The Next Generation of Multifamily Housing

By Heth Kendrick, PLA, and Brian Dench, P.E.

The past three years have seen an unprecedented demand for multifamily housing, and with it an increasingly competitive landscape driven by social and technological disruption.

Consumer lifestyle-influenced residential units will be dominating the market over the next 20 years, influenced by advances in technology, sustainability, health and wellness, and growing emphasis on community and connection in an increasingly digitized – and isolated – population. Additionally,  younger generations are more tech-savvy, career-focused, and willing to pay a premium for ease-of-use. A recent report by the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) showed a vast majority of respondents agreeing – or strongly agreeing – with the statement, “My life is so hectic that I look for ways to make it easier for me.” This demand for expedience and ease of use is having a significant impact on multifamily residential markets nationally.

In Texas, long-known for its wide-open spaces and suburban lifestyles, major metropolitan areas are erupting as millennials flock toward urban centers and surrounding areas, in search of places that offer social activity and affordable luxury. Many of them have found what they are looking for in master-planned communities. Likewise, empty-nesters are turning increasingly towards new developments, driven by similar desires for low-maintenance lifestyles and walkable neighborhoods combining the amenities of suburban neighborhoods with proximity to thriving, “authentic” local settings.

Urbanization and technology intersect

Alexan Henderson in Dallas. Photo: LandDesign

For Texas, this trend is driving the evolution of more “edge cities” like Plano, Frisco and Arlington, which have matured into smaller, distinct urban centers, blurring the distinction between suburbs and cities. Other communities in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex have been initially hesitant to embrace this kind of development and densification. To head off the inevitable pushback and “NIMBYism” from local stakeholders, developers investing in municipalities outside of Dallas, Austin, and other large cities are engaging design-side consultants like LandDesign to shed light on the effects of increased density on utilities, transportation, stormwater, and other considerations. Once the results are in, the development team can conduct outreach to educate residents and local officials on the benefits of growth and density, such as lessened individual property maintenance and a more socially activated public square.

Another driver of the evolving residential experience is the parallel evolution of high-tech, and the growing demand for devices and infrastructure to control integrated technology in the home. As voice control devices like Alexa become mainstays and smartphone security monitoring apps become more widely adopted, developers have greater incentive to make cloud-connected technology a standard – and a value-add – in their residential designs. For example, smartphone apartment access is emerging as a popular alternative to key and fob-based systems.

Also, the use of tablets by real estate brokers is becoming integral to the property tour. With help from the developer, brokers can offer tablet tours customized to suit specific buyer interests and needs, or even self-guided tours for prospective residents who prefer to keep their own pace.

Social infrastructure and the “amenity revolution”

One of the most promising trends is the growing interest in including elements of social infrastructure in large-scale multifamily developments. Innovations seen in this area range from beer gardens to shared workspace to working farms, anyplace where members of the community gather to interact. Places that strengthen the social fabric are in high demand across buyer demographics. The trick for developers is to differentiate among target buyer groups. The under-35 crowd wants places to gather and interact, and so do the 55-plus folks – but these groups are probably looking for somewhat different social settings.

Alta Trinity Green in Dallas. Photo: LandDesign

With the younger cohort, co-working spaces for remote workers are in higher demand than ever. According to a recent global study by IWG, as many as 70 percent of respondents report working remotely once a week or more – and 50 percent say it’s half of each week. In the U.S. the numbers are lower, but growing steadily. Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report reveals that the number of employees working remotely rose from 39 percent in 2012 to 43 percent in 2016. Millennials looking for a home and community to support their preferred work-life balance will find co-working space to be an attractive shared amenity.

And millennials want lifestyle amenities, too. Once considered cutting-edge, offerings like dog parks and bike storage are now viewed by developers as essential to competing for buyer interest. Asserting a competitive edge requires more innovative thinking. Our integrated design team of landscape architects, civil engineers, and urban designers explores and creates ways to separate developments we work on from the pack. For example, we have introduced elaborate, amenitized pet playgrounds that provide pet owners an outdoor lounge area for “Yappy Hour” gatherings, turning the dog-walking chore into an opportunity to socialize.

Sustainable innovation, at home and on the road

Environmentally sustainable design has likewise become a must-have feature. According to a recent report by the National Multifamily Housing Council, many eco-conscious buyers and renters are willing to pay a premium for a planet-friendly, energy-efficient residence with certification from LEED, EnergyStar or another brand-name standard. As with the social infrastructure, innovation and creativity are providing the differentiators.

For example, we worked with one of our clients to incorporate a rooftop apiary. Having honey bees on the roof has been beneficial to the local eco-system and, additionally, the property managers can harvest the honey to offer as gifts to interested buyers. Another example is the raingarden we integrated into a streetscape in the Dallas metroplex, which captures, treats and releases stormwater and features informational signage so residents and visitors understand what it does, and can be proud.

Transportation demands are seeing similarly radical shifts, with benefits for both the developer and buyer. For example, as demand for rideshare services and interest in sustainable living have increased, our team is working with a growing number of clients to address the underused parking garages and surface parking lots in their developments retrofitting them to add more residential units or open up greenspaces. We also study how autonomous vehicles (AVs), electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, Uber/Lyft drop-off points and even electric scooters might impact communities as their popularity rises and implementation becomes commonplace. (If your community doesn’t have a marked Uber drop-off point you’re behind the curve.)

This is an exciting time to be exploring innovation in the multifamily development space. Opportunities abound to revolutionize the way people live, work and play. It is also a time where these shifts are accelerating, demanding more from developers and their design teams. Our firm is constantly working and adapting to attune the communities we work on to the evolving needs and demands of buyers and residents.

Heth Kendrick, PLA is a principal in the Dallas office of LandDesign, where he directs the landscape architecture practice and is responsible for design and business development in that market. With over a decade of design experience related to projects ranging from large-scale mixed-use and transit- oriented developments to smaller multi-family and commercial developments, Heth has proven himself to be an expert in his profession based on his knowledge of project management, master planning, entitlements, design development, and the preparation of construction documents.

Brian Dench, P.E. joined LandDesign in 2012 to establish the Dallas-Fort Worth office where he directs civil engineering as a principal with the firm. With expertise in entitlements, land planning, civil design, permitting, and construction phase services for land development, he is responsible for business development, office operations, and design focusing on land development for single family, mixed-use, commercial, industrial, and corporate office projects. His portfolio includes Discovery at The Realm, a successful luxury multi-family development in the Castle Hills community in Lewisville, Texas.