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What to Consider When Designing Multi-Family Residences

Housing drives the success of all markets. Multi-family residences are a vital foundation for communities, as they provide both short- and long-term housing options for people of all ages and demographics. With affordable, sustainable, and community-oriented housing, other businesses can thrive in conjunction with the successful integration of diverse housing options into the neighborhood.

Pre-Project Research

There are a wide variety of options for the design of multi-family housing projects, depending on the available land, funding, and operational models. Some initial research prior to design and development can yield a roadmap to a successful project launch. Ongoing operations and maintenance will be a cornerstone of any enduring project, but starting off with a solid foundation can mitigate some of the long-term difficulties that often impact lifecycle costs. We suggest having a plan for operational success from the onset and factoring the relevant approaches/costs into the initial analysis.

  • Know your market and which product type(s) are both currently available and slated to come online soon. There will typically be market “sweet spots,” which will be the primary market rate housing in the area, while other, lesser-served variants may provide unexpected long-term return advantages over duplicating common market provisions.

  • When performing market research, reach out to local realtors, as they are a good starting point with a wealth of information on local housing supply and demand. They can provide a tremendous amount of guidance as to what types of housing are currently successful and what upgrades they are seeing as worth the investment. Do not overlook first person reviews via social media and review sites. There are often intangibles and amenity connections which aren’t as readily mapped via standard metrics. It is most beneficial for your design team to utilize this market research when formulating the initial approach to housing configurations.

  • During the initial research stage, explore options for funding models, opportunity zones, historical rehab, adaptive reuse, or tax credit opportunities provided by local, state, or federal sources. Housing in America is a social challenge at nearly every level, and there are a wide range of potential pathways to assist in providing much needed housing to communities of all sizes. Experienced designers will help to understand both the advantages and restrictions of these funding sources. Most programs will come with clearly defined procedures and processes to qualify for these competitively pursued offerings, which vary significantly from state to state.

Identifying the density required for your financial model is imperative when narrowing down into one of the large buckets that multi-family projects fall within. Are you looking for high density on a small site? You may have to consider additional structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, or fire protection related costs. Is the plan to be the most cost effective with your systems so that you can provide higher-end finishes or larger units? Then multiple four-unit townhome buildings on a single site might be your best solution. The possibilities are endless, so it’s important to identify the major form, function, economy, and time related goals for your project. Multi-family housing is an extremely broad category of project, which is often utilized in a combination of formats under a single master plan approach to provide a wide variety of offerings to serve the market, while ensuring that adjacencies and amenities are considered accordingly. Generally, you can bucket multi-family housing into two loose categories.

Apartment Buildings

The prototypical standard is the apartment building, which is just about as generic as you can get. These vary in format and circulation, depending on the price point, amenities, operation, and financial models. For the sake of categorizing multi-family projects, these buildings are generally denser with common circulation paths and employ a variety of the below unit types to accomplish the local demand for housing needs. Units vary widely and can be offered in unique or hybrid formats, such as the following:

  • Studio apartments – Typified by a single room which functions as the entire living space for kitchen, living, bedroom and all other functions. The only separate space being a bathroom and limited closet or storage space.

  • One bedroom – Contrary to a studio apartment, a one bedroom will have enclosed spaces for the bedroom and the bathroom. The remaining balance would be the living/kitchen/functional area which can be a single open room as is currently popular among new builds or broken up with walls as is typical of older apartment buildings.

  • Two bedrooms and three bedrooms - Much like the format of a one-bedroom unit, two- or three-bedroom units typically employ variations on multiple baths and can incorporate the utilization of a primary-bedroom approach with a designated bathroom suite and another full or half bath open to the common space. Four-bedroom apartments are not common but can occasionally be found in adaptive reuse situations or those specifically catering to families, often with a primary suite and additional storage.

Townhome Varieties

A townhome provides all the amenities of a single-family residence but shares common walls with other units. The shared walls provide a level of construction efficiency for the overall development and enable a higher density of units on a single parcel of land, when compared to single-family home construction. Townhome is a generic term for this model, when incorporating multiple units that are two-to-three stories (often with a garage) and can be duplex (two), triplex (three) or quad (four) in a variety of configurations. It is common to find them in sections of four units, as most jurisdictions will require sprinkler systems beyond four attached units. It is, however, not uncommon to find many attached townhomes where real estate costs justify the installation of sprinkler and fire suppression systems.

Unboxing the Units

Within each individual unit, there are a few rules of thumb to follow for amenities and general design approach. Older buildings which have been adapted into units are more likely to have significant exceptions, but a proper design approach offers advantages which can offset a minor inconvenience. In no particular order:

  • One bathroom (at least a half bath) should be easily accessible to visitors. This is a soft approach when it comes to one-bedroom apartments, but consider it inevitable that residents will have company whom they don’t particularly want walking through their bedroom space. For 2+ bedroom units, if you can work in a half bath/powder room, this provides an ideal approach for this amenity.

  • Even in most single-family homes, the concept of a formal dining room has faded into near obscurity. The great room, dining island, or nook approach is a widely accepted and much-beloved answer, especially for tight areas.

  • Kitchens are your multi-purpose space that everyone utilizes, so give them some elbow (and storage) room. Taller wall cabinets and, if possible, a pantry will greatly increase the viability of a small kitchen. This will offer adequate storage space, clear the countertops, and enable a dining area. Additionally, avoid an island in a spacious kitchen; you’re losing too much space compared to a U or L countertop configuration.

  • Let there be light. When creating warm and friendly spaces, there’s little substitute for natural light, so locating windows within the space must become a priority. Clerestory (high) windows are a great way to bleed light deeper into a unit, and making them inoperable is a cost-effective solution when they are unlikely to be opened at such a height. When you’re short on windows, consider using color-shifting lamps on lighting fixtures. This can bring the outside into the space with a phone app, helping circadian rhythms for your residents by mimicking exterior light levels.

  • Consider where furniture and technology is going to end up. Thankfully, technology has become slim and easily incorporated into space, but don’t leave it up to chance. Most residents will have a 55+” flat TV that will sit on a stand or be wall mounted. Provide power in a logical way and try to consider it when planning windows and circulation.

  • Break the box, at least a little. It is true that we live in a largely rectilinear world, but the little opportunities to create interest should be embraced, even if it’s a moderate change in finish, color, or texture. A small change can make a tremendous experiential impact.

Amenities and Beyond

Amenities vary widely, largely depending on competition for similar products on the market, funding requirements, and environmental conditions. Many of these instances are driven by a combination of market research, operational model, and initial construction costs. A significant key to the construction of multi-family housing projects is to place them in areas where community amenities are accessible via short transit. This reduces the cost of constructing private amenities--such as parks, playgrounds, recreation fields, etc.--while reinforcing local neighborhood connectivity and driving traffic to adjacent businesses. Apartment buildings also have the potential to be part of a mixed-use development, allowing for lower levels of the structure to offer amenities for tenants living in the building even if they are not directly provided by the building owner.

After reviewing the general typologies of multi-family housing options, it is vitally important that one consider the demographics of the target market for adjustments to each planning approach, to provide adequate facilities at appropriate price-points for a wide range of potential residents (providing key diversity to the overall development).

Included amenities vary widely on the market, demographics, and environment, but some examples are as follows.

  • Laundry: Even in situations where in-unit laundry machines are provided, it is a good idea to provide large-capacity units as part of the common building amenities. This will allow for residents to clean bedding, blankets, etc. onsite and (generally) leads to cleaner facilities overall.

  • General common spaces: Creating common areas in high-visibility portions of the development will lead to increased interaction between tenants and build a general sense of community, which leads to increased safety for all. More circulation, more eyes, and general observation.

  • Exterior green space: One of the more common perceptions of multi-family living situations is the decreased access to exterior spaces for both social and private activities. Sections of space which are similar in size to a market-typical backyard will create these opportunities.

  • Lounge Space: With higher-end accommodations, providing a clubhouse, lounge space, or similar can provide residents with an opportunity to host gatherings without disturbance to other residents. These events will take place regularly, offering a purpose-built space for residents while providing amenity, control, and additional revenue for property owners (as these commonly incur a fee for reservation/cleaning).

The incorporation of family with other typologies of building isn’t a new idea. In fact, it is probably one of the origins of multi-family living. In urban settings, it has been a long-common approach to provide housing over mixed-amenity space for the public.

What was once a way for purveyors to live efficiently above their own shop has grown into a mixed model for both urban and suburban multi-family living. It boils down to efficiency, as offices, retail, restaurants are occupied during daytime hours, while residential units are occupied at opposite times. Both require parking, utilities, and security, but can share those core needs, while co-existing in the same building. This has been common in urban settings by necessity but has grown into a staple of sustainable suburban multi-family housing. Not only does this provide a mix of uses, ensuring foot traffic at all times of day or night, but provides an opportunity for building owners to lease space to both businesses and residents, diversifying their investment within a single unit.

Housing remains one of the most pressing needs of both urban and suburban communities across the U.S. so it is imperative that typologies like multi-family housing are embraced. Understanding the market and doing proper research early in the process is essential. While this category of design is broad, getting a handle on the basics will allow for a much smoother project to take place. Not only do multi-family buildings provide a stable, short- or long-term place for people to live, they also act as a vital thread in the fabric of the community.

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