One of the most sought-after features in a dwelling is an appealing outdoor space. In multifamily developments, that space often takes the form of a shared courtyard, rooftop terrace, or pool area.
Smart developers seek to design amenities that provide a full outdoor living experience, with the living space seamlessly flowing from indoors to outdoors, similar to a single-family home. In outdoor spaces, skillful designers try to instill a sense of ownership and connectivity, creating areas that are highly visible and accessible from the leasing office while providing views from as many units as possible. Depending on the market and the level of security required, adjacent private spaces, such as units with patios, may have direct access to outdoor common spaces.
Each site presents unique challenges to incorporating all the desired outdoor amenities while making the space desirable to current and prospective tenants alike.
Here are some insights into overcoming those obstacles.
Location, Location, Location!
Courtyards often function as a key amenity piece, so they should be prominently located on the site, with excellent visibility from the leasing and community areas while shielding the space from the entrance to the site and direct public view. In this way, they can create energy and excitement as prospective residents are greeted by staff and tour the property. Even more important, courtyard areas must be easily accessible to residents and allow direct views from as many units as possible.
The strategy to siting courtyards differs from low- to high-density sites.
In a low-density site, buildings tend to be clustered around a centralized green space, creating a direct connection—physical or visual—from the buildings to the courtyard. Most of the amenities are focused on one end of the green space, anchored by the leasing office.
In a high-density project, there’s less space to spread out, so it helps to think vertically rather than horizontally. When a prospect is ready to tour the property, they’ll travel to a different floor to get to the club, pool, or courtyard. In that case, it’s important to have something to keep people interested as they travel through these areas, such as a mail room that also functions as a social gathering space, or direct access to an elevator that opens immediately into the club or adjacent lobby, preferably providing immediate views of the courtyard or a desirable view of the surrounding urban environment.
High-density projects tend to be in urban areas, providing developers and owners other opportunities in addition to, or in place of, courtyards to enrich their amenity package. For example, in a multistory building, there may be a common amenity space on an upper level that gives residents access to views of downtown, a park, or a nearby attraction. Every competitor at this level has a pool or courtyard, so a unique location with views to a regional or neighborhood feature sets the community apart.
An example of this concept is the Alexan River Edge in Dallas, a podium project with a one-story parking garage plus a basement and four stories of residences above. Located in an up-and-coming area overlooking a new urban park, the building offers excellent views of downtown Dallas, especially from its rooftop terrace. This small indoor–outdoor space includes a kitchenette and seating area open to all residents. Roughly 40% of the space is dedicated to a rooftop deck with vista views of the surrounding area.
Because of its small size, the terrace is an intimate space where small groups can gather in a quieter atmosphere than a courtyard or pool clubhouse would offer. This type of amenity space differentiates the development from its competitors and attracts tenants.
For visitors entering the leasing office, there should be a visual connection to the outdoor spaces. The easiest way to achieve this is to provide a view of the pool so that visitors can hear the activity around them and witness the fun, energetic lifestyle that makes them want to sign a lease. If the climate allows, there can be direct access to the outdoors through overhead or sliding doors.
Another option is to provide small, secondary amenity spaces with adjacencies to the main space. These are sometimes called “caves,” a play on the popular “man cave,” and are sheltered areas that are still outdoors, with access to the courtyard, where people can sit and watch television or cook on an outdoor kitchen. In cooler climates, this transitional space may manifest itself in a large patio off the clubhouse that’s open during the warmer months and shuts down in winter. The key is to provide levels of connection in a way that considers the climate and the type of package the developer wants to offer tenants.
In addition to open spaces that provide access or views for prospects, the community’s existing residents will appreciate small, intimate spaces that provide privacy and security. While large amenity spaces aren’t public per se, they’re visible from the leasing office. Residents will enjoy small courtyards that are more cloisterlike, with controlled access so that only tentants can use them. These could be small sitting areas for private conversations or solitary reading or sunbathing. Larger spaces can be segregated to handle sound and kinetic activity, making them feel more intimate as well.
A development that exemplifies the optimization of amenity spaces in a densely packed, urban location is the Landmark on Lovers apartment community in Dallas.
Typically, developers seek a strong visual connection between the leasing office and the clubhouse that easily draws in prospective tenants. The Lovers layout presented challenges to achieving that visual connection easily. The project team counteracted the disconnect with a two-story rotunda lobby, allowing people in the ground-floor leasing space an open view to the club level above.
The rotunda welcomes sunlight into the building through windows in the club area, admitting natural light into the lobby and leasing area below and creating an interesting two-story volume. With programmable, color-changing LED lights to set the mood of the space, the rotunda has become a feature in its own right. First impressions are critical in the multifamily world, so grabbing prospective tenants with a unique design like this the moment they walk in the door will help sell the community.
The challenge that drove this particular solution was parking. Due to the site density, the building itself pushes to the edge of the property, and the podium-style parking garage is completely wrapped by units. The courtyard space is located on top of the podium garage and ringed by four stories of units, making it entirely private to the community.
The courtyard runs the length of the building, but the clubhouse area narrows down to create two smaller spaces: a highly active pool area in the northern part of the courtyard and a more passive space to the south, further defined through landscaped elements into more intimate sections, including a putting green and multiple seating areas and gathering spaces. This section is still accessible to the pool and clubhouse but far enough away to provide quiet and privacy.
The northern and southern parts of the courtyard are separated by a transitional space directly off the clubhouse that functions as an outdoor extension of the facility, an open shade structure featuring an outdoor kitchen. A variety of different planters breaks up the courtyard space, gradually changing the atmosphere to help compartmentalize the large courtyard into more human-scale spaces.
Hulen Place in Fort Worth, Texas, also offers a great courtyard design. A mixture of four- and five-story sections, the building is organized around two courtyards and a four-story parking garage.
At the ground level, the two courtyards are connected by a pass-through, created when two units were left out of the ground floor. One of the courtyards is more private than the other and is an extension of the living spaces, with divisions, multiple seating options, and water and landscape features, creating a dynamic, interesting space. With no real barrier between them, residents can move freely from the sunnier, more-active pool space to this narrow, serene space with full shade, which is welcoming in the hot Texas summer.
Density was a challenge in the Hulen project, which created some complications in getting light into the courtyard spaces. Varying the building heights was a solution, and the team had to work within zoning-driven height restrictions to maximize light in the space.
The five-story side of the building abuts the pool section of the courtyard and a large patio adjacent to the clubhouse, allowing more units to have pool views. The four-story section shades the other courtyard, which contains a variety of amenity spaces, including an outdoor cave area that connects the two courtyards. The courtyards afford a direct view of the pool and all the amenity spaces and are located at the entry to the property. The result is a highly visible and easily accessible leasing area, steps from the parking lot and visible from the main street.
The leasing office has direct views into the pool courtyard and club space, as well as indirect views into the more secluded parts of the second courtyard through the passageway, creating intrigue. The tour for prospective tenants is a very clear loop from club to pool, cave area, into a model unit, and back to the leasing office.
Despite the challenges presented by the site density, Hulen’s amenity elements are perfectly positioned to optimize the space and create an efficient machine to attract residents and get leases in the door.
Many developers and tenants have the same requirements for outdoor amenity spaces, so the key is to present these standard offerings in a unique but functional way, working within the boundaries presented by each individual site. Using the natural attractions of the site itself is the best way to make one community stand out from the competition.
Once inside, prospects and residents alike will enjoy novelty areas such as the “caves” or landscaped pockets of amenity space. Courtyards are a great way to take a potentially difficult site from good to great by making the best use of the green space.