An Internet café–style common area at Avant Housing’s 1880 Mission apartments in San Francisco.
Courtesy Studio O+A Interior Design An Internet café–style common area at Avant Housing’s 1880 Mission apartments in San Francisco.
View of the lobby at AvalonBay's AVA Queen Anne apartments in Seattle.
Steve Whittaker View of the lobby at AvalonBay's AVA Queen Anne apartments in Seattle.


Designs that appeal to young renters tend to break the rules. Specifically, these designs don’t compartmentalize life’s various functions the way traditional floor plans once did.

“The lines are blurred between work and life,” says Primo ­Orpilla, principal for San Francisco–based Studio O+A Interior ­Design.

In response, designers like Orpilla are creating spaces that ­obscure the boundaries between inside and out, bedroom and living room—even past and present—all in hopes of pleasing Gen Y renters.

Back to the Future

This new design aesthetic seems to be an interesting mix of the very new and the very old. Think of a shiny new iPhone in the pocket of a “distressed” pair of jeans.

At 1880 Mission, a 202-unit rental community developed by Avant Housing in San Francisco, for example, Studio O+A’s sleekly modern design incorporates brick and timber salvaged from the original 105-year-old building on the site. “We pulled as much ­archival stuff from the [old] building that we could repurpose or use,” says Orpilla, whose firm also designed the new Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif.

Inside the apartment complex, which is scheduled for completion later this year, more recycled wood ­appears in the restaurant-quality kitchens. The historic references even creep into the marketing materials, also created by O+A, which include signage and graphics from an old print shop once located on the site.

“This generation does think about the stories of previous occupants,” says Orpilla.

A few thousand miles away, in Washington, D.C., workers are building another gleaming, contemporary apartment building whose design nonetheless is ­intended to appear timeless. Arlington, Va.–based ­AvalonBay’s AVA H Street development—complete with anodized-aluminum metal cladding, white horizontal siding, and a few bold pops of color—blends a traditional urban visual hierarchy with unexpected accents, including strong, simple graphics and a multiplane façade.

“There’s a certain edginess we’re striving for,” says Rohit Anand, principal architect at the Tysons Corner, Va., office of KTGY and the lead designer on the project. H Street is part of AvalonBay’s new AVA line of properties, designed specifically to appeal to Generation Y.

But squint your eyes and the big modern building coming into being evokes a familiar shape, with its vertical massing suggesting a city block lined with small, attached, mid-rise buildings, each with slightly different setbacks, some topped with ledges that look like cornices, the classic “hood ornament” of late-1800s design.

Other times, you don’t need to strain to see the past creeping into the present. At The Bozzuto Group’s Union Wharf development in Baltimore’s historic Fells Point neighborhood, the architecture “is intended to invoke a sense of permanence and authenticity,” says the Greenbelt, Md.–based firm’s vice president, Jeff Kayce. The exterior at Union Wharf uses materials that match the historic area—brick, concrete, steel, and wood—but are formed in a “strikingly modern” way, according to Kayce.

The 281-unit building wraps around 12,000 square feet of unenclosed amenities and a double-height clubroom designed as a transparent “jewel box.” The space features a massive indoor–outdoor fireplace and views to Baltimore Harbor in one direction and a swimming pool in the other.

Common Ground

In communities like Avant’s 1880 Mission, common areas blur the boundaries between work and play and public and private spaces with small, comfortable spots where residents can perch and take advantage of wireless Internet access. They can also potentially enjoy chance meetings with their neighbors. All are modes of connection craved by the Gen Y renter the community targets.

“They want nooks and crannies,” says Orpilla. Of course, the developer also includes larger community amenities it can brag about in its marketing materials, from bike rooms to fitness centers to an “exhibition-style kitchen where residents can play,” Orpilla says.

AvalonBay’s 55 Ninth Street AVA development, ­under way in San Francisco, will offer equally innovative common areas. The project will include three “urban garage” workspaces equipped with power, a janitor’s sink, and a work table for residents to “paint, sew, or practice the cello,” according to the developer.

For Gen Y, shared, open spaces help break down the barriers between spaces, without breaking the budget.

Contributing editor Bendix Anderson is based in Brooklyn, N.Y.