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By: Bobby Finta, Vice President of Architecture, Vision+Architecture Studio
Despite ever-increasing demand for affordable multifamily housing, developers are faced with escalating material prices, labor shortages and supply-chain disruptions, all causing cost increases that, quite simply, cannot be passed on to renters. Many renters are also looking to downsize units and make more efficient use of less space, especially in more urban markets. Both of these market forces are prompting developers to find ways to increase the number of units in a building and to design the units to be as efficient as possible.
As architects, our ultimate goal is to maximize the footprint for our clients, helping them to get the highest and best use development strategy for their property. We approach every project, especially multifamily developments, from the standpoint of maximizing the overall dwelling unit density on the site, given whatever local restrictions or ordinances that may exist. In multifamily construction, this means maximizing the rentable square footage of the buildings as a percentage of the total or gross square footage of the buildings and the number of rentable units. The benefits are apparent: a higher percentage of rentable square footage plus the more units that are available to rent on a site results in a greater return on investment (ROI) for the developer.
With so many people working or learning remotely, we are designing living units with flexible or convertible spaces that enable residents to use the traditional dining room space as a home office or workstation for example, without increasing the size of the unit. Developers can get creative by adding home office spaces through millwork or reclassifying areas within the dwelling that create a separate-feeling workspace. In many cases, this creativity is allowing us to decrease the size of the units and give residents that opportunity for the home office without increasing the cost of construction.
We can further leverage this pressure on unit size to maximize construction efficiency and reduce expenses. We have taken a page from the hospitality market and made use of repetitive elements across unit types, such as similar millwork, doors and casings, and hardware to allow the building to be more efficiently constructed and placed on the market quicker.
Getting the project in budget
The greatest impact design can have to advance a project proforma to “pencil” is by working to maximize the rentable square footage as a percentage of gross building square footage first, which increases both site density and the overall return on investment. A building that is poorly designed and that leaves a number of dead areas within the building is inefficient. When we evaluate the site first and allow the unit to build the building, it enables us to create a very efficient unit and minimize those areas that aren’t needed, maximizing both the rentable square footage and the ROI.
This is where Vision+Architecture is uniquely qualified. As a development adviser, we start with the land parcel to understand its context in order to get the highest and best use on the property. We work with the developer to create a proforma and to determine the market-rate type of building that can fit on that land with the maximum density for the site. We design up and out from the unit, maximizing standardization and density, and then design and layer the exterior of the building to best express the developer’s and the architect’s vision.
What is key to remember in multifamily development is most developers look at what balance of design, unit mix, and amenity level will make money when they sell the community. We strive to achieve that balance with every project we design.
Standardized construction and redundancy – yay or nay?
We also work to limit the number of unit types in a development. For example, limiting unit types to ten rather than twenty or more increases rentability once you open the community to the renter’s market. Even with a limited number of units carefully designed, standardization of plan elements such as millwork, bathroom and kitchen layouts, etc. can help reduce construction costs and schedule while still providing a sense of uniqueness of place or home to potential renters. Every unit layout is “grown” with standard plan or millwork elements, but each unit feels unique based on its number of bedrooms, entry point or location in the building. So, standard elements are an advantage to the construction but not a detriment to the rentability once you get it to market.
Many multifamily projects have begun integrating standard elements for construction efficiency, with the most effective use of standardization in the millwork packages. Every kitchen will be slightly different, but there are elements that can be shared between units that allow the owner to buy the same millwork for multiple units. For example, two types of units may have the same sized kitchen island, but in the two-bedroom unit that island may now have a sink and dishwasher as opposed to simply being an island in the one-bedroom unit. The same with the bathrooms which are typically rife with dead space: designing standard millwork packages for all the bathrooms maximizes efficiency and reduces construction and supply costs.
A recent project I was asked to consult on was very inefficiently designed as far as a multifamily project. There were doors that physically did not fit within the wall. The unit looked good on paper, but the door and casing did not fit without chopping out some of the millwork. It was a clear case that an architect who was not well-versed in multifamily designed the exterior of the building first and then tried to manipulate the units within the envelope. The unit types were driven by the appearance of the building, not by trying to maximize the efficiency of the building. It’s not a coherent method of design and, in fact, likely increased construction expenses more than anticipated. On average, when given the opportunity, we can increase the rentable square footage on a project like this by twenty or more percent.
It is possible to try to design too “efficient” of a unit. We have worked with a developer that originally wanted one-bedroom units of 500 or fewer square feet. While it is possible to do so, you are forcing your renters to change their furniture from traditionally sized sofas and beds to “IKEA-sized” furniture, usually forcing the renter to buy all new rather than being able to bring their personal furniture with them. Or you are forced to provide custom millwork and furniture to “fit” your design. We most often see these square footages work in student housing. We have yet to see them migrate into market-rate developments.
Having a design team with multifamily design experience has a real impact on your bottom line. Traditionally, you want your architect to know what “sells” in the market. What are renters looking for in the community’s amenities, the unit layout, and the community’s look and feel? With an experienced team, a greater impact will be made on the construction cost when your design team incorporates site unit density, building efficiency, and experience-based plan standards that make your community more constructable and unit plans more flexible to fit your renters’ unique lifestyle needs.