Build-to-Rent - A new template for suburban communal living

Most of the Build-to-Rent developments under construction are mid-to-high-rise apartment buildings located in our larger cities. If we are to meet the needs of UK renters over the coming years, we need to start thinking about providing Build-to-Rent offers in suburban locations. Chapman Taylor’s UK Residential team leader Tom Klingholz writes about designing a prototype for a Build-to-Rent community in a suburban location, with particular reference to the challenges involved and the design principles which informed the project.

With the UK population set to pass 70 million within 11 years, the government’s annual housing supply target of 300,000 per year seems inadequate, meaning that there is an urgent need to address the aims and methods which have dominated the discussion about potential supply crisis solutions so far. The focus has been on young, mobile and flexible urbanites, but we also need to cater for families and commuters living in suburban locations. The extraordinarily high house prices in many towns and cities continue to make home ownership difficult for most middle-income earners, with the number of renters in the 35-64 age group having grown by 95% over the past decade.

Therefore, it is time to start thinking about how suburban, low-to-mid-rise Build-to-Rent developments could provide an alternative living option for middle income families. Rented communities of houses or low-rise apartment buildings are the rental option for the majority of middle-income families. The current focus on urban professionals ignores the growing demand for a different style of rental experience from couples and families who perhaps want to live further out, with more space and more amenities but a sense of having their own private space. 

With Build-to-Rent being a relatively new form of managed or serviced rental accommodation, people have higher expectations about the quality of their homes and the level of service provided by the operator. This requires developers, operators and designers to take a different approach and to carefully consider lifetime operational and maintenance requirements when creating detailed plans for these environments.

Communal areas of buildings in urban locations, such as lobbies, corridors and other internal shared spaces translate to areas such as streets, squares, and landscaped spaces in a suburban context. These are the places where members of the community engage with each other, which is why their design is of such key importance. The design of the public realm needs to be very carefully considered and, as with any feature that adds a higher level of quality, service or amenity, it is important to understand the relationship between cost, ongoing operational costs and the potential value or return this could generate. 

IT IS NOW TIME TO START THINKING ABOUT SUBURBAN BUILD-TO-RENT DEVELOPMENTS

From an operational point of view, this presents challenges. Managing traditional single-family suburban places with homes for rent is inevitably less efficient and more burdensome than operating and maintaining the urban equivalent of a block of apartments. The end-product, as a place, could be compared with a resort where the guest or tenant uses the home for a certain amount of time and the level of service can be scaled to a point where ‘everything is being taken care of’.

Conventional suburban housing typologies don’t lend themselves to providing the amenities we often see in Build-to-Rent apartment buildings, where communal lounges or activity rooms are integrated within the building and are in touching distance for residents. The context of suburban areas is usually very different from that of urban locations, where there are often a number of amenities such as leisure offers, shops and restaurants to choose from nearby.

Integrating suitable amenities and supporting uses of an appropriate size involves a careful balance between commercial viability and identifying the right location within the masterplan.

Depending on location and context, it will be important to provide some of these supporting uses within a new suburban Build-to-Rent development. There is an opportunity to positively influence people’s lives with offers which take advantage of the surrounding environment and enable a lifestyle focused on health and wellbeing. The possibilities are varied, from a walkable neighbourhood and open-air kindergarten to communal crop-growing and outdoor fitness amenities, all of which can be provided at a much lower cost than in a comparable urban setting. 

AN INTEGRAL PART OF THE PLACEMAKING STRATEGY IS THAT THE MASTERPLAN DRAWS VALUE FROM AND RESPONDS TO WHAT THE SITE HAS TO OFFER.

Some developers and investors are now looking into a new, context-appropriate suburban format, and Chapman Taylor has been asked to create a design concept for a prototype suburban Build-to-Rent community. Working closely with the operator from the outset has been very beneficial, allowing us to collaboratively develop the vision and model for this project. Customer experience and commercial viability has been at the centre of every design decision made, creating a place that will be collectively shared, but also collectively shaped, by its residents and by the dynamics of the community.

This new concept offers a groundbreaking template for communal living. The development will create a sustainable communal experience for the occupants, in a radical departure from the traditional individualist and compartmentalised residential developments which have become the norm. The scheme aims to create a unique and high-quality, attractive and well-considered place for people to inhabit, enjoy and be proud of. Key to this will be an emphasis on healthy living – encouraging walking, cycling, and environmental sustainability.

The development will be a pedestrian-friendly, walkable neighbourhood which encourages cycling and the use of public and communal transport. Home zones and play-streets will be the standard street typology, with active frontages designed to create a place which feels safe, fosters a sense of community and encourages street life. Walls will not be used to divide people; instead, boundaries are blurred to encourage neighbourly interaction, further emphasising the communal nature of the entire development. 

WORKING CLOSELY WITH THE OPERATOR FROM THE OUTSET HAS BEEN VERY BENEFICIAL.

The key objective is to create a safe and inclusive neighbourhood which engenders civic pride among a diverse and multi-generational demographic. Identity and feeling are as important to the vision as architecture and landscape. Our design values will guide every aspect of the scheme, to create a place that can be shared and shaped by the community, as well as being sustainable, safe and stimulating.

The history of the site is important, playing a key role in the placemaking strategy for the project. Key routes through the site will be landscaped to help encourage their use as places for recreation and interaction. Thoroughfares will be more like paths than roads, allowing the landscape to come close to the residences. Car parking in the public realm will be kept to a minimum, with car sharing and undercroft or semi-basement solutions incorporated as much as possible.

The masterplan creates a unique environment which respects and responds to the site’s features while meeting the requirements of both the community and the stakeholders. A flexible market square, as a centrepiece, is designed to also accommodate events and other uses, as required. It will be anchored by a local farm outlet store or similar, rather than a typical high street supermarket brand. Hard and soft gathering spaces will encourage play and social interaction – light structures within landscaped spaces, for example, could be used for performance events or as an artists’ retreat. All of this is designed to bring about organic development instead of something which feels artificial and forced. 

OUR DESIGN APPROACH AIMS TO ADOPT BEST-PRACTICE THINKING AND TECHNOLOGY COMBINED WITH A PROGRESSIVE DESIGN FOR COMMUNAL LIVING.

Ultimately, our scheme will be flexible and adaptable, allowing it to be largely shaped by those who live and work within it, but it will also be able to respond, in design and management terms, to the ever-changing needs of its community.

Our design approach aims to adopt best-practice thinking and technology combined with a progressive design for communal living. A key aim is to create a community which embraces the diverse and multi-generational nature of the demographic. Many needs can be taken care of from within the community, be it babysitting, car-pooling or sharing gardening equipment. Loneliness is now recognised as a major problem in our communities, and developments of this type can be one means of addressing this – providing a sense of community and belonging which is often absent elsewhere.

This will be very much a stakeholder-led community experience – a new type of community which unites and inspires its residents and provides a unique living environment. It will foster cross-generational social interaction and harness nature as a means of providing recreation and healthy, sustainable living.

About the Author

Tom Klingholz (Dipl.-Ing. Arch ARB)

Director, London

Tom joined Chapman Taylor’s international concept design team in 2008, becoming a Director in 2015.

With over 20 years' design experience in the residential sector, he now leads our UK residential team with an overview of design on residential-led mixed-use projects and masterplans. 

Tom has led design teams on large scale residential-led masterplans and buildings in the UK, Middle East, Russia, Asia, North Africa, and Europe. The diversity of this experience provides Tom with a versatile design approach responding to a project’s context and culture to create design solutions that deliver our clients’ aspirations.    

Areas of expertise:

Residential / Mixed-use / Masterplanning / Urban regeneration 

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