Compact units with ample natural light and balconies continue to be popular with tenants. The unit shown is a corner unit at Modera Redmond.
Paul Weeks Compact units with ample natural light and balconies continue to be popular with tenants. The unit shown is a corner unit at Modera Redmond.

How will COVID-19 effective multifamily architecture? That is certainly a hot topic and an issue of real concern for developers, specifically those that focus on multifamily. Right now, our apartments are under unprecedented strain to accommodate our 24/7 needs for privacy, work, socialization, health, and family, and anyone paying attention sees article after article predicting large and small-scale changes in design. This leaves architects and developers to answer the basic question: “What do I do right now?” The advice I’ve been giving is: a little, but not much. Here’s why.

We are designing for the future. The apartments and condominiums we are designing right now will not come on the market for two to four years, and it is a (hopefully) safe bet that we will have a vaccine for COVID-19 during that time. So the big question is whether COVID-related design features will be among the top five to 10 priorities for prospective renters three years from now.

Should we widen the corridors? No. A renter’s budget is will undoubtedly remain the No. 1 priority. For developers, that’s going to translate into keeping building design as efficient as possible and continue the trend toward smaller units. With the economic effects of the pandemic predicted to last for years, the pressure on affordability may even increase. So, while discussions about widening corridors and stairs to support social distancing sound relevant right now, implementing those measures will trade rentable area and efficiency for a negligible decrease in viral transmission, which again, won’t be a top concern in a few years.

Should we make the units larger? Nope. The unit interior is a bit more complex, but ultimately comes back to affordability as well. Virtually everyone working from home right now wishes that they had another bedroom. We know friends and coworkers who have built office walls out of moving boxes in their basement or climb into their attics to avoid their children. I’ve been forced into my garage, but conscious that I’m lucky to have a garage at all. Many of my coworkers have one- or two-bedroom apartments and are trying to do simultaneous conference calls 4 feet away from their partner. So, should we try to make apartments slightly larger? No.

First, spending 24 hours in a 600-square-foot apartment feels almost exactly the same as a 650-square-foot apartment. Second, a very large segment of the renter market doesn’t even have the kind of jobs that can be done from home. Finally, while my coworkers would certainly appreciate another 20 square feet in their shared home offices, or a movable partition, it wouldn’t make much difference—they primarily need acoustical separation, in other words, another den or bedroom with a door. So in three years, when we are unlikely to be in a pandemic, are my coworkers going to prioritize, and pay for, that extra space when a) Most of their employers will prefer them to be in the office full time, and b) Hardly anyone wants to spend all day and night in 600 square feet. For most, paying for a second bedroom or den just won’t be worth it, and that’s if it’s even possible within their budget.

Rooftop decks are growing in importance in a COVID-19 world. Shown here is the first rooftop deck in Redmond, Washington.
Paul Weeks Rooftop decks are growing in importance in a COVID-19 world. Shown here is the first rooftop deck in Redmond, Washington.

Flexible walls and furniture? Probably not. Movable partitions and flexible furniture only seem to work in very specific situations. Murphy beds are the most useful type of flexible furniture, but hardly anyone does them anymore because they failed in the general market. Movable partitions actually need a lot of space to be useful, which most efficient apartments don’t have.

More balconies? Maybe. The current and pre-COVID wisdom is that usable balconies are actually worth it for the additional rental income. It’s a way for renters to get an additional space for the lowest cost, and under lockdown, many renters wished that they had a balcony to escape to. I admit my bias as a designer here, but downside of balconies will not change anytime soon. They’ll still be used as exterior closets; they continue to get more difficult to deal with in terms of the fire and building codes and accessibility. On tight sites, providing them means carving into net rentable area, and, overall, they’re just not that attractive. Even so, although we’ve seen the demand for balconies decrease over the last few years, they may be one unit feature that will make a comeback.

Changes to amenities? Yes and no. In three years, I expect that the demand for a lounge, pet amenities, a roof deck, and a fitness center will be the same as it was pre-COVID. Moving treadmills an extra foot or so apart will make a negligible difference in safety and increasing the size of one thing means decreasing something else, so it’s unlikely that these areas will change too much. The one major exception on amenities is the shared workspaces you find in many projects. The demand for this amenity was already increasing pre-COVID, and we have every reason to believe that this has accelerated.

Even when we are all able to safely return to the office, many more employees and companies have learned how to successfully function remotely and have also experienced some positives of doing so. While some will be happy to work in their apartments, we still have to assume that few will voluntarily choose to do so—especially the majority of the population that leans toward extroversion. We are currently trying to design workspaces with more individual rooms for acoustical privacy as well as some larger meeting rooms. The lion’s share of the space is for tenants to just “be” around other people in an open, comfortable space. Finding the area for this shared workspace may come from sacrificing a unit or two or pushing the fitness room below grade and adding lightwells. It’s also a good use to put up right against the sidewalk—certainly better than fitness.

Touchless systems? You’ve got time. Small-scale changes such as touchless entry may well become the standard, but nearly all those items can be put into a project at the tail end of the design phase, or even during construction, so there’s probably time to see what the market’s going to be like in a year.

So … If you’re a multifamily developer trying to figure out what to do with your projects that are in design now, remember that “now,” in delivery-to-market terms, means 2023, when renters are highly unlikely to be prioritizing social distancing and lockdowns while affordability and location will remain in their top positions. My recommendations are to find an architect that knows how to design an efficient, cost-effective building with rightsized units, and don’t remove or expand the typical amenities except that the workspace amenity should gain more prominence.