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How to increase density on a suburban site

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

By Dylan Draves, Tiscareno Architects

Every developer knows the dilemma: optimizing site value while adhering to a budget. This becomes even more pertinent in suburban areas primed for urban-style development, where a strategic design approach can tip the scales between a project's financial success or shortfall.

With over twenty years of experience in delivering diverse multifamily designs, we've honed our expertise in density maximization. Below, we share six cost-effective tactics we consistently use to tap into a site's full potential.

Build up to efficient limits

In urban projects where rents are at a premium, the goal is density, so it’s easier to justify per unit costs. But in suburbs, it’s about smart density that’s cost effective. That’s why you have to maximize the limits. If the building code allows for five floors of construction, you should build up to that, because the added cost of each floor is negligible compared to the density you’re achieving.

Floor sizes can also be increased. Small walk-up buildings with a single stair limit each floor to only a few units. But add a second stair, and now each building can have dozens of units per floor and still meet the maximum egress travel distance required by code. We employed this strategy at the 164th St. Apartments in Lynnwood — a 324-unit development under construction — where we were able to get 34 units per floor in long, linear buildings that maximize this length.

Avoid high-cost concrete in Type 1 construction

In the realm of urban mid-rise constructions, incorporating living units within the first one or two concrete levels often leads to escalated costs and complexity. While this might be a justifiable expense in dense urban centers, it's an entirely different scenario for suburban projects. To achieve high density at a lower cost, strategic placement of units in the wooden sections of the building is key.

Take for example the 164th St. Apartments project: we confined concrete usage to a single-story base, erecting five wood-structured levels above for the living spaces. This approach not only reduced costs but also allowed us to utilize a larger area of the site, achieving the desired density efficiently.

Provide a mix of surface and structured parking

The limited space in urban areas often means you must put all the parking in a garage, within the same building. To get the right number of spaces and circulation, you may need to put spots in tight, awkward nooks. It’s necessary but will impact efficiency.

Waterfront Place Apartments in Everett creates an urban feel along the waterfront. But on suburban sites with larger lot sizes, you can use a mix of structured and surface parking to maximize capacity without sacrificing efficiency yet still keeping costs down.

Another option is to tuck individual garages beneath the wood-framed units above, as we did at Waterfront Place. This way you get parking within the building footprint while avoiding the circulation issues of a large parking structure.

Avoid extensive excavation

Instead of burying parking below grade, a one- or two-story structure above ground is a cost-effective way to increase density yet still maintain the urban character of the site. The key is clever design that disguises the garage—for instance wrapping it with units, known as a “Texas donut”—and can even enhance the aesthetics.

Prioritize which part of the site feels urban

Once you’ve gotten the density you want, careful site planning can help enhance and support it. For a site near public transit, you may want to prioritize density and pedestrian amenities along the road while shifting surface parking to the back. Or you can alternate paths between buildings so one side is for pedestrians and the other for cars.

Redmond Square in Redmond, WA

Make sure the building fits the lot

Density is important, but ultimately good design is about serving the lot size. For example, on a tight site, smaller walk-ups or townhomes may be more efficient than a large multifamily building. Similarly, once a project reaches a certain scale, it might make sense to break it up into multiple podium buildings.

These strategies are just a start, and coupled with other design best practices, can help ensure an efficient and profitable development that’s viable for decades to come.

About the Author

Dylan Draves is a LEED accredited Architect, Interior Designer and educator, with expertise in multifamily architecture and tenant improvements. Dylan is guided by the principle that good design can positively impact a user’s overall experience, and in essence, make life better. He is most inspired to create spaces where people work and live, whether the goal is to enhance productivity at the office, or to transform a residential unit into a functional home.

At Tiscareno, Dylan applies his expertise in multifamily projects, having worked on Solera, Modera South Jackson, Modera Bel-Red, Shoreline III, and 14540 5th Ave and 164th Street Apartment in Lynnwood.

Dylan has been an adjunct professor at several universities. He received his Masters of Architecture from Washington University in S. Louis, and his undergraduate degree in interior design from the University of Texas at Austin. He has been published in the Daily Journal of Commerce.

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