Embracing the Change of COVID-19

June 15, 2020

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In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 turned our world upside down. Our norms have rapidly changed and the word, "unprecedented" seems to fit the bill. Most families, businesses and individuals are taking it day by day but what exactly does the future hold post-pandemic? What changes will dissolve, remain or challenge our ways of thinking to evolve? To talk about the specific impact on the multifamily industry, we chatted with #TeamMilhaus VP's of Development, Brad Vogelsmeier and Jake Dietrich, to get their honest and expert opinions.

Q: Will there still be a demand for dense, urban housing product post-pandemic?

BRAD: I sure hope so! I believe this pandemic has confirmed the notion that we crave community and social interaction; two things that have drawn people to cities for years and will continue to during and post-pandemic. Not that these things can't be achieved in a suburban or rural setting, but the diversity and authenticity of city life can't be replicated in my mind.

Does it change the way we design our cities? Absolutely, but cities play a critical role in enhancing our overall quality of life (physical, social, economic) for both those who have the ability to choose where they want to live and more importantly, for those who don't. Cities need our support and continued investment more than ever and building more dense, urban housing is key to this continued growth.

JAKE: I agree. There's no way that our world can support the global population growth without dense cities. Cities cultivate innovation and entrepreneurship, offering unique opportunities for collaboration and connections. For that reason, many employers will continue to locate in urban centers and people will still want to live close to work to minimize their commute. To respond to the present demand and incentivize future demand, cities must continue to evolve to support those populations. For example, viable mass transit options, quality urban education, and diverse housing products must be invested in for cities to be a place where multiple generations can thrive and be connected.

Climate change, protection of our natural resources, and agricultural land are some things that are top of mind for me coming out of this pandemic.  Our society has made great strides in protecting these places and reversing the trends of past generations. We must continue that fight for mother earth for the sake of future generations. One way to do that is to prevent sprawl by making urban-dwelling a more attractive option.

Q: What has this pandemic taught us about how we design and program for-rent housing?

BRAD: We spend a lot of time focusing on shifting resident preferences and staying ahead of these 'trends', but I think COVID-19 has created what many will see as necessities, not preferences, moving forward in urban living. I've lived in an urban apartment for the last 5 years and I've spent a lot of time in the last 60 days thinking about several design considerations that I see needing more attention moving forward.

JAKE: I live in an apartment with great natural light, but no private outdoor space. I have been craving a place for a lawn chair to work outside. Like so many of us, I find myself taking over our dining table and guest bedroom for an office, creating more technological clutter in spaces not designed to handle it. 

Q: Interesting- so even with so much unknown about this virus, are making changes to development plans for certain amenities or unit features necessary? What if things die down and the longevity of current renter demands or "necessities" in this current moment doesn't last? Is it a risk?

JAKE: I don't think there is much risk at all in some of these changes that impact everyday quality of life.  In my opinion, these are changes that were coming down the pike before the pandemic as developers are constantly evaluating new customer demands to impact the design and programming of our properties. We have seen consistent customer demand for units with more light, more outdoor space, and purpose-built office and desk spaces for years. This is really pent up demand – and developers are trying to figure out how to meet that demand with their products while still keep rents affordable and projects in budget.

747 Private Outdoor Terrace (Indianapolis)

Q: You both mentioned natural light. What about this or private outdoor spaces are important or may adjust?  

BRAD: Rethinking natural light seems like a no brainer and really something that I don't think can be overlooked. Having to stay home for an extended period of time only heightens the importance and the role getting outside has on both maintaining physical and mental health. Both items tend to be treated as more of a 'luxury', only afforded to larger units or those with prominent locations and/or city views. 

I think you'll see a lot of folks demanding both when looking at new apartments. You can spend all the money you want on finishes, but I still don't think it outweighs the premium you'll get for oversized windows and private outdoor space.

JAKE: I wholeheartedly agree. My experience in urban living has made me especially aware of the needs of our residents. The amenities race that the multifamily industry has found itself in over the last cycle will hopefully be replaced in the next cycle with a return to focus on the units themselves. Sure, flashy amenities and glitzy finishes help secure initial leases. But thoughtful floorplans with an abundance of natural light, balcony space, and storage will help secure renewals.

Moreover, most people do not like to move. So if we can provide spaces for them that they don't want to leave, then that's good for both parties.  I hope we see more dollars invested per unit shift towards what goes into the unit than out of it. I think this may lend itself to buildings that offer more corner units per property, or units with sunlight able to enter the unit from more than one direction.

Q: What about spaces to work?  

BRAD: Work from home policies are about to get a lot more flexible moving forward and in order to make that sustainable, we're going to need to get creative on how we incorporate true workspace into already compact apartment footprints. There's two ways I think we can achieve this.

  1. 10SF. That's all it takes to carve in a built-in desk nook into an apartment unit. Well placed outlets, a sturdy hard surface top and good light is all it really takes. It doesn't have to be every unit, but you can easily enough downsize your walk-in laundry rooms or extra linen closet for a desk nook in certain units. Working from a bed or couch just won't cut it for a lot of people moving forward.

  2. You want insight into the next 'cool' amenity? Private workspaces. Sometimes a separation between work and home is necessary (especially in an apartment) and while coffee shops and co-working spaces can fit that bill for some, others just want a private work area to crank out work alone. We gave this a try at our Edge 35 property in Indy. An 8x10 room, loaded up with free wifi, a desk, desk chair, a lamp, and ample windows. Rented at a monthly rate, these offices were fully booked by residents in a few weeks. Not crazy expensive and doesn't require you to dedicate much extra building square footage. In fact, these spaces can often be located in those odd building locations that don't want to be units or aren't large enough to be a full amenity.

  3. JAKE: To add a third point, I expect we are going to see a lot more units with a den included. A den, hopefully with windows, can provide an urban renter with a work from home space – but also a guest bedroom, a nursery, outdoor gear room, etc. In addition to building in a desk, we could also design these rooms with murphy beds or large built-in storage. This recent article from City Lab has an interesting take on this "rise of the home office" point as well.

Vim + Vigor Built In Unit Desk (Milwaukee)

Edge 35 Rentable Private Office (Indianapolis)

Q: What about communal outdoor spaces? 

JAKE: Communal outdoor spaces are really challenging in urban properties where the scarcity and pricing for land continue to increase as our markets densify their cities. We have seen an increase in FAR (floor area ratio) to maximize the number of units over the years, which has decreased the amount of surface parking or communal outdoor spaces on the properties themselves. In my opinion, this is where the quality of place comes in – developing near public urban parks and open spaces can provide that communal outdoor space off property, often in a more meaningful way than we can achieve in the little remaining square footage we have on our properties.

BRAD: When there is room for communal outdoor space though, it needs to be celebrated; and does not necessarily need to be expansive. Creating several small pockets of intimate outdoor space with comfortable conversational furniture creates opportunities for multiple groups to enjoy outdoor amenities at the same time.

Pinnex Outdoor Communal Space (Indianapolis)

Q: What about retail? What does mixed-use retail look like post-pandemic?

JAKE: I believe the future of urban retail will be impacted more by how cities can continue to drive density than COVID-19.  Pre-pandemic almost 25% of meals are eaten outside of the home by urban dwellers, and urban dwellers want and often need to live near things like a grocery store or convenience store – especially if they do not have a car and aren't connected by transit. But there has to be density to support those small margin businesses or else they won't survive. I have to believe the contraction of non-emergency or immediate goods will continue the pattern of shifting to e-commerce at a higher percentage.

The pandemic has created cravings for social interaction. I'm really interested to see how patterns of social interaction inside and outside the home change in the wake of the pandemic. I believe takeout or delivery food will continue to be a strong source of business for restaurants, and so we will see them designed to truly serve this customer and their dine-in customers alike.

Q: What is one thing you feel like cities should change or keep doing that has been highlighted by the effects of the pandemic?

JAKE: Regardless of how large one's balcony is, apartment dwellers still want to get outside, exercise, and hang out in larger open spaces. Cities should focus investments on creating really attractive public spaces where people enjoying spending time. Wide paths for people to walk, bike, and run on. Large open spaces for people to throw out a blanket and hang out for an afternoon. The cities that can do this well will be more attractive to prospective residents.

BRAD: Let's keep the public realm focused on people, not cars. I hope 'spatial distancing' has helped re-center our mindset about who we design our public space for and how much unnecessary space we dedicate to a singular mode of transportation. It's refreshing to see urban centers filled with more people and fewer cars.