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Outdoor Amenities: A Breath of Fresh Air

April 2021

Demonstration kitchens, gyms, offices and a host of other offerings prove the adage: Being outside is in.

Pictured above: P.B. Bell-developed and managed Copper Falls, located in Glendale, Ariz., has ample space around its large luxury pool and spa for residents to social distance during the pandemic.

Carl Walton, Director of Innovation at Atlanta-based RangeWater, was recently touring one of his company’s properties in the West Midtown section of Atlanta.

During the pandemic, the property had put tables outside in front of the leasing office. On the surface, Walton thought it seemed ridiculous to put folding tables in front of the property. But when he drove by, he was surprised.

“At first, we weren’t sure if residents would adopt our new seating,” Walton said. “But the first day we moved them, every table was occupied. Residents were outside either gathering safely with friends or working independently on their laptops.”

The folding tables weren’t the company’s first foray into outdoor amenities.

Even before the pandemic, RangeWater, which owns, manages and develops apartments, saw its residents moving outside to exercise, work or hang out.

“Being out[side] is in,” says Walton. “We saw this trend coming about over the last several years. When developing a community, you can’t think about what is popular now. You have to be thinking two years ahead, so when you deliver that community, it is still relevant.”

Once COVID hit, many apartment managers, especially those in warmer locales, scrambled to move amenities and activities outside. Now, many say gyms, workspaces and other activities may remain outside for the foreseeable future.

Adjusting on the Fly

Howard Hughes Corp., a real estate development and management company based in The Woodlands, Texas, first designed Marlow, an apartment community in Merriweather District in Columbia, Md., before the pandemic. But the challenges posed by COVID-19 forced the development team to consider how social distancing experience would affect the lifestyle of its residents.

“In response, we created a grander outdoor courtyard with more seating areas, and more flow and seamless connection between indoor and outdoor areas,” says Greg Fitchitt, Regional President of the Columbia, Md., region for Howard Hughes Corp. “We also modified the design of other amenities, such as the robust work-from-home spaces, indoor and outdoor sky lounge, fitness center, dog wash and dog park, to create an open, safe and fun environment for daily living.”

On the other side of the country, in Arizona, Chapin Bell, CEO of Scottsdale, Az.-based apartment developer and manager P.B. Bell, sees similar trends. “The pandemic has greatly influenced the need for more outdoor amenities so residents can safely gather, socialize, relax or work,” he says.

The apartment operators that have moved amenities outside have seen a payoff. “For the outdoor amenities that have been built in response to the pandemic, we have definitely seen a great ROI already as many prospective residents are often drawn to these new outdoor spaces that allow them to get out of the apartment, unwind, have fun, entertain and more,” Bell says.

As outdoor amenities prove their value, Audubon, an Atlanta-based firm specializing in the acquisition and management of multifamily properties, rushed to expand its offerings during the pandemic.

“The biggest challenge has been keeping up with the demand for these new amenities,” Audubon Chief Operating Officer Tammy Shields says. “Based on the feedback we’ve received, our residents love the flexibility these new spaces provide and are thrilled with the upgrades.”

In fact, Audubon is making them standard going forward. “Not only do we expect these amenities to remain after the pandemic, but due to their overwhelming popularity, they will certainly be part of future plans across our entire portfolio.”

An Outdoor Air to the Workout Mix

In some cases, moving indoor amenities to the outside can be remarkably simple. Consider how RangeWater is handling gym equipment.

While it may be tough to move the heavier cardio equipment outside, Walton says residents will pull weights and even lighter equipment, like rowers and bikes, outdoors. Residents have faithfully brought the equipment back in after they use it.

“The rowers, in particular, are great mobile exercise machines,” Walton says. “They’re the easier equipment to move in and out. We also offer more agility equipment that residents are encouraged to move about the open-air fitness center.”

Companies are also thinking about ways to bring outside air into the gym. RangeWater sets up its indoor-outdoor gyms with metal walls that fold in and out.

“Simply adding a modular door opens up the space, making people more comfortable working out alongside a neighbor,” Walton says.

Ken Valach, CEO of Dallas-based apartment developer Trammell Crow Residential, is also thinking about gym safety. His company is looking for ways to increase airflow from the outside into the gym while also providing the necessary equipment cleaning. But deep cleaning can be operationally intensive.

“It’s a lot easier to clean all the time if you’re an Equinox than it is for us to have somebOdy there,” Valach says.

Bulking up the Old Standbys

It’s not all working out and no play with outdoor amenities. RangeWater has started designing outdoor amphitheaters and incorporating music and dance. It is also bringing food trucks into some of its communities and adding art and sculptures to its outdoor spaces.

“We’re seeing everything through the lens of social media to find those Instagram-able moments,” Walton says. “Incorporating art into our open spaces to be experienced by anyone in the neighborhood, not just our residents, creates a destination and not just another apartment community.”

For Houston-based third-party manager Asset Living, dog parks and “yappy hours” have allowed residents to bond over their canines. “Not only are the dogs getting exercise, but our residents are still able to connect in a socially responsible way,” says Executive Vice President Stacey Lecocke.

Many of the traditional outdoor amenities are growing. Bell says that many of P.B. Bell’s popular outdoor amenities are becoming more spacious to accommodate the need for social distancing.

“Pools are expanding, outdoor areas feature more separated spaces for different groups to gather more safely, and outdoor workspaces are becoming a major trend,” Bell says.

Audubon is also focused on bringing more traditional outdoor living spaces to its communities. At Corners in Peachtree Corners, Ga., it added an outdoor pavilion with a kitchen and opened up green space for residents to enjoy the outdoors. At Retreat in Greenville, S.C., it added a bocce court and hammock park to give residents a place to relax outdoors.

“We are building pavilions with outdoor kitchens, hammock parks, bigger dog parks and open gathering areas, such as fire pits and seating areas with open Wi-Fi, which allow people to use these spaces while social distancing,” Shields says.

Is This the New Normal?

Once there is some return to normalcy, there are questions about how much of life will snap back to the way things were. That includes outdoor activities. There’s little doubt people will want to return to the indoor bars and restaurants.

Indeed, if the weather is bad, indoor activities will provide an excellent option.

“Weather impacts the ability to host all events outside, and maintaining safe social distancing practices creates a less interactive setting, thereby removing the ease of spending quality time building relationships with residents,” Lecocke says.

But many apartment executives think people will continue to want to socialize, work and exercise outside. Part of the reason is another trend that is likely to take hold after the pandemic: Residents continuing to work from home more often.

“We believe the pandemic has fundamentally changed the professional workforce, meaning businesses that have adapted to a work-from-home model will continue to offer that to employees,” Shields says.

As they’re at home more, residents will look to work outside of their actual apartment. That will challenge apartment operators to continue to develop innovative workspaces.

“Companies are finding they don’t need as much office space their employees can work just as efficiently at home,” Walton says. “Our team is challenged to make those work from home spaces more flexible, and make our amenity spaces—especially those outside—more functional.”

As more residents are working from home, P.B. Bell has seen an opportunity to develop outdoor spaces with tables with charging stations and weather-resistant outdoor furniture to withstand the elements. “As many individuals continue to work from home or do school online, these designated work areas enable individuals to work efficiently while simultaneously enjoying the nice weather,” Bell says.

Even if residents aren’t going outside to work, many executives don’t think people will start hunkering down in their apartment once the pandemic is over. Now that apartment communities are offering innovative outdoor activities, there is little doubt that residents are going to continue to utilize them.

“It’s an overused phrase, but this is absolutely the ‘new normal,’” Walton says.

Les Shaver is a freelance writer.