What the Design of Future Rental Buildings Looks Like

Success depends on our ability to reimagine apartment living, argues Nancy Ruddy of CetraRuddy Architecture.

Nancy Ruddy

The global pandemic has dramatically shifted many of the norms, expectations and market demands that shape apartment buildings nationwide. The rental sector in particular is undergoing a dynamic evolution, pressing development and design leaders to differentiate in new ways and craft residential experiences that reflect these new sensibilities.

Success depends on our ability to reimagine apartment living—by analyzing and creatively integrating these essential drivers that define the next chapter of multifamily architecture.

The lessons learned from the past year prioritize functionality and flexibility in our home lives and an improved connection to the outdoors. As developers and owner-operators are welcoming a new wave of renters defined by more flexible work schedules, the design and configuration of apartments must also support a better work-life balance.

It’s an exciting moment to be designing multifamily residential housing, and this period requires creativity in planning and design to deliver on the promise of improved work-life balance while working within established square footage and budget benchmarks. This thinking is visible in public spaces, as well.

Overall, new directions in amenities and interior design and architecture promise to creatively rethink spatial design solutions to fit our evolving lifestyles. Looking back on over three decades of designing innovative multifamily solutions in competitive, fast-moving markets, our team is re-energized by this unique moment, embracing the challenge to design for an improved quality of life. Here’s what we’re seeing.

Working from Home as a Way of Life

Even as many workers begin returning to the office, a large number of renters expect to spend part of their week working from home—a hybrid dynamic many employers anticipate to persist in metropolitan regions. As a result, projects should include devising floorplans offering residents flexibility to incorporate work environments in varied ways in their apartments while maintaining typical square footages.

From a design standpoint, try adapting space previously allocated in foyers, linen closets and pantries into compact yet elegant work areas that create efficient, dedicated work zones and afford residents the ability to “turn off” at the end of the day. Developers and asset managers have seen blossoming value in these creative solutions, which maximize adaptability of individual units and can help drive leasing.

Outdoor Access and Open Space Values

535W43. Photo by Alan Schindl

More than ever before, renters value access to the outdoors with private and shared space. Incorporating exterior zones such as balconies and terraces enables greater cross ventilation and improved light and air while also providing an opportunity to create a dynamic and differentiated building form.

Additionally, small balconies with walkable decks are an effective value-add for developers: In many cases, zoning rules allow them without adding to a building’s floor area ratio, or FAR. Outdoor areas can extend the perception of the living space in terms of size and quality, and in fair weather these outdoor areas add functional floor area for remote work, fitness, relaxation and connection to nature.

Flexibility and Successful Amenity Concepts

As adaptable and flexible layouts become more important for individual apartments, the same design concepts are reshaping amenities, too. More than ever before, these shared spaces must accommodate changes and adaptations in how residents engage with neighbors and community, and how they utilize the amenity spaces themselves. This flexibility allows amenity offerings to remain relevant, magnetic and engaging for the long term.

From a design perspective, today’s critical consideration is remote work. Environments that can support this function/demand are essential amenity offerings, and they must be designed thoughtfully. These spaces, which can take multiple forms, from quiet, library-like spaces to the activated work-lab-style lounges offering varied workstation and seating options, offer an alternative work environment to residents’ apartments and can be a big asset for increasingly flexible work schedules. These spaces further reinforce flexibility to accommodate a variety of working styles: from individual tables and collaboration spaces to huddle areas and more relaxed lounge spaces. All are fitted out for wireless connectivity.

Just as important, creating quiet areas for “Zoom Rooms” allows residents to creatively work and connect while also offering privacy. Adjacent outdoor areas, where residents can work outside and among nature, are shown to encourage creativity and add value through a more varied daily experience. Increasing interest among renters in integrated food and beverage offerings, from bars and demonstration kitchens to cafés and third-party-operated offerings, offer a proven boost to the resident amenity experience.

For Pandemic Puppies, a New Leash on Life

Another vital amenity focus? Increasingly, pet-friendly properties are over performing.

This mirrors statistics, which show that nearly 60 percent of Millennial and Gen-X renters have pets, regardless of their apartment size. Designing a building that is pet friendly, with pet social areas like dog runs, pet spas and community programs oriented toward pets, is both an asset and functional need for potential residents. Incorporating these types of spaces also offers another opportunity to reinforce a sense of community within a building. Engagement through interactions with neighbors is another post-pandemic challenge where some developers and owners have found outsize success.

Health and Well-being, Mindfulness and Holism

Hamilton Cove lounge. Photo by Inessa Binenbaum

We view multifamily residential buildings as communities that can promote better living and improve health and wellness in every way possible. This is the basis of design excellence, yet it also reflects the evolving sensibilities of more and more prospective residents in the rental universe.

Beyond private outdoor space for individual units, a growing number of rental projects also emphasize opportunities for interconnected indoor-outdoor living in common areas. Outdoor fitness zones, meditative spaces and those pet-friendly zones all encourage people to spend time outside, with physical and emotional benefits. Diverse landscaping expression adds to the sense of connection and lends an appealing variety to the outdoors program. Outside and inside, multifamily life can benefit from mood-enhancing details such as art, sound and scent that form a holistically integrated design experience. This elevates a resident’s quality of life, helps promote connectivity and fosters a sense of joy and discovery.

Materiality has an increasingly quantifiable impact on residential wellbeing, too. Utilizing authentic, elemental, and natural materials that are detailed with tactile elements imbues a sense of comfort and a palpable connectedness to the natural world. Our designers have been incorporating wood and natural stone in kitchens, bathrooms, and lobbies; for flooring and wallcoverings, cork or natural fibers or even living plant walls can be used in common or public spaces to create the sense of hygge or coziness and warmth, that makes our homes feel nourishing and enriching.

Over the past year, more developers and asset managers have also recognized the role that building systems play in promoting physical and emotional well-being—through elements such as touchless controls, circadian lighting and mechanical systems that offer advanced air filtration. These building systems can be combined with core elements of biophilic design, such as plant life, access to natural daylight and outdoor views, the use of natural materials and colors, and even interior circulation and wayfinding patterns, to create residential communities that are truly healthy in every way.

New Unit Mixes, New Urban Lifestyles

Adapting to increased flexibility in lifestyles, many rental buildings incorporate designs that offer unique living options beyond the standard breakdown of studios, and one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. The incorporation of units of different sizes within a specific bedroom count—such as junior one-beds, one-bedroom plus apartments, for example, provide potential residents with increased options for more varied lifestyles.

This more dynamic and diverse approach to unit layout and square footage offers innovative solutions to prospective residents and enhances the community’s desirability for a wider range of residents. Ultimately, it’s also proven to speed rent-up and drive down vacancy rates.

The Zoom boom and remote work normalization have also encouraged the geographic expansion of high-quality rental products beyond urban centers. As more people embrace a flexible schedule that no longer requires five full days in an office or workplace, longer commutes can become acceptable as part of the new normal. In turn, housing products in more suburban and exurban communities, and in transit-oriented developments, are compelled to elevate the quality of their architecture, interior design, and service offerings to compete with an urban lifestyle. Within these communities, it is essential to develop design and programming that promotes the vibrancy, community and wellness aspects associated with walkable urban life.

When combined with the more traditional benefits of multifamily properties in these locations, including larger apartments and greater access to the outdoors, this increased focus on design will help expand new products’ appeal to many renters, especially families.

Ultimately, what these emerging, fast-accelerating trends illuminate is a new world of renters who emphasize the value of design. Potential residents seek properties that share their attitude, accommodate evolving lifestyles and combine a highly intentional design with robust ideas in resident-focused programming.


Nancy J. Ruddy is the co-founding principal & executive director of interior design at the architecture, interiors and planning firm CetraRuddy. She is a leading expert and adviser on multifamily residential design across markets nationwide.

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