Texas Multifamily Developers, Architects Improvise
By Taylor Williams
The sudden merging of a healthy pipeline of multifamily product in Texas with a global pandemic that has caused a drastic increase in working from home is forcing apartment builders and designers to get exceedingly creative with all facets of their projects.
Unit interiors and common areas of apartment buildings must now provide makeshift workspaces for adults across a wide range of industries, as well as for the preexisting members of the gig economy and for children who have been forced to engage in virtual learning.
Working from home is just one of many lifestyle changes that COVID-19 has brought about in the last six months. Multifamily developers and architects are tasked with trying to judge the staying power of these changes and to find balances between implementing features that promote safety and wellness without busting their budgets.
“We know we have to adapt to COVID-19 and be proactive,” says Yewande Fapohunda, senior vice president at High Street Residential, the residential subsidiary of Trammell Crow Co. “Lifestyles and behaviors are rapidly changing, and though we don’t know how long they’ll last, we have to think short- and long-term with our reactions.”
It’s a tricky process to say the least, and one that requires an inordinate amount of improvising and adjusting of design plans based on limited data and gut instincts. In addition, the mission to make communities safer and more resilient to the virus impacts almost every part of a building.
Consider the various components of a standard Class A apartment community, such as outdoor areas, leasing offices, unit interiors and common spaces. With projects that are both in the design stage and under construction, multifamily professionals must address all of these areas with solutions that can be implemented in timely, cost-effective manners and which unmistakably prove that they have tenants’ health in mind.
Among the earliest innovations was a marked shift to appointment-only and virtual tours, as well as self-guided tours that allowed prospective renters to access units with key fobs, thereby reducing contact between guests and staff.
For example, at Boardwalk at Town Center, a 450-unit community in The Woodlands, landlord BentallGreenOak developed pre-recorded videos and enlisted the help of local businesses to showcase some of the property’s communal features.
With these operating practices now relatively entrenched, developers are turning their attention to actual design changes.
“On new designs, just from the initial contact of walking up to the leasing office, we’re implementing motion detector doors,” says Mark Farrell, president of development at Presidium. “Leasing agents keep Blu-Ray devices on hand to sanitize keys and phones while talking, and all staff are wearing masks. We’re trying to emphasize to renters that their safety and providing a safe, clean environment are top priorities.”
There are many different solutions that development teams can embrace, and these represent just a few of the adjustments being made in the major markets of Texas.
As one type of renter, the person who needs little more than a reliable internet connection to work from home is dictating some key changes to in-unit features and spaces. For projects still being planned, this means creating comfortable workspaces via the introduction of nooks with built-in desks and shelves.
“The advantages of having a built-in, designated desk or work area that provides a quiet workspace are very valuable to tenants looking for apartments right now,” says Evan Beattie, CEO of Dallas-based architecture firm GFF. “That may fade as more people go back to their offices, but that’s an important feature right now and will be for as long as COVID-19 has a high percentage of people working from home for 40-plus hours per week.”
In terms of common areas, the mandate for developers and architects now centers on creating multiple different spaces where small groups of people can gather.
“We’re doing that with coworking spaces within buildings where we have separate smaller rooms that can be reserved,” says Beattie. “On some projects, we’re planning for temporary walls, dividers and furniture layout changes that can accommodate an improved configuration allowing for social distancing, but also recognizing this won’t last forever, as well as implementing touchless technology upgrades.”
Farrell of Presidium says that his company is also designing spaces for new communities to have desks in all units, as well as enlarging its business centers to house more individual workspaces to accommodate those who will continue to work from home. Presidium will not be breaking ground on any new projects until the end of the year, which makes this task more feasible for the Dallas- and Austin-based developer.
“In addition to creating workspaces within the units, we’re also trying to split our business centers into smaller spaces with multiple conference rooms that can accommodate smaller groups of people,” says Farrell. “We believe in the viability of the telecommute system, and though we don’t know how much staying power it has, we are already seeing a paradigm shift where the 40- to 60-hour office week is moving to a split-schedule system that limits the amount of people coming in.”
Fapohunda says that even before the pandemic, High Street Residential was pushing to include more desks, nooks with tables and other small, yet productive workspaces within residents’ homes. The same applies other alcoves that could potentially serve as exercise spaces, providing residents with greater flexibility given that some multifamily fitness centers could close intermittently and others may have reduced the amount of equipment and/or adopted reservation systems.
“Residents want to be able to work from home easily, and that’s a sticky trend,” she says. “It’s going to be hard to fully unwind all the working from home we’ve had over the past few months, even over the next year-plus as it plays out and people start going back to work but on reduced schedules.”
Demand for access to fresh air and sunlight has risen sharply in office buildings during the pandemic. But outdoor gathering spaces, from pools to grilling stations to rooftop terraces, were already valued commodities in the multifamily sector.
Developers are, however, seeing some elevated demand for outdoor spaces that are attached to units in the form of balconies, patios and private yards. The Texas climate during the summer mitigates some of this demand, but units with these spaces are still commanding premium rents as they did pre-pandemic. Some developers are looking at ways to boost the ratio of these units within their overall mix, assuming they have the land for it.
“The ability to access a controlled exterior space is a big deal. But land is scarce, and projects have gone vertical to create efficiencies, so it will be a challenge to meet demand for outdoor spaces with these constraints,” says Carl Malcolm, principal at Dallas-based JHP Architecture. “With people working from home and trying to avoid large common spaces in favor of private outdoor spaces, units with balconies and ground-floor backyards are at big premiums.”
Outdoor common spaces are not being abandoned, Malcolm notes, but rather split and subdivided. For example, whereas an owner-operator might previously have delivered one large fire pit or courtyard that can accommodate dozens of people, the thinking now reflects a push for several smaller areas that are catered to fewer people.
As for parking, another critical outdoor feature and project cost, sources interviewed for this piece say that most of the industry isn’t yet ready to radically change its thinking. However, for owners of apartment communities located in mixed-use developments that potentially share parking with office and retail users, this issue is considerably more complex.
“Parking is really more of a concern for properties in mixed-use settings, where having more residential parkers in the lot all day means more parking is needed for other uses,” says Fapohunda. “The need for two cars in a two-partner or small-family household may diminish as the need for both partners to commute decreases. So we could see a continuation of the trend of decreased parking, but right now the impacts or parking-related design modifications are unclear.”
Other Features & Systems
Business and fitness centers were among the first indoor amenity spaces to be split or repurposed in response to the pandemic. Other communal areas like media rooms or clubhouses can simply operate with more spaced-out seating and handwashing stations.
But there are a couple types of amenities that have risen in popularity in recent years that are now requiring some creative and flexible solutions to function efficiently during the pandemic. No feature or service embodies this notion more so than package rooms.
Due to various public health recommendations to shelter in place whenever possible and avoid crowds, more people are shopping online than ever before. The U.S. Department of Commerce recently reported that total e-commerce sales in the second quarter rose by 31.8 percent year over year.
In many cases, packages for larger items ordered from Amazon, Walmart and other e-commerce providers don’t fit in smaller lockers. To address the surge in the number and size of packages, apartment owners are turning to spaces like theaters or clubrooms to handle the growing volume of deliveries that residents are receiving.
“We’re hearing from our clients that every day is Christmas in terms of packages,” says Malcolm of JHP. “So in addition to using package management systems like Luxor or Package Concierge that minimize touching and handling, we’ve started designing larger package rooms. In some cases, these areas are designated for renters to open and discard their boxes.”
Beattie of GFF notes that some developers are taking it a step further.
“Package spaces are being thought about a lot in design, including the creation of cool storage areas for food deliveries from meal kit companies,” he says. “People are increasingly subscribing to these services, and they need spaces for them to be delivered without spoiling.”
Beattie also notes that some developers are also using third-party package handling platforms like Fetch, wherein packages are shipped to a third-party warehouse user that then provides same-day delivery to residents at a specific time of their choosing. These systems help reduce the clutter of packages and minimize the amount of handling by property staff.
Malcolm points out that the combination of more people staying home, eating at home and ordering their supplies online has a ripple effect: Communities now have a lot more trash to dispose of.
“Across the board, the volume of trash at properties has basically doubled,” he says. “From the standpoint of physical space, that’s hard to expand, so we’re looking at designs with additional trash chutes, and a lot of our clients are introducing valet trash system.”
“For tenants, there’s now more value in that service, and owners see it as a way to keep the dumpsters or hallways near the chutes from overflowing,” he adds.
Lastly, multifamily developers and designers are taking hard looks at their elevator systems.
Developers that shy away from mid- and high-rise product have less to worry about in regard to elevator systems and are in some cases putting new lighting and artwork in their stairwells to heighten their appeal to residents. Others are considering upgrading to “dispatch” systems that go straight to a certain floor with no additional stops, increasing wait times but also limiting contact of shared surfaces.
Farrell of Presidium says that for some completed mid- or high-rise projects, the question of adding an extra elevator system has been floated, though not committed to at this point.
Such an addition would be very expensive, as are some of the solutions currently being implemented, but developers have an obligation to spend on safety and wellness measures wherever they can, Farrell concludes.
“It’s the same as people choosing not to go to certain stores or restaurants if the staff aren’t wearing masks,” he says. “These changes can be costly, but they’re part of these changing times. It’s irresponsible for us to say we can’t afford it.”
— This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Texas Real Estate Business magazine.