By Christopher Dowell, Associate Principal, Tiscareno Associates
Multifamily developers are endlessly combating rising construction costs. Last year alone, the cost of construction increased nearly 5% nationally, according to a report from Rider Levett Bucknall, and Seattle had one of the highest increases in the nation. Amid these rising costs, I’ve observed multifamily developers that are willing to trade expert architecture experience for lower fees—but that can be a risky proposition. Inexperienced multifamily architects often cut corners that ultimately strain a project’s budget and timeline.
Slowing development activity in other asset classes is driving the arrival to the multifamily sector design firms who lack experience in this sector, with the promise of lower fees for service. It is not unusual for multifamily developers to contact our firm after engaging a low-cost architect that delivered subpar drawings with avoidable errors, including missing dimensions or construction details. Skilled multifamily architectural firms can navigate budget sensitivity without cutting corners through five key design components: quality control, expediting project entitlement, unit efficiency, material selection and constructability.
Architecture firms with established quality control systems are best able to provide detailed documentation. Clear and concise documents lead to more predictability, less product waste and improved quality overall. It can also lead to lower bid pricing, quicker product delivery, and overall speedier project completion.
An example is leveraging the use of BIM (Building Information Modeling), 3D modeling software that allows for collaboration across many disciplines. BIM software, such as Autodesk’s Revit, offers overlay features for multiple disciplines, including the general contractor, the ability to see in real-time each team member’s work. In addition, Revit has the capability to run multiple programing or design scenarios with the added benefit of easily being able to revert back to the original if the test scheme is proven not to be a positive add to the project. Autodesk’s BIM 360 cloud-based modeling is an even more powerful tool. With many people and disciplines working remotely across many locations, BIM 360 allows for all to have access in real-time to the same model, thereby allowing for instant updates and collaboration. This can increase efficiency behind the scenes and helps avoids errors in the field. In conjunction with a firm’s established quality control process (reviews, checklists, history with the product type), BIM is a powerful tool that can help mitigate issues down the road.
Expediting Project Entitlement
The entitlement process was once a simple affair. If buildings were designed within the parameters of the local building and zoning codes, it was approved by the authority having jurisdiction. Those days have passed. In larger jurisdictions, the entitlement approval process can be lengthy, which not only leads to an extension of a project’s timeline, but, due to escalation in construction costs over time, a negative impact on a project’s financial goals.
The role of an architect is to navigate this process for the client as expediently as possible. That includes understanding potential pitfalls and leveraging existing relationships with the city to minimize problems or delays and expedite project approvals. Experienced architects can also deftly handle community engagement—consensus is critical for a project to move forward. Deep knowledge of local building and zoning codes along with an ability to “read” the community the project is located in is vital to avoiding delays in this realm.
Efficient use of space within an apartment building is one of the easiest ways to create more value for the developer. Efficiency includes appropriately stacked units, minimal corridor space and limited un-programmed common areas. The unit layout should balance density with a design that makes the space highly livable (access to light, storage, etc.).
Ultimately, an effective layout increases density and unit count while maximizing the property’s net rentable square footage. Trimming the fat and creating a lean layout with nested unit-types and extending the building envelope through appropriate modulation, we have been able to increase a project’s unit count up to 10% over designs by previous firms.
The inside corner units at Modera Redmond are designed to not only enhance livability but to fit efficiently within the building layout without creating unleasable space.
Keeping an eye on costs does not always equate to a lackluster building. Instead, focusing on using high quality materials in the right places, such as in public spaces and on high visibility building elements that can help draw people to the property, will help give the project a quality feel at minimal cost. To help keep costs down, the ratio of high-cost and “wow” materials to proven durable and cost-effective materials in areas that are more hidden from view, must be low. This will allow the development to be able to use those special materials without breaking the budget. Selecting a majority of the building to be clad in these lower cost, durable materials that can achieve a longer lifespan, will also help reduce ongoing maintenance costs for the project.
Making the wrong decision early on in the design of a project can have serious cost implications down the road. Upper floor setbacks, for example, are prone to water intrusion, especially in markets with inclement weather, and can also cause issues in structural stacking which can both lead to costs during and after construction. Overall, we focus on keeping projects simple in form to avoid characteristics that can lead to increases in construction costs and create maintenance and operational traps in the future.
The Cove - simple in form and with features such as an eco-roof for storm water management - was designed with constructability and sustainability in mind.
Low-fee architects often pass over these important considerations. Ultimately, the client can often face higher costs during construction or long-term building maintenance. Hiring an experienced architect can ensure that developers avoid these common pitfalls.