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Trendy Living: A closer look at trends in multifamily construction

As we begin the journey into 2010, the construction industry is hoping that this year brings about a turnaround in terms of projects and profits. Particularly when it comes to residential and multifamily construction projects, which have been hit especially hard over the last year or so, as projects ended up being put on hold due to financial concerns.

While some firms have seen a near complete halt to multifamily construction projects, other firms are still working on transit-oriented and mixed-use projects.

“What we see now is that there is virtually no financing available for market-rate projects, and therefore multifamily developments are trending toward affordable apartments with tax credits or loan guarantees,” said Brit Probst and Scott Nevin, principals at Davis Partnership Architects, Denver. “This puts a lot of pressure on construction pricing,and requires us to be more creative and costeffective in design and detailing.”

“Very few apartments are getting built due to financing conditions,” agreed Alan F. Bombick, AIA, LEED AP, principal at Legat Architects, Chicago. “Those that do get built have generally some form of public participationin the financing.”

Probst and Nevin noted that what multifamily work they have seen focuses mainly on urban infill and mountain resort projects, and typically higher-priced developments that are either forsale or for rent. “This has allowed us the opportunity to use quality systems and materials to deal with issues such as water infiltration, acoustic control, energy efficiency, etc.”

Gary Handel, AIA, president, Handel Architects LLP, New York, has noticed that one trend that has been going on for awhile, withno signs of abating, is the desire to move back to the city, into the urban core. “People seem to have a desire to be close to the action, tobe in the center of things and to avail themselves of what urban life has to offer.”

Handel also mentioned “another trend is the paradoxical combination of the globalization of tastes and the desire for authenticity and regional character. Global and local design are being blended together in developmentseverywhere, from American suburbia to European downtowns to the newest cities of the Middle East.”

Development Trends
“Mixed-use and transit-based developments are part of the same trend of the rediscovery of the benefits of urban life, and we see a great future for both. Our practice is probably one of the global leaders in mixed use development, and we see this buildingtype as an excellent way to help our clients maximize the value of the best urban sites,” Handel said. “It also creates neighborhoods with a greater diversity of uses, and projects that can provide for richer experiences for residents and users. We’ve spent the last 15years exploring how these synergies can be generated and maximized.”

Handel continued, saying that locating residential density next to transportation just makes common sense. “It’s the way toward a sustainable future, reducing our carbon footprint and our impact on the land. It can also dramatically reduce commute time, allowing us a richer, more connected lifestyle and more time with our families.”

Thierry H. Cassan, principal, Kruger Bensen Ziemer Architects Inc., Santa Barbara, Calif., agreed, saying that both mixed-use and transportation-oriented developments that maximize access to public transportation, providing neighborhood markets and working places are the bases of urban living. “Multifamily developments are the solution to limit our carbon footprint but transit ridership needs to be part of these developments, like the California high-speed rail project.”

Probst and Nevin said that most of the work they are doing involves either mixed-use,TOD or both. “The construction of a new light rail system in Denver is spurring a good deal of this type of development. Mixed-use projects are frequently more complex and costly to execute, but they add a sense of vibrancy to their neighborhood that city planners and neighbors are insisting on.”

The Future
Bombick said that they have seen a movetowards urbanized areas and town centers, as opposed to greenfield sites on the edge of town. “Access to public transit and proximityto job centers will drive a lot of development.”

Probst and Nevin said that they believe multifamily projects built in the next few years will primarily be in the areas of senior housingand affordable housing, and primarily as rental developments. “We also expect to see some of the large condominium projects currently under construction being converted to apartments in response to the shortage of qualified buyers.”

“Around the world and across all incomebands, people want space that provides more than shelter; they want homes that nourish the soul and nurture the spirit. Sustainability is more and more important,” Handel said. “A little glamour doesn’t hurt, and people want as much space and amenities as they can afford.As our lives get busier and busier we rely more and more on the services that our buildings can provide to help support our lifestyles.”

Role of metal
“Metals play an important role in our multifamily projects, whether in primary framing systems,interior framing, façade cladding systems, storefronts or ornamental uses,” Handel said. “We are advocates for copper and cast iron for plumbing and conduit and BX for electrical, both for their proven reliability and durability.

We like how metals fit into a sustainability strategy with their long life and ability to be fully recycled.” “We like to use metal panels in our multifamily projects, because they help us create architecture that stands apart from the norm. Metal panels are very flexible and offer usa wide variety of looks—from industrial to contemporary, from sophisticated to primitive,” Probst and Nevin said. “In any case, peopleinstantly recognize that metal is a quality material and they won’t have to spend a lot of money to maintain it.”

Bombick mentioned that structural metal studs and other metal components, including cladding, are increasing in popularity as they are relatively economical in many cases and often offer design opportunities in terms of color, texture and finish at a reasonable cost. “We can cover large surface areas with panels and screen systems, and create new and more contemporary design statements on a tight budget.”

Cassan noted that metal roofing systems are already being used, especially in Europe, while steel-frame buildings are universal.“Rainscreen systems will probably be used more and more, allowing the designer to use the veneer/cladding of his choice without compromising the waterproofing system.”

Probst and Nevin went on to say that they believe metal buildings and wall systems will be considered on virtually all multifamily projects in the near term, and that they expect to see pre-engineered metal components playing a much more important role in the coming years. They also believe that another significant trend they expect to see more of is in the use of prefabricated assemblies to make housing more cost-efficient.

Handel agreed, noting that a number of projects are underway that explore the use of prefabricated steel-framed modules for highrise housing. “We think this system has enormous potential for reduced cost, improved quality and quicker time to market. Metals, with their ability to achieve a high degree of precision in a shop-fabricated environment are a natural for these types of projects.”

As the construction industry continues to recover over the next few years, there will most likely be changes in how some projects are approached. However, metal and sustainability will be key in multifamily construction, especially in urban, mixed-use or TOD locations.