Rental America: Multifamily housing mutates and multiplies

What do Texas donuts, outdoor rooms and robot stores have in common? SmartPlanet contributor C.C. Sullivan says they're just a few innovative ideas architects are bringing to new apartment projects, in the hot-hot rental sector.
Written by C.C. Sullivan, Columnist (Architecture)

The American dream is owning a home, but today developers dream about rentals.

In response, architects are creating new concepts in leasable living, from the "Texas doughnut" to podium apartment structures. Living units are trending smaller yet feel more open. They boast unusual amenities like outdoor rooms and even modern automats. Some localities have relaxed building codes, making it easier and cheaper to build. The resulting construction types, such as six-story wood frame buildings, might not have been allowed if the housing market had remained strong -- or if the projects were condos.

A "Texas donut" served up in Maryland. Courtesy Gate 17

The background is foreclosures and tight mortgage lending, certainly. But more so it's declining vacancy rates and buoyant demand, especially in select metro areas. In its 2012 statistical abstract, the U.S. Census shows rental vacancies near 6% or less in Boston, metro New York and San Francisco, as well as smaller cities like Salt Lake City, El Paso, Bakersfield and Rochester, N.Y. They've dropped further since stats were culled in 2010.

In greater Portland, Oregon, vacancy is hovering at a low, low 4%, and levels are well under 10% all over the country -- a key threshold for developers to act. According to Reis Inc. (via Bloomberg) this morning, we're at a 10-year national low of 5.2%. As a result, rents are creeping upward.

And some architects are really busy.

Chasing new projects

Many architecture firms have shunned multifamily work for years due to the uniquely high costs of liability insurance and the rashes of CDCs -- construction defect claims -- in recent years, especially by homeowner association (HOA) activists. Today it's a different story: Many architects are scrambling for apartment projects.

The competition is tough, so leading firms known for developer-friendly thinking are taking the lion's share. And their latest projects are remarkable because they redefine contemporary rental living.

Hip and airy: KTGY's The Bond in Oakland (by LucidPic)

First of all, apartments are smaller. A one-bedroom might have been 1,000 square feet a few years ago. Now they may be 800 square feet or smaller, according to firms like KTGY in Irvine and The Architectural Team in Boston. Inside, the spaces are open and interconnected, making up for the lack of square footage. The finishes and styles echo recent hipster hotels, looking sleek and Spartan-cool rather than faux luxurious.

Renters are drawn to buildings touting sustainable design, but they are loathe to pay much more for LEED-rated digs, say seasoned architects.

Amenities are different, too. The firm PageSoutherlandPage introduced new, modern apartment concepts like Waterstone in Central Texas. Their hook? Outdoor rooms -- we used to call them terraces or patios -- which can make "powerful architecture," says Lawrence W. Speck, a firm principal and dean of the architecture school at University of Texas.

Outdoor rooms at Waterstone in Texas (courtesy PageSoutherlandPage)

In Florida, Multi-Housing News reported on a novel "robotic convenience store" that has debuted on college campuses and places like Ladera Palms Apartment Homes in Fort Worth. Like an old-style automat, the systems by Shop24 Global dispenses snacks and meals, as well as cleaning products and toiletries, all from a 9-foot-tall, glass-fronted machine.

Parking in podiums and donuts

Parking is one of the key amenities -- and developers are forced to offer spots for free, even in dense urban and suburban apartment complexes.

This has led to concepts tightly integrating garages and living units, such as the Texas donut: A large block of apartments wrapped around a central parking garage. Another popular approach has been the "podium," in which a concrete first-floor garage is topped with up to five levels of wood-frame construction. This often exceeds building codes for height of a timber building, but the fire-resistant parking base is thrown in as a bonus.

Deal! Robotic store for residents of Cal State Fullerton

Podiums are being built everywhere, to the chagrin of some code officials and firefighters. Recent examples of the Texas-sized donut plans include the Bozzuto Group's The Arbors at Baltimore Crossroads and Gate 17 Architecture's Mission Place, both in Maryland.

These and other novel apartment ideas will quickly build up capacity to meet the current blip in renta demand. But it's a big blip, and rent growth won't stall until 2013 in most markets, according to Reis in the Bloomberg article.

Still, to say it's a hot area is no exaggeration: Multifamily construction hit a 50-year low in 2009, the Census shows. Today the sector is strong, and astute architects are diving in head first.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards