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SAN FRANCISCO—For the latest ideas in apartment building design, the experts at the recent Multifamily West Conference in San Francisco advised looking to trends in other industries, including high-end boutique hotels and an ever-more-collaborative workplace culture. Each industry offers glimpses into what’s on the horizon for multifamily buildings, panelists said.
For example, as the workplace evolves to more open and flexible floor plans with areas that encourage collaborative engagement, the apartment market is adding more moveable walls, ubiquitous communication and larger common area gathering spaces. In response, micro units in New York and San Francisco have shrunk to 300 and 400 square feet, while the common living environments in those spaces become more and more important.
“As units are getting smaller, we’re putting more emphasis on the amenities,” said Teresa Ruiz, senior architect at SB Architects in San Francisco. Ruiz, the conference’s moderator, added, “To me as a designer, it’s always a question of what looks good, what really works and what are some of the challenges in execution. We’re trying to address a multitude in a broad stroke.”
Panelists at the event also said that environmentalism and an active, outdoor lifestyle are huge trends on the rise. In Colorado, tenants have been asked to sign green pledges to support the sustainability goals of a rental community. And, overall, fewer parking spaces are needed for young professionals, while owners are getting more requests for bike and auto charging stations. Even in conservative Southern communities such as Dallas, the demand for electric car charging has been higher than expected.
Finally, another overarching trend established at the conference is a comingling of high-end communities with the kinds of lifestyle brands that meet their tenants’ needs. For example, communities in Florida are leasing their ground floors to luxury brands like Ferrari and Millecente custom tiles. They are co-branding with Armani for finishes and detail.
In the apartment world, when making design decisions, we have to choose both what’s current and what’s going to last, said Alan Mark, founding partner and president of The Mark Company, a San Francisco-based urban residential marketing and sales firm.
People continue to be happy with small spaces in high-demand urban neighborhoods and designers are creating new ways to fit more into smaller spaces. It’s about how people really live, Mark said. “I prefer open spaces because I also believe in smaller and smaller units,” he explained. “As prices go up, people aren’t looking for more rooms; they’re looking for more space.” This is how tenants are really living today, spending limited time in their bedrooms and more time in entertaining spaces.
Even in suburban markets, newer units designed by SummerHill Homes are about 30% smaller, said Katia Kamangar, executive vice president and managing director for the building firm. The company has about 1,000 apartment units currently under construction and about another 2,000 in the entitlement stage in the Bay Area. “We do a lot of focus groups and it seems that people really want to live alone, even in a smaller space,” Kamangar said.
SummerHill’s floor plans for 510- to 540-square-foot units put a windowless bedroom in the center with a sliding glass door that lets in light so the bedroom can be part of a flexible entertaining space. SummerHill has also modernized its design by changing the shape of the kitchen. What was once commonly a separate, U-shaped room is now an L-shaped room with a moveable island. “It’s really the heart of the unit,” Kamangar said. “It improves the circulation and makes the room feel bigger.”
The overall look and feel of a community is also being updated to include more contemporary finishes. People want more European-style cabinets, Caesarstone-style quartz counters, funky fixtures and glass or wire railing on staircases, Kamangar said.
But, whether granite countertops are overdone or making a comeback is up for debate. Kamangar said regional demand is still high for Caesarstone and other easy-to-clean antimicrobial surfaces. According to Mark, however, in New York (where the migration from granite to Caesarstone first started) no one is using it anymore. “For apartments, Caesarstone is fine; it lasts, it’s durable,” he said. “For the condo side on the higher end, I’ve been pushing not to use it any more. It’s in every public bathroom, every airport. It’s pervasive.”
All About Amenities
High land costs and an increased emphasis on outdoor living make rooftop amenities a significant part of today’s overall amenity package, Kamangar said. Indoor amenities like ping-pong tables, wine storage rooms, espresso machines in common rooms, foosball and billiards are passé, she said. People no longer even want common media rooms or indoor movie theaters; instead they want to utilize outdoor spaces. “It’s not just a rooftop, it’s a fully amenitized space with fire pits and barbecues,” Kamangar said. “The market is demanding it. The key is to bring the outdoors in.”
Pet areas and related amenities serve about half of SummerHill apartment residents and continue to be a necessary offering. Without tended dog areas for play, washing and other activities, a property suffers, she said.
Also needing tending are community gardens. Although some communities embrace the experience with pomegranate trees and labeled lettuce boxes, a regular landscaper needs to keep it from going to seed.
The Lofts at Seven in the Tenderloin, which has a more modest rooftop gym with two glass walls, shows that creating these spaces doesn’t have to be an elaborate venture, Mark said. A great view, a movie projector and a fire pit also do the trick: “For a little building, it’s a pretty effective rooftop.”
Along with an increased emphasis on active, outdoor living comes additional awareness of overall wellness and sustainability goals. In other words, being “green” has evolved well beyond recycling bins and low-flow fixtures. It has moved to building design, as well as the carbon footprint of residents throughout the life of a building. With the state’s looming Zero Net Energy mandate for residential buildings to create as much energy as they use, new monitoring technologies and efforts to change resident behavior are also on the agenda, according to panelists.
Sustainability consultants are invited into the planning stage at the kick-off of a project rather than as an afterthought. These green upgrades may be mandated, but they are also a marketing opportunity. The challenge of marketing these amenities is to make invisible things like air quality more visible to buyers and residents, said Cindy Park, senior vice president of marketing, strategy and operations at Prado Group, a regional infill and investment developer. The Prado Group’s 81-unit infill project on Dolores Street, which is LEED and SITE v2 certified, features a butterfly garden: “a living representation of the sustainable lifecycle at the core of 38 Dolores’ philosophy,” according to Park.
If holistic living and sustainability is a goal, it has to be executed throughout a project, said SB Architects’ Ruiz. “It requires training staff to promote lifestyle change,” she explained. “Consumers are savvy. You want to create an authentic space.”
From the Ground Up
Tenants not only want amenities on the roof, they want them on the ground floor as well. Since convenience is one of the top amenities in demand, a grocery store within the building is a highly requested amenity. “It’s probably the best amenity we can offer,” Park said of the Whole Foods that occupies space in the Dolores Street project.
Panelists touted co-branding opportunities to fill ground-floor spaces and target different tenant demographics. Whether it’s Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn or a really great restaurant, make sure the target audience is similar and your brand value and the store’s price points are in agreement as well.
Some owners are working with local brokers to curate pop-up stores that can meet amenity needs, and bring different types of resident profiles to the community. “It’s about really listening to your consumer and being attuned to what’s going on around you,” Park said.
The Lofts at Seven, which offers 275- to 860-square-foot units, features a busy ground-floor café that’s open to the public. In areas less suitable for ground-floor retail, a multipurpose community gathering space with moveable walls can benefit residents as well as the community at-large.
Other new ideas include moveable vertical louvers made of airplane materials that offer privacy from busy streets and add to a building’s exterior aesthetics, collaborations with local artists and the expanding use of automation for services—including a roving robot to secure a multilevel garage and a virtual concierge. Communities have also incorporated licensed bartenders, yoga classes and outdoor movie theaters. Guest suites and secure storage for packages and bikes are also in high demand.
“You can see the evolution and bleeding of industries colliding,” Park said, urging early collaboration with commercial experts, sustainability consultants and marketing teams. “Observe not what we’ve done or what you think we should be doing, but what is happening all around us.”
This article first appeared in SF Apartment.