Recent research by Savills reports that the UK build-to-rent sector has grown by 20% in the last year. The average size of schemes has also increased, with completed schemes now averaging 133 units. Demand for rental stock in cities has risen exponentially in recent years as many of the under 40s, also known as ‘generation rent’, are priced out of buying. The build-to-rent sector has been further boosted by Government policy encouraging institutional investors at the expense of the small buy-to-let model.
As the schemes get bigger, and competition increases, developers are increasingly focusing on how they can use the amenity offer to help market their product. The UK’s largest listed professional landlord Grainger plc approached us to help design the amenity spaces in six of their rental schemes. We are also developing a set of brand standards to be rolled out across other projects. Our hospitality experience gives us a deep understanding of how to create flexible communal spaces people want to spend time in. We are used to layering everything, from the styling to the material choice, and even on some occasions the smell, to create the right impact.
The Grainger projects vary by location but all include a gym, reception/ concierge desk, post box/mail rooms and co-working facilities. The gym is a ‘must-have’ feature, ranging from boutique style facilities to larger spaces.
The co-working spaces incorporate communal tables with light and loose furniture which can be moved around. When designing these spaces, we incorporated elements from our work for Sheraton where we re-designed the brand’s standard lobby area to facilitate co-working.
Alongside the co-working space, we designed separate bookable rooms with kitchenettes. In the daytime these flexible areas can be used for working or meetings, while in the evening they can be transformed into an entertaining space. At Brook Place Apartments, which has been shortlisted in the Mixology Awards 2020, they wanted an industrial look reflecting the history of the local area. Here we installed a mobile pizza oven for use by residents and for events. Flexibility is a key feature of these rooms with modular furniture facilitating a number of uses.
The desire to promote accidental meetings between people is an important driver in our designs. Research shows that residents are far more likely to stay for longer if they know who their neighbours are. This sort of interaction can’t be forced. It requires a subtle approach embedded across the public spaces. This even extends to the mail rooms where we have created freestanding areas encouraging residents to linger while they collect and open their post. Having said this, it is also important that people retain their privacy if they don’t want interaction. It is their home after all.
The reception/concierge desk is a functional space rather than a social hangout allowing residents to go directly to their apartment if they prefer to avoid socialising.
As with many of our hotel projects, we have tried where possible to bring the neighbourhood story in with bespoke wallpaper, local suppliers and artwork. Given the residential context, it’s a subtler approach than it would be in a hotel scheme. People in a domestic setting don’t tend to want overly fussy, ‘shouty’ design schemes. We have incorporated feature wall coverings in corners where they can be ‘discovered’, creating spaces where not everything is revealed at first glance.
In Grainger’s Docklands project we designed a bespoke wall feature behind the coffee machine based on the people who have lived in the area and its trading history. In the same project we also created a bespoke artwork inspired by the grain transported from the River Thames. Where possible we have suggested using local artists and bringing other elements in through styling such as books about the area. We have also recommended bringing in local suppliers and companies to run events. It’s all about making the experience more personal for residents, and grounding them in their local neighbourhood.
There is a less rigid design language than there would be for a hotel scheme. Our design approach is more eclectic creating the impression of things collected over time. This is a trend we are seeing in hotels, with many looking to create more of a homely feel for guests, but here we were able to take it further.
As the build-to-rent sector matures we have reached an interesting juncture. The market in some respects is moving towards a co-living model with very small units supplemented by slickly marketed communal space. These sit alongside a super-luxury segment branded by companies like Conde Naste and Mini. All of these products are focused on selling a lifestyle appealing to the youth market.
The sector is driven by people wanting to live in cities and quality schemes from established landlords, which provide a real opportunity to offer renters security, well-designed living and amenity space, even new friends, but most importantly, a home.