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The Future of Living

The spectrum of residential property is changing, as living and working begin to blend. How is the market segmenting on age, work or social lines and what does that mean for amenity, design and long-term sustainability?

10/12/2019 6 min read
What does the future of living look like? During Mix Design Collective 2019, an excellent panel of guests joined our property expert David Thame to discuss the challenges and opportunities ahead of the private residential sector.

This discussion was about the BTR revolution, and that’s exactly the word for it. How has it manifested itself, and where is it going next? We sat down with three property experts – each with an impressive portfolio of projects under their belts: Helen White, Managing Director at Affinity Living, Michael Howard, Managing Director at urbanbubble and Gavin Chetty, Brand Director at Way of Life. Here is just a snippet of the conversation.

 

80 BTR schemes are now live in the UK, as Build to Rent the concept meets Build to Rent the reality. What have you noticed as the two have collided – what surprises have you discovered?

Michael: What hasn’t worked is that we were completely overwhelmed by the volume of work that goes into leasing up a community from a standing start. It’s not fragmented, there’s no letting agent, there are no block managers or free holders, it’s one operation on site – very much like a hotel. So that’s what took us by surprise. We also learnt was that we could have all the plans and strategy in place, but it’s absolutely key to talk to the customers to understand if we’re purposing the spaces and the community in the right way.

What’s worked is that we work 15 months out realistically from a new residential development, which starts with research and goes on to brand, marketing, leasing strategies and then we get into the detail. I think that having that foresight has really worked.

Helen: We actually worked a little more than 15 months out – the concept for our brand was delivered to the select board back in 2015. We have six buildings under construction and the starting point was focus groups back in 2015 – talking to people about the way that they lived. We design buildings inside out, with the starting point being who is actually going to live there. We create the concept for the brand and then we work with the architects and the build team, and then operate it.

If something does work, expand on it and if it doesn’t, get rid and repurpose it.

Helen: The challenge we have is delivering 2,000 units all in the same city – but we’re fortunate that we’re in three different locations and we put a different amenity in each, so we’re not delivering cookie cutter BTR schemes. Some people don’t want a gym in their facility! We look at where we’re building, and the design is very much influenced by what we deliver. A lot of people in the BTR sector talk about community, but we’re passionate that that community doesn’t exist within four walls – it has to integrate with the neighbourhood.

Helen: On a design level we look at the materiality and palette of what we use in the interiors. Our scheme on Embankment is on the site of a former railway, so we integrated timber, steel and brick, whereas at Riverside looks at the more organic ebb and flow of the water and colours. We’re also taking a bit of a bold move (which came from the focus groups actually) and the secure line isn’t the front door but at the lift lobby – so we open the whole ground floor amenity to the wider community. We want them to come in and use the coworking spaces and lounges, and work with the residents to shape the life of the space.

Gavin: We worked quite closely with Pentagram, who are a fantastic branding agency, to brand our latest building in Leicester to have touch points that respond to local areas. It’s gone down really well and it’s given us a marketing hook. In fact, our business plan had a 2-year let up period and we’ve almost filled the building in 6 months. Our Glasgow and Birmingham locations are also different to each other in terms of amenity offer – we have a sort of open lobby culture that you might find in lifestyle hotels, with a coworking space and café.

So we have a discovery already – location (surprise surprise) matters in property. What have we discovered about what amenities are actually necessary in a building?

Gavin: I think it depends on the location. One of our buildings in Birmingham has great gyms in the area so it’s not necessary to have a gym on location. We are actually installing a small gym to see if it works but from all the marketing feedback and research we’ve done, we think that residents would actually be happier with gyms outside the building. Michael: If something does work, expand on it and if it doesn’t, get rid and repurpose it. We’re really thinking about the customer in that community and we do think gyms are important. It used to be that 80% would want to live there because they want to use the gym, and only 30% use it – but that’s changing. Most of our customer base in Manchester are between the ages of 22 and 32 and we’re finding a much bigger take up in the gyms. The equipment is progressing – if you’re going to do something, do it well and commit to it. Don’t put tokenism in, like a token car park, token coffee lounge etc.

 

Community doesn’t exist within four walls – it has to integrate with the neighbourhood.

Helen: We’re expecting our schemes to have a wide variety of demographics. We have done some pre-lets in the buildings and one of the challenges that we have is that we don’t have a show apartment. Letting to someone (and we’re on the higher end of the market) without the opportunity to stand in the apartment, see the view, sit on the furniture and touch and feel everything – and being challenged as a business to do pre-lets when we can’t actually get them in an apartment is tough. So, we took over a few meeting rooms in the Lowry, dressed them with the amenity space and used VR, and it gives people a sense of the space. Coming back to what amenity is at the core, it’s that sort of flexible/lounge/coworking space that is not fixed joinery and can be used by residents to define how they want to use it.

On one hand you’re all saying commit and if you’re going to do it, do it properly – and on the other hand you want flexible space, which is pulling in the other direction. How do you resolve this?

Gavin: In our view general amenity space is about what the brand stands for. What we’re trying to get to is what do we stand for as a brand and then whatever amenity we offer resonates with what we are. It’s about having a point of view, which is riskier in many ways but people will see that and gravitate towards that. It’s a different way of approaching it rather than colour by number and everyone doing the same thing.

Helen: I agree, the brand has to define the fabric of the building.

Gavin: You constantly have to interrogate – what are your values, and what’s your permission to chase the latest trend, and I think in the next five years it will be very much “here’s the marketing report, here’s the key turn solution agency and here’s what you get” and that’s why everything kind of looks the same but – it’s a process.

What makes a space fantastic from the point of view of generating a sense of community – a shared community or shared purpose?

Gavin: If it’s built with integrity and it’s well designed and not chasing the latest trend. I’m sure that everyone uses them as a reference, but in Soho House there’s multiple entry points – you can be a 25 year old graphic designer and enjoy Soho House, and you can be a 60 year old exec, because it’s done with simplicity, heart and soul. Also it’s not about the design or the brand, it’s about the culture. So, in a lot of my presentations, I’ll say to clients: your culture is your brand. You can walk into an environment and you can understand the brand by what’s happening around you.

How do you ensure, through the way you manage, build, and design one of these buildings, that it is a sustainable asset that it can both physically engineered and meet changing trends?

Gavin: Yes, absolutely the quality department is your core product, apartment and customer service offer. Working with great procurement companies and good designers who are not trying to chase with the latest trend, but just build with authenticity. That works and people see that straightaway. Helen: I think service is absolutely paramount. A few people have moved to us because they weren’t getting the service that it was purported to be offering. It’s things like that that really really make a difference – people will stay there if they put down roots, have friendship groups and have good service.

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