What’s New, What’s Next in Multifamily Design

Apartment developers who invested in the urban loft aesthetic years ago are probably not surprised to see that this look is still going strong

Humphreys Partners Architects Trump Bay Street, SocialLounge
Humphreys Partners Architects Trump Bay Street, Social Lounge

Apartment developers who invested in the urban loft aesthetic years ago are probably not surprised to see that this look is still going strong. Success in the multifamily market requires not only trend spotting—but also the ability to anticipate what’s next and then predict what will have the longest shelf life.

Delivery by drone, robotic car parking systems and high-rise living walls that grow sustainable produce using recycled gray water (or provide a green focal point in the lobby) have become viable options that will shape multifamily design decisions going forward.

“There are three main trends to watch now,” said Walter Hughes, AIA, vice president at Humphreys & Partners Architects. First, keep an eye on artificial intelligence—not just packages arriving by drone but also robots traveling the sidewalks delivering takeout food. AI is quickly changing how renters interact with amenity spaces by providing 24/7 leasing and concierge services. “Artificial intelligence and robots have empathy,” added Hughes. “They’ll answer your questions; they learn on the job.”

Hughes is also watching home automation. A recent study by Schlage on Millennial renters revealed that, on average, they would pay about a fifth more in rent for smart home features, 45 percent of renters feel that physical door keys will be obsolete in the next 10 years, and 44 percent of Millennials would give up a parking space to live in a smart apartment. Likewise, Schlage has research into Baby Boomer trends, including insights like: 32 percent of Baby Boomers currently use smart devices, and 49 percent are interested in using smart devices in the future.

“There’s a big battle coming up between Google, Apple HomeKit and Amazon with its Alexa and Echo devices trying to dominate everything from turning on the lights to connecting all the devices inside,” said Hughes.

The third trend Hughes recommends watching—and one that he notes will have a huge impact—is autonomous vehicles. “They will change the way we address drop-off areas arriving to projects or single-family homes. On big multifamily projects, it will mean reimaging how projects are laid out, and in urban areas the actual streets and sidewalks will have to be reimaged, too.”

Solutions for small spaces

Ori Systems Day
Ori Systems Day

“Demographics are changing, too, and that affects us all the time,” said Hughes, who noted the breakdown of the traditional family has led to an increase in single and two-person households. While empty nesters moving from single-family to apartment homes still prefer larger floorplans, units for younger renters are getting smaller, and developers have to deal with providing an affordable product as well as making these compact units livable.

“You have to be clever in small spaces,” noted master builder Karl Champley during the 2018 Kitchen & Bath Show discussion on “New & Next in Kitchen & Bath.”

Champley favors toe-kick cabinets and drawers to free wasted space near the floor, and he also brings cabinets up to the ceiling. Sliding doors and pocket doors take up less space than swinging doors. If you install a chalkboard surface on a door, the surface becomes more valuable in a tiny apartment.

In the blink of an eye, co-living has gone from concept to reality, and along with We Live, The Collective Old Oak in London is providing a model of success for developers. “This rapidly growing segment balances small units with a unique community feel, loaded with services like communal cooking and dining for one bill,” said Hughes.

The long-term success of co-living and micro units will hinge on making these spaces feel less confined. One solution that Hughes is watching is all-in-one furniture like the Ori System. This robotics startup (Ori is a spinoff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has created voice-controlled furniture that rearranges itself to maximize space in small apartments. With a push of a button (or a request to Alexa), a small apartment converts from living room to bedroom.

Traditional influences

Builders Design Boulevard at Reston Station
Builders Design Boulevard at Reston Station

Multifamily design trends continue to be influenced by the high style of boutique hotels, according to Britney Littleton Gilley, ASID, IIDA, vice president of design at Builders Design. “In apartment units, high-end appliances and decorative lighting are a must.” Black cabinetry is returning, “especially paired with crisp white walls for contrast and brightness. Technology and customization/personalization are key.”

According to Gilley, texture is increasingly important in designing amenity spaces, but the color stories are monochromatic. “The library is making a resurgence, and the classic, traditional style is taking over in a modern way. Of course, technology and connectivity are a must. Residents must be able to connect anytime, anywhere.”

And, along with health and wellness, consumers are increasingly focused on education as an amenity, Gilley observed. She’s seeing a demand for flexible spaces that can be used for educational classes, music performance rooms including music teachers, and artist and pottery studios.

Watching Gen Z

Häfele Connect App
Häfele Connect App

“Savvy developers are not just focused on the design and architectural trends but on how they all come together through events, activities and the social atmosphere of the community,” Gilley observed.

Her team is also looking at what’s happening in student housing, since Gen Z has created new demands for their living, study and play spaces. Virtual reality is already huge both in the leasing experience and as an amenity. According to Gilley, the standard game room has evolved from the classic pool table to a fully digital top that allows for additional gaming and television. 

“One of the most important things to note about Gen Z—besides their constant connectivity with their technology devices—is their short attention span,” Gilley concluded. “The biggest change in (our approach to) design features for Gen Z is incorporating unexpected elements intended to grab attention and engage residents with the space.” 

You’ll find more on this topic in the March 2018 issue of MHN.