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Mix Roundtable: Can BTR build community?

Recent years have seen a build-to-rent boom, but how can the model deliver positive social outcomes, embed culture and create thriving places to live?

Feature in partnership with Amtico Flooring

14/12/2022 5 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 223

Words: Harry McKinley


Our cities are rising up; our urban centres now dominated by towering pillars of glass and steel. Yet as workplaces and retail spaces shrink, these glossy new buildings are increasingly dedicated to a different type of inner-city industry: rented residential.

For some, the built-to-rent model is seen as a dystopian nightmare – soulless structures housing transient populations. Numerous headlines have touted their role in hollowing out communities and keeping locals off the property ladder. But how much of this is hot air and misconception? There is, as our roundtable of industry experts attested, a much more positive take.

At the Southwark offices of Amtico, in an area ripe with successful redevelopment, we’ve gathered to discuss the merits of BTR and its potential role in shaping the future of city life. We start by exploring what community actually means to each.

“Community to me is about creating and offering happy spaces for people to be happy in,” explains Tigg + Coll’s Rachel Coll. For Concert’s Rennie Dalrymple it’s a “sense of belonging and an environment in which people enjoy being with one another.”

Ownership is nodded to repeatedly, part of what defines community for BDP’s Melodie Peters, Woods Bagot’s Brooke Radtke and Whittam Cox’s Helen Davies.

“We’re essentially pack animals,” says Amtico’s Helen Helm. “We do better when we form human connections. That gives us stability and stability is part of community.”

These are all favourable, aspirational ideals and yet, for some, not those which spring to mind when considering BTR – something seemingly at odds, for residents at least, with ownership and stability.

“It’s not an accurate perception,” opines Peters. “There’s a widespread idea that if people don’t own then they aren’t interested in community and won’t take as much care of their home; that they won’t invest any time or effort in it. But it’s a very UK mentality, as ownership is thought of very differently on the continent. In other parts of Europe, people like to rent.”

For Dalrymple, there’s a generational divide. “It goes back to the 80s and Thatcherism, then the legacy of that continuing into the 90s,” he explains. “The notion of owning a council house was held up as a new social aspiration; that owning was always better than not. But, putting aside the general economic pressures of owning these days, there’s a younger generation more invested in sharing. They don’t need to own stuff and yet they’re much better at building communities. So yes, there’s the theory that if something isn’t yours, you’re not invested in it, but with a new generation that doesn’t ring true.”

That these negative ‘myths’ abound so abundantly at all is a point of frustration for Davis, who believes in the power of BTR to deliver a genuinely revolutionary and beneficial way of living.

“Everyone in my organisation is passionate about this sector. We recognise the criticism, but it isn’t accurate and we’ll stand up for BTR. It’s a model progressing so quickly and there’s such quality work happening, that the only thing is that people are still struggling to get their heads around it. It’s new and with anything new, it’s taking time for some to understand the benefits.”

The naysayers addressed and fallacies shattered, what are the benefits then? “Well BTR can actually bring new and different people into a neighbourhood,” says Coll. “It can attract people who wouldn’t ordinarily be there because they couldn’t afford to buy, and that diversity can really add a vibrancy to communities.”

“That’s of huge social benefit to neighbourhoods,” continues Radtke. “Plus offering people who can’t yet buy, affordable, quality housing, in good locations, is hugely significant in and of itself. BTR is quite embryonic in the grand scheme of things, but it presents a huge opportunity to actually grow communities; to be a seed of economic potential, with a community of residents that is going to spend in those areas.”

With the model now positioned as a force for wider good, we turn to the cultures being cultivated within. Here, design has a seismic role to play in creating environments that people want to be in.

“As humans we love the grain of the city and the grain of an environment,” explains Iain Casagranda, Gleeds. “To that end we don’t want monocultural towers. Through design you can create permeability with the surrounding area, with public areas that welcome in external people from the neighbourhood. Then it’s about meaningful facilities that occupiers will use, whether it’s coworking or hospitality-driven spaces, and creating opportunities for interaction.”

“And social influences change,” continues Helm. “Who knew that home working would become so vital? So you need adaptable spaces that aren’t slaves to trends; building on top of a good quality design and product foundation.”

Agreeing, Casagranda points out early investment is key: “That upfront spend on great materials is vital for creating atmosphere, longevity and giving people pride in where they live.”

For Dalrymple, there’s an economic argument in design that inspires and comforts but, crucially, fosters contact between residents. “I saw some research that pointed out if a person has even one friend in a building, they’re 80% more likely to renew their contract. If they feel a part of an even wider community within the building, it skyrockets to 95%. You see, from a cost engineering perspective, one of the biggest challenges is often getting developers to understand the need for investment in amenity space that, on paper, doesn’t generate a significant, immediate return. But there’s a connection to be made between money spent on creating these spaces and revenue, because it really does impact the viability of the project and likelihood that occupiers will feel connected to it, build connections with others and ultimately decide to stay.”

When viewed this way, it’s clear many of the established notions around BTR are built on shaky foundations. Many of the communities developed within these projects are, demonstrably, neither transient or unattached to their homes, despite renting; they arguably aren’t responsible for decimating neighbourhoods, but instead can become focal points of programming activations and social interaction; and, as Davis points out, they aren’t just for the young, with older people increasingly drawn to the central locations, plentiful amenities and sense of community they can provide. The key, then, seems to be in how well designed they are and successfully they are managed. On the former front, the responsibility lies with some of those at the table.

“As designers, we need to conceive and realise spaces that live up to the potential of what BTR could be and represent,” says Peters. “But there’s an incredible opportunity to shape the future and, ultimately, create meaningful places to live.”

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