Transforming Unit Design

Marc Fairbrother of CallisonRTKL explains how new unit plans allow residents to have multiple, flexible spaces that can accommodate different configurations, integrating technology and energy-efficiency.

Amenities have changed the landscape of residential buildings. As developers and operators draw in new buyers and renters with an increasingly imaginative mix of options, we’re seeing everything from on-site pet care and meal delivery to personal trainers and state-of-the-art co-working spaces. But there’s something else that has dramatically altered apartments. It may not be as flashy, but it is an unsung hero in the quest to make apartments more livable and more economical: unit plans.

Indeed, new unit plans allow tenants to have multiple, flexible spaces within a more efficient footprint. Best of all, these units can accommodate multiple configurations, integrated technology and energy-efficient appliances hidden within the space.

The New Normal

Unit interior

Photo by Erik Kvalsvik, Courtesy of CallisonRTKL

This movement is the result of major demographic changes and a shift in tenant preferences. More people are looking for increased density. Sprawling homes aren’t seen as the status symbol they once were. Equally, evolving social codes and non-traditional family dynamics are transforming how we design. The concept of a traditional nuclear family is gone. In the U.S., only 20 percent of households fit the conventional definition, down from 40 percent in 1970. Residential design must adapt or fail. 

Many tenants looking to pay less in rent in major urban areas are turning to micro units and minimalistic living. In less dense areas, the units may not be as small, but spaces are being designed to reflect a more modern lifestyle without foregoing any of the comforts of home. Formal dining rooms have given way to hybrid spaces that serve as a home office during the day and an informal dining area in the evening. Entertainment zones blur with living spaces and movable walls allow for layouts that can be adjusted as needs change.

This new flexibility isn’t just about multi-function spaces, but about designing unit plans that can adapt with residents as they age and move into new life stages, from single 20-something, having a family, an empty nest, or retirement. 

In practical design terms, long sight lines and visual connections can make smaller units seem more spacious. Long views can also create separations in places that would have once held walls and floor-to-ceiling windows and terraces expand a unit’s dimensions, offer panoramic views, allow plentiful daylight and even lend to a sense of drama.

Flexible Rules

The demand for smaller, more flexible units is growing. A smaller unit demands a little bit of creativity to offer everything tenants need. Hidden storage spaces can boost efficiency and make a smaller unit feel twice the size. Sliding or barn-style doors can save space and create adaptable partitions. Using flexible, malleable furniture can allow the resident to convert a space into a home office during the day and an entertainment space in the evening. Foldable, convertible and/or modular furniture maximize space and options, and expanding to accommodate guests.

From an operations standpoint, flexible leases and the sharing economy also have encouraged the rise of scalable units where residents can add or rent out space depending on their needs at any given time.

Looking Ahead

Marc Fairbrother

Marc Fairbrother

Millennials, Gen Z and the latest, Generation Alpha (kids under seven years old today), will continue to put their stamp on the world. Millennials are taking a bit longer to get married and have kids than previous generations, but they’re getting there, slowly but surely. Families are living together longer and many seniors are eschewing retirement homes.

Apartment unit plans and footprints will likely continue to change, but there are some almost sure bets that we can see on the horizon already. What new units lack in space they will make up for in efficient, intuitive technology.

  • Pre-wired, high-speed internet and Wi-Fi technology will allow renters to connect to and control their home environments.
  • Whole-house systems will monitor lights, temperature, water, air purity and even resident health.
  • Smart appliances and robots simplify or even eliminate most domestic chores, providing extra leisure time.
  • And things will get green in a big way—compact battery power and net-zero technology will significantly decrease utility costs and energy use.

Now and into the future, the upshot is that design and the multifamily residential market are responding to an increased need for flexibility and convenience, without foregoing any of the comforts of home.

Marc Fairbrother, AIA, NCARB is a vice president at the global architecture and design firm CallisonRTKL and practices out of the Washington, D.C. office. A recognized leader in the luxury residential market, his portfolio also includes smart office buildings and large-scale, mixed-use projects. To read more about CallisonRTKL’s predictions about the future of multifamily living, visit

You May Also Like