Amazon account is charged and they receive a receipt. “You can do the Amazon store in a relatively small corner of something if you’re thoughtful about it,” said Gehman, enforcing the fact that compelling amenities don’t have to take up a lot of square footage.

Gehman also described the concept of an “honor bar,” a new take on shared snacks that he first encountered at his co-working space. Essentially, a variety of snacks are available, and users scan an app to pay for it, without waiting in a checkout line or counting change at a vending machine. “The mentality, the social awareness of the people who are using my space is (such that) nobody ever rips off the honor store, because it doesn’t fit their word view to do that,” he said.

“We’re seeing a lot of honor bars pop up in offices- some companies have it within their space itself,” Chung said. “You’re seeing it in hotels…where you just grab a wine and hopefully pay for it. These are concepts that (evolve) as the lines between the sectors start to blur…these kind of stores and honor bars are really an example of that happening. You’re going to see it on vacation, you’re going to see it at work, and you’re going to see it in your apartment home.”

Communal gathering areas

“What we’re seeing more of is a certain search for being a part of something, whether it’s a tribe, whether it’s a neighborhood or whether it’s a broader area. What we try to do is develop product to (foster) that sense of community,” Chung explained. “It’s about how we let residents to activate these spaces and really make it their own.” Between co-working, ride sharing and even communal living houses, people are clearly looking for community and willing to sacrifice privacy in order to connect with others and share premium amenities. For example, while an apartment dweller may not have the means or space for a home office or space for entertaining, they’re willing to share those spaces in the form of co-working spaces and multi-purpose lounges.

“The number of services and aspects of your life you can accomplish without leaving your building is really starting to amount as an attractiveness factor, but it doesn’t take a lot of space,” said Gehman, who added that urban dwellers, Millennials and college students in particular value these types of gathering spaces.

Many multifamily owners may see the new “co-working” trend as an extension of the old-school business center, where residents would go to access the internet, print or fax. Chung said while it can serve a similar purpose, a co-working space has a different feel. “We try to differentiate it by being in between a business center and a lounge in the sense of comfort, looseness and casualness. What we want to do is provide a variety of seating options…and a variety of spaces where someone could easily work on a large gathering table or if you have a private phone call, you can jump into a telephone booth… It still feels like you’re a part of a larger space, not necessarily tucking away into what the old business centers used to be.” Chung added that he prioritizes openness and vibrant accents to make the space feel like it could easily be an artsy coffee shop.

“(Co-working) is Facebook sprung to life,” Gehman attested. “These chance meetings occur in an open working space, and it’s a way of networking, marketing, showing off and possibly hooking up.”

If co-working brings the business center into the 21st century, the communal lounge is doing the same for the traditional clubhouse. The spaces don’t need to change in size or necessarily in essential function, as long as they are inherently casual, flexible and inviting. According to Chung, “The clubhouses of the past are more for show. You look at it, they’re pretty and very pristine, but our residents will walk in afraid to touch it because there’s a certain formal quality to it. What we’re trying to do is just break down that sense of formality, and our design and the way we lay things out goes a long way toward making it more approachable.”

“You don’t need a lot more space, and attitude and branding have a ton to do with it,” Gehman suggested. “I have basically the same footprint, I’m rearranging the pieces inside, but it has definitely a different sensibility about what people want to see when they walk in.”

Anand added that KTGY’s communal spaces are designed with gathering at an event in mind for residents and their friends alike, and areas for hosting are especially popular. Chung concurred, adding that renters-by-choice especially enjoy the ability to host gatherings like they would at their own home. “One thing we’re doing are g private dining rooms with a little catering kitchen off to the side. Typically, we’ll do that in the higher-rent buildings, with the notion of having a private place that you can go to and entertain,” he explained. “We try to design it like an elegant dining room, sometimes we’ll have an outdoor terrace dedicated to that space so they can use the grill if they want to or go out there and have cocktails.”

“Now, the residents are doing everything at the same time, together,” Anand concluded. “That’s at the heart of what we’re trying to achieve: the open feel that is contiguous at the same time.”

Photo courtesy of AvalonBay