By Brad Hunter for Forbes
September 1, 2020
I recently overheard a developer lament, “amenities used to be about getting people together; now it’s all about keeping people apart.” I couldn’t disagree more. It’s like what my daughter’s principal said: “we should never do social-distancing. We sometimes have to physically distance, but we have to keep people socially connected.”
Developers are now working out creative solutions to straddle this tricky line, and these solutions will be showing up in the marketplace in the near future.
Apartment developers are taking a fresh look at what they will build going forward, taking into account today’s new health concerns. Some are going back to the (literal) drawing board, re-working their planned layouts, and in other cases are just emphasizing the already-existing designs that are likely to work best in the years ahead. Still others are hesitant to change much of anything, citing the economic model that might not show financial justification for elevators with facial recognition technology in their particular style of building. The scale and type of changes that make sense will vary according to the type of building and the particular market audience.
I consult for rental apartment developers on the subject of what renters want, what my clients should present to the market, what the supportable rents will be, and which groups will be the audience for that product. Many of them are pivoting toward layouts that reduce the likelihood of microbe transmission such as more and larger balconies, outdoor/rooftop common spaces and touchless elevators for high-rises, and private ground-floor entrances for garden-style developments.
Changes are being contemplated right now by most developers at the design stage to possibly add or emphasize things such as:
- Co-working spaces and in-unit home offices
- Upgraded air filtration
- Antimicrobial surfaces
- Separate entry for deliveries
- Touchless systems (elevators, doors)
- Retractable glass walls or fixed partitions in common areas
- Rooftop terraces (for high-rises)
- Separate rooms in the fitness center
- In-unit laundry
Some developers are looking into adding more staircases, sometimes featuring an enhanced feeling of openness, and artwork, to provide an attractive alternative to using the elevators.
A developer in Miami Beach starting work on a high-rise apartment building that will feature touchless elevators (using facial recognition), touchless entry doors, elevator corridors that are only accessible by residents, and advanced HVAC systems that will filter out airborne microorganisms. “To be in your own home and able to experience the expansive outdoor world is a recipe for success in this new era. And in a pandemic scenario, when isolating, you will still be attached to the world around you,” said Matis Cohen, the developer of 72 Park. “The expansive amenity decks and large balconies here will enable people to have a lavish outdoor experience without leaving their building.” Cohen’s smallest units, 455 square foot pied a terres, have an additional 130 square feet of balcony, amounting to a 29% increase in total usable space.
For a broad international perspective on this topic I interviewed Brian O’ Looney, an architect with award-winning architectural firm Torti Gallas, who just published a book called Increments of Neighborhood: A Compendium of Built Types for Walkable and Vibrant Communities, and we talked about some examples from his book of this type of development. He noted the increased demand for balconies in this time of heightened consciousness about health and fresh air. “The biggest change we are seeing (besides more 1BR+Den units in building unit mixes) as a direct result of COVID is an adoption of much larger outdoor patios and terraces in multifamily units, where what used to be a small 5’x8’ balconies in the United States are now being designed as an ‘outdoor room’ - minimum 10’x12’ - similar to those built for decades as part of the culture in Brisbane and the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia,” said O’Looney.
Some developers were already putting strong emphasis on balconies before the pandemic, and now are well-situated with their product. Crescent Communities for example includes balconies for a large percentage of the units in their apartment buildings. “All of our units have a balcony if they are larger than a studio apartment,” said Brian Natwick, President and COO of Crescent Communities. “And outside air is available in all units.” Natwick also noted that Crescent is spacing out the equipment in the fitness centers and moving group fitness classes outside, to the pool deck or other outdoor areas on the property.
For two-story apartment buildings, there is merit in having separate entrances from the front of the building for each unit. Even before COVID, we had been seeing a rebirth of interest in rental housing formats that are stacked, with separate entrances from the street, and upscale walk-up, as opposed to conditioned secure corridor buildings. For many years, conditioned corridor buildings have been preferred for multi-family rental housing for their secure, connected interior environment. Now a number of trends are coming together which are expanding future multi-family offerings, particularly rental offerings, into alternate formats.
An interest in both healthier lifestyles and a renewed awareness in avoiding germ transmission in shared touchpoints such as security panels, building entrance door handles, elevator touchpads and recirculated air, is causing the promotion of non-elevator housing formats without shared conditioned lobbies and corridors. O’Looney said that distinct direct-from-street unit entrances like those in conventional for-sale neighborhoods will be predominant in upscale rental communities – with rental coming more in the form of townhouses, stacked flats and other distinct-entrance formats. “We are beginning to see a renewed interest in courtyard housing and garden apartments, where one can get to one’s unit door without having to touch or engage in environments with shared mechanical ventilation.”
The business decisions being made by developers now may have an impact on who prospers a few years into the future. A large number of apartment buildings already under construction are going to reach completion during the next 12 to 18 months, just when demand is weakening, which will cause an uptick in vacancies and/or a decline in average rents, particularly in the second half of this year and the first part of 2021. (Though rents should start moving up again by the spring or summer). Developers are looking for ways to stand out among all the competition, and several of them are investing in healthy living technologies, layouts, and programs in order to gain an edge. This being the trend, many of the buildings that will open for leasing in 2022, 2023, and 2024 will have an leg up over buildings built before this crisis.