Leveling Up Multifamily Design for the Next Generation of Apartment Users

Ashley Stiles

By Ashley Stiles

Multifamily development was on a strong growth trajectory well before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the world economy, but the product type is seeing more demand than ever in some urban markets as for-sale housing becomes even more difficult and expensive to come by.

Nationwide, 518,000 multifamily units have been absorbed in the last 12 months, while just 379,000 new units have been delivered, according to CoStar. The vacancy rate spiked early in the pandemic as people were forced to leave their apartments after losing a job or willingly moved in with parents or friends to weather COVID-19. However, it began to slope back downward later in 2020 and is currently sitting at 5.8%.

Simultaneously, rents have bounced back after flattening early in 2020 and are once again on the rise nationwide, with projections showing continued year-over-year growth for the foreseeable future.

These factors add up to demonstrate strong demand for multifamily development in the U.S., particularly in fast-growing inland markets like Denver and Salt Lake City. These cities are expected to see a fresh wave of transplants moving from other states as people living in coastal markets take advantage of their ability to work remotely in more affordable places.

These same people will spend more of their time at home, which means that it’s time for multifamily developers to start re-thinking the priorities in their developments. Far from being a blip, some of the changes in behavior and preferences we saw during the pandemic are likely to become permanent fixtures in our lives moving forward.

Prioritizing a holistic approach to wellbeing

In both form and function, the design of multifamily developments must truly prioritize taking care of the whole person. Simply providing a fitness center is table stakes these days—tenants looking for brand-new multifamily space expect more. Advanced filtration and HVAC, as well as programming that actively supports a healthy lifestyle, are the new starting line.

Going a step further, we’re now beginning to truly understand the impact of light on human health. A good lighting design team should be able to help devise a strategy that supports circadian rhythms and eases eye strain—a boon for residents who are frequently home using a computer for hours a day.

Outdoor spaces and biophilic design are in increasingly high demand, especially for urban projects. Terraces and balconies are the baseline, with more advanced projects incorporating programming and valuable amenities—regardless of scale. For example, at two of Tribe Development’s new projects, a 400-unit building in Salt Lake City and a 96-unit project in Loveland, we’ve paid special attention to wellness and outdoor space, despite the vastly different unit counts.

People today also need the peace of mind that comes with knowing that the common areas they use are being frequently cleaned. This means bringing what used to be “back-of-house” cleaning procedures out into the open during normal business hours.

In another post-COVID shift, tenants are expressing more interest in living in boutique-style buildings with less density. After a year of social distancing, living among fewer people is appealing to many, and they’re often willing to pay for the experience.

Supporting the changing ways we consume

Throughout the pandemic, people sought out ways to acquire everything from groceries to toilet paper to pet food without ever leaving home. E-commerce, already on the rise, saw meteoric adoption and local delivery apps like Postmates and Grubhub created a convenience that people are likely to continue to take advantage of on a greater scale.

This is where designated delivery zones will come in. These areas are specifically designated for delivery drivers and provide an easy-to-access spot where they can leave food without having to decode the complex’s security system. Residents can go to a centralized location to pick up their dinner, sans the irritated conversation with a driver lost in a 500-unit building.

Similarly, the rise of meal kits and grocery delivery should change the way mailrooms are designed. Residents shouldn’t have to worry that the steaks and yogurt in their meal kit are sitting in a stuffy mailroom for hours if they aren’t able to get home right away. Small cold-storage areas where these items can be placed takes out the worry and hassle for residents.

Redefining work from home

Finally, the biggest, most lasting shift from the pandemic is our definition of a workplace. Millions of people learned they could effectively work from home and a good portion of them will continue to do so, at least some of the time, moving forward. People need a dedicated workspace, and the kitchen table just won’t cut it. Even in smaller units, residents will increasingly look for apartments that incorporate a place to work as well as the technology to support hundreds of residents video conferencing at once. At our mixed-use project in Loveland, we’re incorporating workstations into every unit, even the studios, in an effort to accommodate the work-from-home revolution.

Outside of the units themselves, developers will likely incorporate shared working environments into their developments. Taking cues from coworking operators, landlords can give tenants the convenience of a second location to work without the hassle of a commute, once again meeting multiple needs in the new normal.

While we all look forward to many aspects of life returning to normal, as a development community, we’d be remiss not to recognize which of the shifts in our residents’ behavior is here to stay.

Ashley Stiles is CEO and founder of Tribe Development. Tribe is a commercial real estate development and consulting firm that believes in creating spaces that inspire connection and collaboration. Tribe is proud to be officially classified as a Minority and Women Owned Small Business Enterprise.

Photo courtesy of Tribe Development

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