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Mix Roundtable: The Post-Pandemic Recipe for BTR Success

The UK’s growing build-to-rent residential sector survived the pandemic – but lessons have been learnt. Architects, designers and developers joined a roundtable hosted by Milliken to assess what worked, what didn’t and what comes next in the world of beds-for-rent

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Mix Roundtable The Post-Pandemic Recipe for BTR Build to Rent Success group around table

Words: David Thame

The UK build-to-rent sector is still small. Microscopic, even. Around 140,000 build-to-rent units are in existence, or in the pipeline. Of those about half are in London, a quarter in Manchester and the rest scattered around the regional cities.

The young and fragile BTR business could have been one of the victims of the coronavirus pandemic. To the surprise of some, and the joy of others, that didn’t happen. As 2022 begins, BTR looks poised for further growth as new markets, new brands and new approaches begin to develop. Investors – from Lloyds Bank to Australian construction giants Macquarie – are poised to spend heavily in a sector they expect to deliver strong returns.

But what has been learned from the pandemic? And what has still to be learned, as BTR prepares for a surge of post- pandemic, investor-driven growth?

A panel embracing BTR developer Quintain, designers including Conran and Partners and Dexter Moren Associates, and the brightest names
in the sector including Assael, Tigg & Coll, HTA and Woods Bagot, met to judge the past, and chart the future.

Quintain Living Head of Mobilisation Jennie Fojtik said the pandemic had helped clarify some ideas, and helped complicate others.

“The pandemic both slowed down and accelerated our learning about what amenities work and what do not,” she said.

“One of the discoveries was the importance of comfortable working from home – sheds and pods, some outdoors, have been popular – and we revised amenity plans in the pipeline, like asking do we have enough separate seating or is it all long shared sofas?

“Another for instance, in 2020 we opened a building with lots of pool tables and game spaces, but occupancy stalled because of the pandemic, so we’re not yet learning about that space and whether it’s right.”

One amenity has survived the pandemic with its credentials burnished: the on- site gym. Before the pandemic there had been doubts about on-site gyms, with some landlords suspecting tenants would prefer better-equipped spaces in the neighbourhood. That doubt has now subsided.

Tigg & Coll Director David Tigg said: “Gyms and spin studios are a really key environment. I don’t know if that’s the end game – if that’s always what BTR will need – but today they are very desirable spaces, even if they aren’t used much. There’s the desirability of knowing it is there and occupiers know they can use it if they want it.”

Assael Architects Associate Per Anton Risan agreed. “We’ve been working on Legal & General’s Box Makers’ Yard BTR scheme in Bristol, it has 256 apartments and is so far 70% let, but when I visited the gym had about 30 people in it on a Tuesday mid-afternoon, and I’ve never seen an on-site gym so well used.”

Conran and Partners Partner Simon Kincaid and Woods Bagot Principal Simon Saint took the discussion of amenity into the related field of aspiration and marketing.

“The gym issue is all wrapped up with economics,” said Kincaid. “If you are renting an apartment with a wellness and fitness element, you save £60 a month on your gym subscription elsewhere.”

Simon Saint nodded to David Tigg’s point that whether the gym was used, or not, it still had to be there. “In 10 years working in the residential sector, what I’ve discovered is that what matters is what residents think they want, not what they actually use. If you drilled down into the data you often find the two are quite different. We mustn’t forget that a lot of BTR is aspirational.”

Kincaid added: “It’s not so much a gym, as about wellness and fitness and selling that different vibe.”

“It’s about giving people a sense of themselves and it’s part of the mix of aspirations and dreams whether they use a gym or not,” said Saint. “Which of course, makes it very difficult for investors, developers and designers because if you begin to ask about how you deliver maximum return through your design, it may turn out that it doesn’t look like the best use of floorspace. And that problem gets even harder when you look a few years ahead and ask what people might want in the future.”

In the end, the solution might involve thinking in rather different directions, suggested HTA Senior Interior Designer Ameena Al Samarae. “Occupiers want a certain type of gym, for instance they want it high up the building, because it is all about the view from the treadmill. This is a lifestyle thing, and a gym in the basement will just not appeal. Nobody wants that,” she said.

BTR is not just about amenity, it is supposed to be about community. Good design can contribute to a sense of shared purpose and to a harmonious happy BTR block. It can also screw things up.

“The raison d’etre of BTR is to create communities,” said Dexter Moren Associates Partner Herbert Lui, and the panel agreed enthusiastically.

“To create community you need different kinds of spaces and different kinds of seating. In one scheme we have a grand piano in the corner, in others a bar area or working spaces. Flexible event spaces for parties are also popular,” said Assael’s Per Anton Risan.

Quintain’s Jennie Fojtik said her experience showed designers had to be clever. Listening to property managers would help them.

“It all depends how you activate these kinds of spaces. Lots of little rooms can be prohibitive, and whilst they can be great for working from home it is important to remember the theme of community is broader than the spaces themselves. It includes staff, the concierge, local businesses, it has many facets and it is a lot more complicated than ‘do we put in a gym or a lounge?’

“This is all about interaction. So it’s not just about imagining residents becoming buddies just because we work on laptops next to each other in the shared space,” Fojtik said, with the strong expectation that they wouldn’t. Sociability is about more than just proximity.

Woods Bagot’s Simon Saint was thinking along similar lines. “The actual space is basically the last thing you need to create a community. You can create all the co-working space you like, but if people don’t want to talk to the person next to them, it won’t work,” he said.

“What we need to think about is opportunities to engage. The physical space supports that, but doesn’t make it happen. I can remember one scheme we worked on which had a very original design with a bar in front of the lift to the apartments, so residents had to walk through the bar to get to the lift. The idea was everyone would hang out in the bar. But what if one guy

is always at the bar at 5pm, and he grabs you, and all you want is to get home? That’s bad for community. The thing is to give people a choice about when to engage. So we have to design escape routes, so you can get in and get out without having to go to the bar, or whatever. It gives people the option.”

So how about the apartments themselves? As Simon Kincaid reminded the panel, at root this is about creating homes. Any investor, developer or designer who forgets this is heading for trouble.

But providing the homes-first rule is remembered, the next priority is probably durability. Investors are hoping for 25-40 years of good income from BTR blocks. There is a great deal of money and hope riding on the concept. Can buildings, and their fit-outs, last through several cycles of letting and re-letting? Beyond wear-and-tear, how about changing fashion and style – both of which matter enormously to BTR residents?

Milliken UK Corporate Account Manager Nicole Window said that BTR residents were strongly motivated by sustainability and environmental standards.

“From my projects, I know that the longevity and life cycle of the product is really important. And it’s a generational thing, too. I have a young daughter who doesn’t want to throw things away and that feeling is widespread. Residents want to know they can get the full use out of things but equally that the product is going to look and feel great.”

Quintain’s Jennie Fojtik picked up the point. “Everyone in BTR is now having to hold ourselves accountable for how wasteful we are. It can be as simple as deciding those chairs aren’t right for the impression we want to give customers. But what do we do with them and where do they go?We can’t just throw them away,” she said.

Window recalled a recent client conversation. “I was talking to someone who was planning to use broadloom carpet in BTR. But looked instead at the functionality of modular flooring. If there’s a stain, you can just replace the part that’s stained. By using modular you can get 15 years wear,” she added.

Fojtik emphasised the same point. “The issue is build cost versus long-term operational cost. There is always a tension, because what’s right at this stage may not be right long-term and that is what we haven’t yet learned. So far I’m pleased to say our fit outs in the UK are holding up well, but we’re usually looking for five years on durability and style. Broadly things seem to be holding up longer than that.”

Conran’s Simon Kincaid added: “There are some simple rules. If you are talking about a kitchen then the worktop needs to be bullet proof and in the bathroom we need a life of 20 years, but there’s an art in the design and craft, about making it feel homely too. Suppliers need to know we want products that can hit the 10 year guarantee but also we don’t want the place to look like a cheap motel or a prison.”

But the panel agreed that whilst modular carpets and durable worktops might be part of the solution to the question of durability, modular buildings methods might not be.

The problem with modular building is that the building is then hard to recycle. Alternative uses can be hard to envisage, or expensive to achieve, which impacts investors’ willingness to spend. David Tigg said: “How recyclable is modular construction. You may have to shift things around quite dramatically and with modular is that even possible?”

Dexter Moren’s Herbert Lui agreed. “If you’re asking how you future proof a building, then the answer is go non-modular. Because once you go that way, you have problems,” he said.

“You can overcome them with some planning, for instance, you can create a connection between a studio and a one bed flat so they can become a two bed flat if that becomes a future requirement. You could build in the opening between the door, and punch through when you need it.”

“Modular construction also imposes tight constraints on design,” said HTA’s Ameena Al Samarae. “We’re talking 19-25 sq metres, and you have to be very efficient. The difference between one approach and another might be 600mm and that’s the level of detail that investors want to talk about,” she said.

The list of investors with hopes pinned on BTR grows longer every day. Shopping centre landlords like British Land and Hammerson, retailers like John Lewis and banks like Lloyds, are all eyeing up prospects. They are looking for long-term income. The panel agreed that durable buildings, durable design and durable materials will help them achieve it.

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