Trends in Multifamily

Trends in Multifamily
Developers and Designers Mix It Up
By Ann Marie Moriarty

This year’s entries for NAHB Multifamily’s Pillars of the Industry Awards are in, and they show a growing attention to top-quality design. Multifamily developers have realized that, in today’s market, the consumer has many choices, and only the communities that can set themselves apart—beginning with curb appeal, striking décor, and enticing amenities—can fill up fast and command the rents needed to make all the numbers work.

An overview of this year’s entries shows that the trend toward mixing exterior finish materials, noted in last year’s entries, has become ever-present.

Exteriors Get Earthy

Across all categories of construction— garden, mid-rise, and high-rise, as well as both rental and for-sale—companies are no longer using just two or three exterior finish materials, but as many as five different exterior treatments for one building or group of buildings.

The surprise winner this year is brick. A relatively large number of entries included brick as an exterior finish, and most did so in a way that was far more extensive than the brick-as-an-accent approach that has been common in recent years.

Some communities built a clubhouse/ leasing facility completely of brick. Communities with attached streetfront townhomes interspersed brick fronts with those of stucco or siding. One mid-rise development used three different colors of brick to create an attractive visual texture for the building.

And many that didn’t use brick, did use stone in much the same way. There were many examples of stone walls, stone bases for columns, and in one case, an entire clubhouse finished with the look of river rock.

Look Like More … and Less

Another lesson that the design community has taken to heart is that if you build a simple box, it looks like a box. And if it’s big enough to house lots of people, it looks like a huge, massive box—not terribly attractive or interesting. But if you build a big structure with an interesting footprint—setbacks that recede and extend from a line parallel to the street—and use varying rooflines, along with different exterior treatments, you can make that great big building look like a cluster of smaller, friendlier, less massive buildings. And, the neighbors like that better than the big-box look.

One entry shows a building that looks like three high-rises of different heights, with three roof lines rising like stair steps up to the highest point. Each of the three has a different look—using various windows, colors, and exterior finishes. This could have been done as two or three larger towers, but putting all the construction in one place preserved more open space for landscaping. In addition, the design kept it from feeling like a massive, hulking building.

It’s clear from looking at this year’s entries that even designers of smaller-scale buildings have used this approach. Four- to eight-unit buildings have porches, bays, areas with slightly higher rooflines or gables, even large-scale chimneys with chimney pots or fancy trim—all of which makes a relatively large building seem like a collection of smaller, related pieces.

Another increasingly popular design trick takes a building and divides it in two or more parts horizontally, with the lighter portion at the top. This makes the building seem shorter, with the top level or levels floating somewhere above the building; the viewer registers it as a smaller building with something else on top.

And three developments devised some after-the-fact camouflage for clusters of high-rise towers. By building two- or three-story townhome style units in a long row that paralleled the sidewalk, it hid the parking lots and the entrances to the below-ground parking garages. From the street, it’s a friendly, human-scale neighborhood. As for the big building in the background, pedestrians barely see it unless they’re looking for it.

Metal and Color

Many entries displayed light and airy metal trim such as on railings, pseudo-eaves, even sculptural trim on the top levels of high-rises. Metal is even popular on lower buildings, especially in urban settings. Terne metal siding, pierced metal panels, and metal swing-out awnings all appeal to the downtown crowd. Usually, these touches are combined with splashes of color—although this year’s exterior palette seems somewhat more subdued than last year. Even in the urban neighborhoods, the earth tones we saw with the brick and stone exteriors are complemented with more warm browns, terra cottas, and tans.

But bold colors and funky metal trim are still to be found, especially in urban, artsy neighborhoods. In one otherwise traditional condo community in Memphis, some smaller units have the edgy metal on the inside—the walls of the unit’s bathroom form a metal cube between the kitchen and the living room. A California student housing development used metal in a warm shade of forest green as exterior trim for railings, gutters and roof edging, roof brackets, and as both interior and exterior roofing on the open rotunda of the complex’s office area. The trim complemented the warm variations on terra cotta and salmon in the stucco-type exterior finish of the building.

Interior Flashback

A number of lobbies and model units seem to be predicting the return of the simpler, spare lines of the “modern” and Scandinavian designs of the ’60s, in lighter woods such as birch and maple, as well as that warm, reddish teak look.

In the lobbies and living areas, there are the large, rounded lighting fixtures, curved accent pieces, and rugs with bold designs that were so popular then. The furniture is clean and simple, with long couches on metal legs, and side chairs that wrap around the user with an amoeba-like silhouette.

Even in the kitchen, there is a growing trend toward the lighter woods and cleaner lines of the early ’60s.

For a different approach to windows, some designers reached even further back to the industrial buildings of the early 20th century for inspiration. While big, expansive plates of glass can’t be topped for dramatic views, some loft units in this year’s entries have big windows made up of small windows. Some buildings vary the window sizes, shapes and orientation, for a more interesting visual presentation from the street.

Change in Housing

The number of entries in the strictly rental categories still outnumbered those in the for-sale categories, but by much less than last year. The luxury rental categories were heavily subscribed—less so, the garden rental categories.

There also were more entries for lofts and mixed-use developments. And there were far and away more entries in the Best Urban Site Plan category than for Best Suburban Site Plan. That seems to indicate that the trend toward downtown living is still quite strong, and growing.

The award winners will be announced at a gala dinner at the Pillars of the Industry Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., on April 4, 2006.

Ann Marie Moriarty is the director of industry relations for NAHB, Multifamily. She may be reached at

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