The pandemic has brought outdoor amenities into a new light. In the days of lockdowns, they were often a resident’s only means of activity and an important source of distraction.
Although restrictions have lifted and things have returned to a relatively more normal state, outdoor features remain critical—particularly as residents enjoy work-from-home capabilities and more flexible schedules.
“With people telecommuting now more than ever, there’s a desire to be able to work from anywhere—even outside,” says Roxanne Kadzielawa, property manager at Hubbard221 in Chicago. “When weather permits, we often see residents gravitate to the outdoor common areas and pool deck with their laptops, so having different seating options in those spaces and a strong Wi-Fi connection is important.”
Outdoor fitness spaces like yoga gardens and pickleball courts are also on the rise, and residents are increasingly using outdoor amenities as socialization spots too. According to owners and developers, communal beer gardens, fire pits, lounges, grilling areas, extensive playspaces, dog parks, and, of course, pools are some of the most sought-after features with today’s renters.
“The most popular outdoor amenity, by far, is the swimming pool,” says Andrew Meditz, co-owner and president of ELITE Amenity Management. “We have heard stories from numerous residents about meeting their wife or best friends while lounging at the pool. The reality is that most people will stay in an indoor pool for up to an hour swimming laps, but for an outside pool the average is closer to three hours, and during that time they are much more likely to interact with their neighbors.”
While these amenities can help build a sense of community among residents and even drive lease renewals, they also come with challenges—namely, maintaining the additional spaces and ensuring the safety of residents while using them.
As Meg Epstein, CEO and founder of development firm CA South, puts it, “The best amenities are the ones with the most maintenance.”
How to Keep Outdoor Amenities Safe and Pristine
There’s a lot to think about when enhancing a property’s outdoor amenities. How will you keep them clean and in good working order? What sort of access will you allow, and how will you control it? Finally, how can you ensure resident safety and mitigate liability in these areas?
They’re all important questions, and, according to property owners and developers, it takes a comprehensive and multi-pronged approach to address them. For one, pros say, a tech-enabled access system is key.
First, this creates accountability. As Lee Miller, vice president of sales at Stratis IoT, explains, “A large piece is the ability to book amenity areas via your phone. Reserving areas creates a digital trail and holds residents accountable for cleanup. Without the trail, outdoor amenities can easily become a free-for-all, and cleanup falls on the property manager.”
Tech-controlled access also allows owners to better enforce operating hours. This is important in more social areas—like pools, lounges, and outdoor dining areas where residents might be drinking.
“Being safe means controlling access and limiting movement to only those who are supposed to be there, are known to management, and behave properly,” says Trey Taylor, CEO at Taylor Insurance Services.
According to Taylor, adding security can also help in this arena. That might mean hiring security personnel to patrol amenities periodically, installing cameras, or even using robotic security tools.
“You can have the nicest place in the world, but it will be 100% vacant if you don’t keep your residents safe,” Taylor says. “Keeping residents safe is a key responsibility of managers and owners.”
Treat It Like a Unit
When it comes to maintaining outdoor amenities, Jeff Klotz, CEO at The Klotz Group, says to treat each feature like you would a unit.
“Be proactive,” Klotz says. “Focus on routine checks, staged obsolescence, and regular maintenance.”
Owners also recommend having a daily, weekly, and monthly cleaning and maintenance checklist for each area, as well as a schedule for replacing equipment and furnishings—particularly in high-use areas.
It’s also important to have a system for residents to report issues. And when problems do arise, respond quickly—just as you would to an in-unit complaint.
“Speed of repair is really important,” Epstein says. “People get annoyed when things are always broken.”
Invest From the Start
To prevent undue safety issues—as well as the need for constant repairs—investing in quality materials from the start is crucial.
“It is important not to cut costs or install cheap material,” says Nathan Kaplan, managing director and partner at Kaplan Residential. “If you spend money on the front end, the longer the amenities will remain in top condition.”
Meditz recommends purchasing high-quality equipment and furnishings that’s designed specifically for high-traffic, commercial use and knowing how you will store equipment from the get-go.
For example, if you know local weather will require winter storage, designate the space and materials for this before even opening the feature.
“Never try to cut costs by going with a low commercial grade or residential quality because then you will find that it will not hold up in the elements, and you will be spending twice as much in the long run by having to purchase new equipment sooner,” Meditz says. “Also, especially in the Northeast, the storage of all equipment for the winter is very important, and making sure all furniture, if not able to store inside, is shrink-wrapped.”
Pay Particular Attention to Your Pool
Pools require the most upkeep and attention, multifamily owners say, and they pose significant liability issues too.
“Safety is crucial,” says Jacob Sternberg, vice president of asset management at Palladius Capital Management. “They should have functioning gates with self-closing hinges, signage with pool rules, and functioning emergency call boxes.”
Sternberg recommends checking the stability of all handrails, monitoring for trip hazards, and watching for exposed wiring on nearby lighting fixtures regularly. A good daily and weekly checklist can help property managers stay on top of these inspections.
Owners also need to set clear rules and policies for pool areas and make sure those are fully understood and acknowledged by residents.
“When it comes to safety, the best approach is always to have good rules and enforcement of these rules to avoid any additional liability that comes with these outdoor amenity spaces,” Meditz says. “When The Denizen, [a luxury apartment building in New York City], first opened for their miniature golf course, dog run, outdoor grills, swimming pools, and outdoor fitness classes, they made sure that all the residents signed off on the rules, acknowledging they received them in order to use the amenities.”
Hiring a lifeguard can be a smart safety precaution. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are an estimated 11 drownings daily in the U.S. A lifeguard, though an extra expense, can reduce the chances of an on-site drowning significantly.
“Even if your state or local jurisdiction doesn’t require a lifeguard by law, we always recommend to our clients that they should have a certified lifeguard on site for all hours that the pool is open,” Meditz says. “The extra security and safety of having a certified lifeguard on site is worth the cost to help reduce the liability of the building.”
Finally, monitor how your outdoor amenities are used. Not only can this help you better track what equipment and materials may need to be serviced or replaced soon, it can also inform future amenity decisions that better serve residents’ needs.
The Denizen, for example, uses customization software and membership programs to help monitor amenity use.
“We can track the usage of every amenity space and report that usage to ownership to better manage,” Meditz says. “The information from these reports then assists owners in making decisions like the cleaning schedule of these spaces, deciding if they should spend funds to improve the space, or ultimately repurposing the space into something else for better usage.”