Remote work trend affects apartment design

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 2,066 views 

Photo by Stephen Ironside

Flexible work options have influenced multifamily design and will likely continue as the work-from-home trend continues. Meanwhile, some area multifamily projects designed to include flexible spaces already accommodate the trend.

According to a 2022 McKinsey & Co. survey, 58% of employed U.S. residents, or 92 million people, can work from home at least one day per week, and 35% of those, or 55 million people, can work remotely full-time. Among those who can work remotely, 87% choose to do so. On average, remote workers spend three days a week working from home.

The survey shows employers have continued to allow flexible work options after the COVID-19 pandemic, and the data confirms “a major shift in the working world and in society itself.”

“A world in which millions of people no longer routinely commute has meaningful implications for the commercial core in big urban centers and commercial real estate overall,” according to McKinsey. “Likewise, such a world implies a different calculus for where Americans will live and what types of homes they will occupy.”

Jessica Hester, CEO and principal architect of Verdant Studio in Rogers, said the firm is designing multifamily developments planned for downtown Rogers that are expected to accommodate remote and hybrid workers.

“We’re designing for at-home workspace in a way that we have never done pre-COVID,” Hester said. “Making sure people have access to comfortable, well-lit desk space has become a priority.”

She said some features the workers are looking for in their homes include dedicated space for monitors, files and paperwork. Another is what’s behind the home workspace.

“Three years ago, we would’ve never thought about what the background looks like on a Zoom call,” Hester joked. “Those are things we’re thinking about as we place that kind of space in a residential environment.”

Other amenities include opportunities to leave their homes and use community spaces for co-working with other residents.

“There’s at least a little interaction, and you’re not totally isolated from everyone,” she explained. Also, amenities typically found at the office might allow residents access to printers, meeting areas and “micro-co-working” spaces.

She added that the spaces would be flexible and allow for co-working during the day, but at night, the developer or property manager might host community events.

Hester said accommodating remote and hybrid work results from the pandemic and that remote work “is here to stay.”

“I think people love to get up and be at their desk in 10 minutes instead of 45 minutes to get ready and a 15-minute commute,” Hester said. “I think employers have gotten comfortable with it and trust, generally speaking, their employees to be diligent and doing their jobs.”

She said designers and developers are reevaluating amenity spaces “in what they need to be and how they can be used all day long versus just in the evenings. The times people use those spaces have gone from being largely from 5 o’clock [p.m.] until 10 o’clock to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. I think we’re getting better uses out of the spaces we were already developing, and now we’re adding a layer of flexibility to the way we design the interiors and select the furniture.”

Bo Diamond, the managing partner of real estate investment firm Caisson Capital Partners in Fayetteville, also expects the flexible work options to remain and that investing in amenities for remote and hybrid workers will be required to attract tenants.

“Even if we see softening in the economy and a recession in 2023, the pandemic served as an inflection point for that,” Diamond said. “Whether people are in the office two days a week, three days a week, fully remote or in the office most of the time but are going to take two Fridays a month to work from home, they expect to be able to function perfectly in their home.”

Diamond earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2007. He said that accommodating hybrid and remote workers in five years will be “almost a necessity.” He added that the developments that don’t would struggle in occupancy levels and performance.

“What starts as an optional nice-to-have becomes table stakes eventually and becomes a must-have,” he said.

Caisson Capital Partners is raising capital to build a 248-unit multifamily development in Lowell that’s expected to accommodate hybrid or remote workers, said Diamond.

He explained that the clubhouse is being designed as more of a co-working space than a traditional multifamily clubhouse. Plans include conference rooms with technology to make Zoom calls and multiple workspaces, such as booths and single-occupancy offices that can be reserved. Also, residents will have access to 1 gigabit Wi-Fi available throughout the development.

“You can do a Zoom call from, quite frankly, the side of the pool if you want or from the hot tub that’s going to be part of our amenity package,” he said. “That connectivity will be seamless.”

Asked whether the remote and hybrid work trend has led to a rise in project scale and cost in multifamily developments, Diamond said the costs are rising primarily because of construction cost inflation over the past two years. He doesn’t expect the developments to become larger because of the trend but said larger projects typically have more amenities than smaller ones.

Chris Baribeau, principal of Modus Studio in Fayetteville, said the firm’s apartment unit design has transitioned to include flexibility and “a plus space.” A one-bedroom apartment might have a space, such as an alcove, cubby office or window box, that would allow for remote work. He noted that the firm’s transition started before the remote and hybrid work trend arrived.

Chris Baribeau

“We’re allocating a little bit more square footage per unit or getting more efficient with other spaces,” said Baribeau, noting that a bedroom might not be as large to allow for the spaces that can accommodate remote work. “We’ve also been looking at more clever use of millwork and built-ins  — whether it’s an island or closet  — where it can serve as a convertible home-office space.” He added that it might fold out of the way when not used.

Modus Studio is working on the First Street Flats development in downtown Rogers with Fayetteville developer Specialized Real Estate Group. Remote and hybrid workers have been factored into the design.

Meanwhile, flexible spaces have been included in many of the firm’s multifamily designs to provide residents with more options and configurations for their space. The spaces were considered for South Yard in Fayetteville, another Specialized Real Estate Group development, and Town Branch in Bentonville, a Blue Crane development under construction.

The environment is another critical factor, and Baribeau said indoor air quality has always been a design priority. However, its importance has risen as people spend more time at home because of the remote work trend. He also noted the importance of spaces where one can go to work outside of the apartment but remain within the development.

He pointed to Brick Avenue Lofts in Bentonville, another Specialized Real Estate Group project, “where the whole club was focused on that idea of co-work and flexible space and be able to plug in and plug out,” he said. “To have a hub that you could engage with when you wanted to get out of your apartment and work in a different location, you see that as a heavy driver of amenity space, even more so than golf simulators or another check-the-box amenity out there. I think quality social space that’s flexible for work is a big driver as well.”