Almost a decade ago, an innovative group out of Tucson worked to develop a new concept in housing – one that combined some of the key benefits of a single-family home with the lower commitment of a rental community. The single family built for rent (SFBR) concept was born, at the hands of the industry pioneer, Nexmetro Communities. Fast forward 10 years later, and the success and popularity of this housing product cannot be overstated. While it began in Tucson, SFBR has expanded well into the Phoenix area and is beginning to spread across the United States, in areas like Nevada, Colorado, Texas, and Florida.
In a nutshell, SFBR typically features detached, single story units with small, private backyards. Amenities such as pools and dog parks are shared, and residents rent the units for a rate that is typically slightly above average for the given market. With sites ranging from 6 to 30 acres, the great challenge with SFBR is balancing density requirements that make the community economically feasible with the aesthetic and programmatic elements that drive up leasing and occupancy. With that in mind, here are our top 5 considerations for designing successful built for rent communities.
- The Marketing Trail
Working from the outside in, it is important to understand the marketing window and how visitors and residents will experience the community. The density constraints of the product type make this a challenging but not insurmountable task. Some questions to consider are: What does the community look like on the perimeter when prospective residents are arriving to the site? Is there well-designed signage and access? Upon passing through the gates of the community, it is important to control the initial visual impacts to the resident. For example, trash enclosures make up a significant space requirement in this type of community – concealing these along the marketing trail is an important consideration. When entering the site, what amenities are showcased? Are people inspired to get out of their vehicles and explore more of what this community has to offer?
- The Architecture
The architecture of the community has great impact on the overall feel, the density that can be achieved, and how the development will be received by the municipality and its surrounding neighbors. As the product type has matured, municipalities and developers have learned that greater architectural variety is more appealing for residents and for surrounding neighbors. Now that more developers and traditional homebuilders are entering into this market, we are seeing more floor plan options and elevational styles proposed, much like one would see in a traditional single-family community. This will likely result in municipalities requiring greater architectural diversity out of all the developers of this product in the future.
Being involved in the early development of SFBR communities has allowed us to foster the evolution of this product and its architecture. For example, by working collaboratively with clients and architects, we have helped develop a “dark wall” (a wall with no windows) option for one of the floor plans. This allowed us to build this plan as a duplex unit where needed, or to create a “zero lot line” condition where the “dark wall” served as the back wall of another unit’s backyard. This possibility existed due to a specific construction material that creates a nearly soundproof wall, therefore maintaining the same level of privacy. We have also been able to create attached garage conditions, which has increased premiums for homes by providing a layout that is even closer to traditional single-family homes.
- The Amenities
Once you pass through the gates of the development, the focus turns to creating a sense of community. As designers, we have the great opportunity to shape how people socialize and interact. This is one of the things that makes designing these communities so exciting and engaging. The amenities are the place that people go to gather, play, and socialize. With the introduction of more competition in the market, developers are using amenities to help set themselves apart. We now see larger pools and spas, outdoor kitchens, larger leasing offices with community space, fitness, dog parks for off-leash areas, open turf areas, lawn games, and fire pits.
- The Neighborhood
The residential cul-de-sac is one of the most sought-after properties in a residential community. In this setting you feel safer, you know your neighbors, you recognize cars and know who belongs and who does not. The street itself becomes a place to play and gather, like modern Italian piazzas. As human beings, we are hardwired to want to be in safe spaces like these. With this in mind for SFBR communities, we have designed small clusters of four to six homes in what we have called pedestrian cul-de-sacs. Within these cul-de-sacs, there is a single pedestrian access point with a small common amenity such as a lawn area or raised planter/bench where residents can gather and socialize. These are small private enclaves that you do not see in traditional multifamily developments.
- Diversity and Evolution of Design
In its early years, SFBR targeted a cost-conscious resident and was based on a singular design focus: efficiency of design. Today, the demographic for these communities has evolved to include more diversity, from middle class young professionals to active retirees. With these new demographics, diversity in design is key. In our design approach, we are constantly evaluating the grouping and orientation of homes. In some cases, the goal is to provide exclusivity and privacy; other times we aim to locate homes near the social hub of community activity. Neither is right or wrong; by providing a variety of environments we can appeal to these diverse demographics and create a more harmonious and more visually interesting community.
A great case study in this SFBR product has been the Cadence Multifamily site in Mesa, Arizona by GTIS Partners. This 16-acre, 197-unit site features a diverse and interesting marketing trail with a variety of product types, building orientations, and perimeter wall types that establish a design character that will be continued throughout the community. Architectural diversity is provided by offering three different floor plans and two different architectural character styles. Amenities are spread throughout the community with intimate, passive outdoor gathering spaces and multiple off-leash dog runs that are anchored by a central amenity featuring a fitness center, pool, outdoor kitchen, shaded seating areas, and multiple activity lawns. The design of the community itself features a variety of environments including private pedestrian cul-de-sacs and unit embracing amenity spaces. The diversity in environments and amenities have been developed to service the needs of all the potential residents in the community. Leasing for this community is projected to begin in the Fall of 2021.
While the initial design approach for a built for rent community is similar to other residential developments, the level of detail required is so much greater. Every inch matters, and every detail has an effect. What is remarkable about SFBR is that it is still so new, and therefore can evolve in so many ways. In the future, is it possible for the homes become factory-built, or 3-D printed? Is there an opportunity to scale back the cost to meet the growing demand for affordable housing? How can this product be integrated into traditional master planned and/or active adult communities? This is a new and interesting product for the development world. As a designer, it is exciting to be involved in this market and to help it grow and evolve.