For years, apartment buildings offered about as much aesthetic beauty as, well, a slab of concrete. Complexes were bare, boxy, boring structures designed for functionality first and style second. Today things are changing. Cities are citing the need for multifamily buildings that complement their surroundings, while renters are looking for apartments that are as regionally distinctive and stylish as the condominiums, townhomes, and single-family homes that many can now afford.

This shift toward more appealing apartment architecture began in the mid- to late 1990s, according to Jerry Gawlik, regional manager for Englewood, Colo.-based Archstone-Smith, who says today's architectural priorities are a direct result of the growing sophistication of renters.

Traditions at Canterfield, West Dundee, Ill.
Traditions at Canterfield, West Dundee, Ill.

"The architecture of the 1970s-style buildings was simply accepted before. Developers were more concerned about what the densities were as opposed to what type of lifestyle they were offering," Gawlik says. "Today's renters are very educated, not only about the apartment market, but also about the real estate market in general. Of course they want certain features, but just as important is how their home makes them feel."

First Impressions Whether the community consists of garden apartments, mid-rises, or high-rises, conveying the right feel starts with the design of a building's exterior and its surroundings. Developers are introducing more masonry versus vinyl, an array of colors to catch the eye, and more detail in how the building is massed. This is especially true for larger buildings, which face the biggest challenge in straying from the dated cookie-cutter look.

"The larger the building, the greater the amount of detail and thought that must go into making sure the structure fits within today's style. If the right emphasis is given to the design of the outside portion of the building, then your plans are more likely to fit within the overall feel of the community," says Doug Buster, managing partner of the West Des Moines, Iowa-based architecture firm Bloodgood Sharp Buster.

Buster believes that the most notable improvements in exterior apartment architecture include the attention given to entryways. What once was designed as nothing more than a way to get inside is now being treated as a defining area.

"The entryway is an opportunity to give immediate character to an apartment community," Buster says. "Are there arches, or is it square? Are there columns? Is it a walk-up? All of these details are elements that help give today's apartments character."

Diana Pittro, vice president of the Chicagoland Apartment Association and executive vice president of Chicago-based RMK Management Corporation, believes the changes to entryways have not only been for aesthetic purposes. "Front doors and direct access are very important features to renters," she says.