Build to Rent: Design & Liveability

There are currently 33,411 Build to Rent units completed, under construction, or with planning permission in London (BPF 2016). Development activity is boosted by overseas providers such as the US ‘multi-family’ giant Greystar, who just submitted an application to develop 1,439 purpose-built homes for private rent on the former GlaxoSmithKline site in the London Borough of Ealing.

On 11 October, Future of London brought together a cross-sector group of housing experts to discuss the design and management of London’s burgeoning Build to Rent sector. The roundtable was kindly hosted by London Communications Agency. This post includes key points; watch for a full report in January.

Design –
How important is bespoke Build to Rent apartment layout? Does prefab construction make sense for Build to Rent?

Build to Rent tends to exhibit a core set of design features in four key ‘zones’: front of house, residents’ shared areas, residents’ private areas and back of house. These include double height entrance lobbies, indoor/outdoor amenity spaces, open-plan apartment layouts and strong management facilities.

The design approach of major private sector Build to Rent developer-operators is often informed by market research. This helps to attract and retain residents, kick-starting this relatively new housing sector.

A distinctive apartment layout is evolving to make renting as attractive as possible; equal-sized bedrooms and en suite bathrooms are often positioned on either side of an open-plan lounge – a layout coined the ‘dumbbell’. Bespoke design is possible as these developers are in the market long-term. With no plans to sell off units plot by plot, they envisage selling the building in its entirety to another PRS provider as a single asset.

The ‘Dumbbell’ layout – Be:here Aberfeldy Village

Whilst many developers are not designing for the sharer market per se, this style of housing is arguably less suitable for families. Furthermore, while these new high-quality blocks are often premium products, sharing with other paying tenants makes them more affordable.

Modular design is proving popular with both public and private Build to Rent developers. These methods could enable flexibility in terms of bedroom size: the use of non-loadbearing walls could allow for easy conversion of a studio and two-bed into a three-bed property, for example. Modular construction is also quicker on larger developments, although transportation of units can be an issue, and sourcing is difficult at this early stage of its resurgence.

Building amenities –
How should amenities be prioritised within a development budget for this tenure? Can the right amenity engender a sense of community (for the renters and wider area?)

With communal living a core principle of Build to Rent, the design of the shared facilities and amenity spaces is arguably as important as the units themselves. Analysis of the area surrounding a site and its existing amenities can inform a scheme’s ideal amenities, as well as tenant consultation.

In the well-established US market, developers use amenities for competitive edge. In contrast, in the UK’s fledging market, it is still a brave decision to sacrifice lettable space and a sign developers are valuing the power of amenities to retain tenants. The US amenity market includes dog parlours and swimming pools, reflective of a contrasting culture to the UK, as well as the premium nature of their Build to Rent market.

The UK/London equivalent is simpler: gyms, cafés and roof gardens are the most frequent requests. Currently, amenities tend to be inward-facing and geared towards exclusivity for tenants. Some local authorities are exploring offering something to the wider community at ground level: GP surgeries or community centres could work well, particularly in wider estate renewal schemes.

If schemes are offering communal living spaces, there is an argument for allowances being made with regard to space standards beyond that of the GLA’s current SPG, which conveys that local policies requiring a range of unit sizes could be interpreted flexibly to long-term PRS. One suggestion was to have a building-wide space standard comprising a range of small, medium and large units, though others were very cautious about moving away from policy that was long called for.

What are the essentials of building management that will secure a long-term revenue stream from a BtR scheme and encourage tenants to stay?

Alongside consumer-led design, exceptional customer service is a key part of a Build to Rent retention model. Although 24/7 may be not necessary or viable in all developments, on-site management during some hours and same-day responses were seen as essential.

A single, central concierge hub will keep larger/mixed-tenure schemes in good shape and encourage tenant retention. Management is fundamental to customer experience and to the reputation of a provider, particularly with the possibility of review/comparison websites in the future.

A well-managed Build to Rent block may also call some design standards into question. For instance, the London Design Guide recommends between two and eight dwellings per corridor, which may be unnecessary in a property with on-site management.

Build to Rent could have its own set of design standards, or a relaxing of specific points, to help providers fully meet the needs of those renting in the capital. However, developing smaller apartments to be populated with those on lower incomes is a retrograde step, particularly when there is no guarantee these homes will remain in the rental market beyond the covenanted period.

Roundtable participants were:

  • Simon Chatfield, Be:here
  • Mike De’Ath, HTA
  • Jeff Endean, LB Lewisham
  • Danny Kaye, Sheridan Development Management Ltd
  • Raj Kotecha, Amro
  • Geertje Kreuziger, LB Lambeth
  • Félicie Krikler, Assael
  • Anna Mitra, LCA
  • James Pargeter, Greystar
  • Kath Scanlon, LSE London
  • Adam Towle, LB Harrow
  • Jeannette Veldkamp, Chapman Taylor
  • Sean Weston, ASTUDIO
  • Jim Wilson, Pinnacle
  • Jo Wilson, Future of London