Mention "garden apartments," and an image of three-story buildings surrounded by a sea of blacktop parking lots jumps to mind. But garden-style rental living doesn't need to resemble yesterday's stereotypes. Today's architects are incorporating new styles and designs to make garden apartments more updated and appealing to would-be residents.

The timing couldn't be better. With the single-family market presenting increased competition, owners and developers of multifamily housing need to offer a better product to keep their communities full.

"I don't understand some of these developers building the same old junk," says Mark Humphreys, CEO of Dallas-based Humphreys & Partners Architects LP. By making simple changes, developers can make their product stand out, and they can enjoy 10 percent higher occupancy and 25 percent higher income than competitors, he says. And the cost is usually no more than $4 extra per square foot.

Maisonette-style living at Sea Colony in Vero Beach, Fla., features three levels above parking and a lobby. Developed by Mason Simpson, the property has four units per floor.
Maisonette-style living at Sea Colony in Vero Beach, Fla., features three levels above parking and a lobby. Developed by Mason Simpson, the property has four units per floor.

Single-Family Style

Designing a garden apartment community that looks more like a single-family house creates an even playing field for owners. "Nobody wants to live in a cheap or ugly-looking home," says Humphreys. That's why he created the Big House, a garden community that looks like single-family homes. Projects have been built in Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.

"We are paying attention to exteriors to create more interest and to get away from the look of garden-style apartments," Humphreys says. That means hidden breezeways, individual entries for residents, and attached garages with direct access to residents' units.

Larry Suer, principal at Cole + Russell Architects Inc., based in Cincinnati, Ohio, also is a big fan of closing off the breezeways–by which residents may exit via stairways on either side of the building–and making enclosed spaces. Meeks + Partners, an architecture firm based in Houston, redesigned its units so breezeways wouldn't be necessary. Donald Meeks, principal and chairman of the firm, believes breezeways are inefficient uses of space.

"Removing breezeways allows the developer to reduce the gross square footage without altering the net square footage," Meeks says. "Stairs are positioned on the outside of the buildings. To satisfy [exit] requirement[s], the balconies are connected at the third floor. The building maintains the same net rentable space as conventional garden apartments, while the efficiency ratio has increased to 82 percent or higher." This design increases density of the project while saving 10 percent to 15 percent in hard costs per square foot, Meeks says.

Gray Development Group, based in Phoenix, found that enclosing breezeways softens the entries and makes apartments feel more like a hotel. Such a basic change has resulted in a 5 percent increase in rents and almost 5 percent less turnover in residents, says Michael Clow, senior vice president.

Other multifamily firms also are pursuing more of a single-family feel. For instance, Robert M. Swedroe Architects and Planners created a prototype to replace garden apartments with a for-sale multifamily option. The community has neither catwalks nor corridors. Instead, all entries are private, and the garage is divided into private spaces. "We call these maisonettes," says Robert Swedroe, principal of the Miami Beach, Fla., firm. Built in clusters of six and 12 units per vertical block of elevators, every unit–which is designed to resemble a small mansion–offers residents 180-degree views.

The design gives developers the selling advantages of a house, says Swedroe. "Residents get exclusivity and security without the maintenance problems of a home."