Post-COVID design: How Build-to-Rent offers a template for the way ahead

COVID-19 has thrown many assumptions about the way we live upside-down, causing developers to reassess their approach to the design and management of the residential buildings they create in response. In this paper, Residential Director Michael Swiszczowski looks at how the Build-to-Rent format is already well-placed to deal with some of the key issues raised by the pandemic, both short- and long-term. He makes the case that the sense of community offered by Build-to-Rent developments is a key asset in situations like the current pandemic, while the amenities they provide will be very attractive to the increasing numbers of people looking to work from home in the medium term.

Anchorage Place Build-to-rent community, Manchester

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown has changed perceptions of the nature of work for many, with more people working from home on a long-term or permanent basis. The sudden growth of remote working has required developers and designers to think again about the spaces we create, as demand grows for homes which are equipped to facilitate the phenomenon.

In addition, there is increasing interest in how residential design can improve in terms of health security, decreasing the risk of infections being transmitted from person to person, whether this be COVID or any other pathogen. Related to that, questions are being asked about how suitable our residences are for lockdown or quarantine-type situations – particularly when we consider that many people endured the 2020 lockdown in small apartments without outdoor spaces or suitable areas in which to work.

We believe that one residential format, Build-to-Rent, is ideally placed to provide solutions for the challenges thrown up by the recent pandemic.

The concept behind Build-to-Rent and the requirements of COVID compliance seem on the surface to be contradictory; Build-to-Rent is all about customer engagement, bringing people together, drawing them out of their apartments and breaking down the barriers between landlord and resident, whereas COVID compliance requires barriers to go up.

However, this is not the case – on the contrary, the Build-to-Rent format can provide a great service during times such as the current pandemic precisely because those barriers are going up. The core ethos of Build-to-Rent is about encouraging a sense of community (both digital and physical) and a culture of service – these are vital components at a time when people need to help and look out for each other more than ever.

Below, we look at how Build-to-Rent developments can help their residents to adapt to these new issues – working from home, lockdown or quarantine situations and health and welfare.

Working from home

A home office space and capability is now a crucial consideration for many people when looking for somewhere to live – working from bedrooms or using ironing boards as desks is not sustainable in the long term. The challenge for designers and developers is to create suitable home working environments without having much, if any, extra floorspace to play with.

One answer is to provide flexible, easily adapted spaces and furniture. The use of open-plan interiors allows people to adapt the spaces in which they live in a way which suits their specific needs. A designated space could be designed to adapt for different uses at different times, using, for example, foldable, built-in desks and chairs which can be simply “put away” when not in use.

Another approach is to rethink how space is used more generally. At our Flax Place Build-to-Rent development in Leeds, for example, one of the key features of the residences will be that residents will be able to easily adapt space to use for remote working if they need it. The apartments offer bedrooms with walk-in wardrobes, one half of which is configured so that it can remain as wardrobe space, be used for storage or can be a generous office desk space, well-lit and served by electrical sockets.

Flax Place, Leeds, a 350-apartment Build-to-Rent development with 11- and 15-storey towers

We believe that it is psychologically important to disconnect from work in the evening and, where apartment space is used for remote working, a partition to visually close off the space can be a useful means of marking the transition from workspace to rest / sleep space.

Obviously, a prerequisite for successful remote working is excellent digital connectivity, which requires design that facilitates uninterrupted WiFi signals, good mobile phone signals and well-placed electrical sockets, often with USB charging. Adding more sockets adds to the capital cost of the development, but we believe that is well worth it because of the flexibility it gives users in terms of when and how they work – an important consideration for people in the market for a new home if they work remotely even only some of the time.

In Build-to-Rent developments, there is shared amenity space, and the above principles can be extended to those. Why not provide shared workspaces dedicated to remote working? This would combine the advantages of remote working while recreating the communal element of being in an office with colleagues with whom you can chat and share ideas. Placing co-working spaces within the amenity spaces of Build-to-Rent developments is becoming a popular option among developers in the sector and we are currently considering such an arrangement for our Anchorage Gateway development in Manchester, where we are creating a flexible multipurpose space which could possibly be used for co-working during the day and then as a residents’ lounge in the evening and at weekends.

As a response to the pandemic, shared amenity spaces can be adapted for the short-to-medium-term to enable residents to use them as co-working spaces. For the long term, such co-working offers could become a permanent feature, possibly operated by external companies in a branded environment, open to the public as well as residents. Such a move could prove mutually beneficial for residents, operators and the wider community, although it would possibly necessitate a different relationship between the development and the street in terms of branding, entrances and the division of public and private space.

Lockdown or quarantine-type situations

When people have to isolate at home, whether individually or collectively, several aspects of life which we take for granted can become difficult or impossible. Fitness, for example, can be hard to maintain when you are forced to stay at home without access to outdoor spaces or commercial gyms in which to work out.

Access to a home gym or a space for exercise can therefore make a crucial difference in such situations. Build-to-Rent developments have a major advantage here because shared amenities, such as gyms, can be accessed and used safely without having to leave the building, so long as rigorous health security protocols are followed. Our design for the much-anticipated Castle Park View residential development in Bristol city centre, which includes a mix of Build-to-Rent and affordable homes, provides just such a gym for residents to share securely.

In any lockdown-type situation, Build-to-Rent operators can be in constant contact with residents to ensure they are able to manage, particularly those who are more vulnerable. They can allocate informal spaces where management can interact with residents, with distancing measures in place when necessary. In this way, an aspect of the Build-to-Rent experience which was initially set up for convenience – the digital and physical interfaces between residents and operators – has taken on a much more important function, providing crucial help, security and peace of mind for residents at a difficult time.

Residents can be made to feel connected with each other and with the management as part of one community ecosystem, with a concierge on hand to assist 24-hours-a-day and the use of residents’ apps becoming a norm for many. Whole buildings, if well designed, can be managed by a skeleton crew of as low as three but, when support is needed, it’s there – for example emptying rubbish for isolating residents or bringing food, shopping and deliveries straight to their apartment doors rather than residents coming to the delivery reception area as they normally would (the latter is a convenient function for residents which means that they are not required to be at home to collect deliveries).

Access to external space is increasingly important

Health and wellbeing

A major priority for developers and designers is to ensure that the physical and mental health of residents is factored into the way a development is designed and operated.

Build-to-Rent is about drawing people out of their apartments via amenities and social events, but this can be a problem in a pandemic. To prevent residents becoming effective prisoners within their apartments, with all the attendant physical and mental health challenges that can bring, operators can COVID-proof amenities such as gyms, with residents booking slots via an app, apparatus being distanced and regular, thorough sanitising of all surfaces. Gathering amenities such as gyms and workspaces under one roof provides much greater control over the health security of the whole offer than having separate buildings for each – one of the great advantages of the format.

As buildings become more equipped with smart technology, hands-free operation of their functions through touchless lifts and sensor-operated toilets, lights and doors, the opportunities for pathogens to be transmitted can be reduced.

Kampus in Manchester will see over 500 apartments being delivered in new-build and refurbished buildings entirely for the Build-to-Rent sector

In terms of mental health, social isolation can be devastating. Build-to-Rent offers more community engagement, with shared spaces and amenities, residents’ apps and social events allowing everyone to get to know each other and to keep an eye on each other’s welfare. Both management and fellow residents can ensure that nobody is socially isolated.

Castle Park View, Bristol, will provide 375 high-quality homes through a mixture of Build-to-Rent and affordable housing.

The best-equipped residential format

At a time of persistently and historically low interest rates and very low bond yields, investors are looking for sources of reliable long-term income and Build-to-Rent is an ideal vehicle for that. Apache Capital’s Managing Director and co-founder Richard Jackson, whose company is working with Moda Living to deliver several Build-to-Rent developments across the UK, points out that Build-to-Rent, as an investment class, “is defensive and generates long-term income streams that are sorely needed by institutional investors, such as pension funds, to match their liabilities.”[i]

This is a point echoed by Johnny Caddick, Chief Executive of Moda Living, who points out that from January to August 2020, which included the UK's strict lockdown period, Moda Living's rent collection rate was an excellent 96%. He also highlights the success of several of the community aspects of the Build-to-Rent experience, including the residents' app: "Using our digital platform and the MyModa app, we sold out 100% of our 78 virtual events, including pasta-making classes, beer tasting and balcony fitness sessions. We had more than 33,000 app engagements during lockdown".[ii]

Although COVID-19 has been very disruptive, socially and economically as well as in terms of illnesses and fatalities, most people anticipate that the pandemic will pass in the medium term and that life will return to something like what we previously considered to be normal.

However, the pandemic has possibly created a permanent shift in some aspects of life, whether that be an increased awareness of environmental hygiene, a stronger awareness of the importance of community or a greater prevalence of people working from home.

The Build-to-Rent format is already well placed to help accommodate those changes. The challenge for designers and operators is to optimise designs and processes so that the format can be showcased as the residential model best equipped for post-COVID living.



About the Author

Michael Swiszczowski (BA(Hons), MArch, ADPPA, ARB, RIBA)

Director, UK

Michael joined Chapman Taylor in 2016 to strengthen the practice’s residential expertise. A key member of the Manchester studio’s management team, Michael has a remit to develop and grow the practice’s residential and hospitality sectors across the UK business.

He has experience working on award-winning residential projects, with a particular focus on Build-to-Rent, student accommodation, hotels, serviced apartments and modular construction.

He is an RIBA-elected member of the Regional Council for RIBA North West.

Areas of expertise:

Residential / Build-to-Rent / Student Accommodation / Hotels

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