Designing For The Private Rented Sector

Artur Carulla, Director, Allies and Morrison Architects

Artur Carulla, Director, Allies and Morrison Architects

In recent years, our designs have responded to the increasing housing demand, rising land values, new policies and regulations, changing market preconceptions and influences from overseas. Many of these changes are, to some extent, either the cause or the consequence of an increase in housing development densities and the consequent shift of home building from houses to flats.

While this trend developed long ago, it was only four years ago that the Mayor of London’s Housing Design Guide (LHDG) was first published. This document offered the first spatial criteria for residential developments since the abolition of the Parker Morris standards in 1981.

Today, flat layouts in the capital are strongly influenced by compliance not only to the LHDG, but also the local authority’s own requirements, Lifetime Homes, Code for Sustainable Homes and other standards. However, the attention that these standards have brought to the size, spatial qualities and environmental sustainability of flats has rarely extended to communal areas, beyond the guidance on the adequate provision of amenity space. It is only the recent rise of Private Rented Sector (PRS) developments that has put communal areas in the spotlight.

As architects, we are often asked about the particularities in the design of flat layouts for PRS accommodation. These are in fact minimal; after all, the rental market has traditionally been based on the very same stock of homes designed for sale. Our clients in PRS developments have developed a stronger interest in aspects of design associated with durability and maintenance, their unit mixes favour studios and one-beds and larger units are designed for sharing. However, these changes have had a limited impact on the design of residential layouts. This is for three reasons:

  • Firstly, occupational habits and behaviour are not significantly different between tenants and homeowners
  • Secondly, developers require that flats are suitable to be transferred to the sales market in the future
  • Finally, PRS flats are subject to the same policies, regulations and space standards as other for-sale residential developments

There is, however, a significant difference in the design briefs we receive for PRS schemes. This is related to communal areas, including entrances, amenity spaces and back of house facilities. These spaces are perceived as an opportunity for PRS schemes to differentiate their offering, present added value for their tenants and retain them by instigating a sense of community. We anticipate this trend will only increase as a number of PRS developers and operators in the UK develop recognisable brands that are closely associated with the provision of services, facilities and amenity spaces.

This is already the case in the USA, with brands such as ‘AVA’ and ‘Avalon Communities’ in the East and West Coast. In a recent visit, as a prospective tenant, to PRS developments in New York, including AVA’s latest project (‘AVA High Line’), the importance of communal spaces became apparent as viewings typically devoted more time to communal areas than the flats. There are good reasons for this.

A survey of PRS tenants, conducted by YouGov, identified ‘proximity to friends and family’ as one of the three most important criteria “with widest potential to add value”. Unsurprisingly, there is correlation between the number of personal relationships amongst tenants and their likelihood to remain in the community. Consequently, PRS developments have focused on the provision of congregational spaces as a commercial strategy to both attract and retain tenants. These spaces are designed for tenants to develop social bonds with their neighbours as well as to invite their guests to. If successful, these spaces have the capacity to turn tenants into ambassadors and friends and family into prospective tenants.

The design of these spaces is as stimulating as it is challenging. As few of us have lived in large PRS schemes it is difficult to draw lessons from our own experiences. There is also a lack of established benchmarks or even broadly acknowledged successful precedents. Most of the congregational spaces of the PRS schemes I visited in New York, for instance, relied too much on the provision of technological gadgets and playful furniture. It was all too apparent that those spaces would soon become obsolete and out of fashion, requiring re-design and further capital expenditure. When designing such congregational spaces we might learn from successful hotels, members clubs and educational buildings.

If adequately designed, congregational spaces in residential developments could play a strong role in the development of communities, mediating between public and private spaces. The PRS ought to give these spaces the attention they deserve, it is in their interest and, if it does, the shift from home ownership towards the private rental market could prove as transformational in design terms as the previous shift towards higher density.

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