You are here

Setting the Stage for the Discerning Renter

May 2019

Creating an alluring ambience goes well beyond the furnishings.

Whether a Millennial or Baby Boomer, there’s no denying today’s resident is more sophisticated, affluent and demanding than those of the past. Many are so-called “renters by choice,” who could easily afford to purchase a home but opt to rent instead. In fact, according to Yardi’s RENTtCafé, the number of Americans who earn $150,000 or more per year and opt for renting increased by 1.35 million between 2007 and 2017, challenging the idea that top-earners in the U.S. prefer to buy instead of rent.

For today’s discerning renters, a building’s interior aesthetic plays a vital role in their decision to rent. But it goes much deeper than the furniture or lighting used throughout a building’s common spaces. Renters with a critical eye notice everything, so the “stage” must be set accordingly, including what’s underfoot and on the walls.

According to Morgante Wilson Architects, an architecture and interior design firm that works with both commercial developers and residential clients, and Mary Cook Associates, a commercial interior design firm, there are four critical questions developers should consider when selecting paint, floor and wall coverings in rental housing amenity spaces.

Who Is Your Target Market?

Who are your prospective residents? Millennials or Baby Boomers? Singles or families? Urbanites or suburbanites? Each has different needs and will use the community spaces differently, which impacts the design of those spaces.

Consider ViVo, a 91-unit luxury apartment community in Cambridge, Mass., which is intended to appeal to a highly-educated, tech-savvy young professional. When Mary Cook’s team was hired to oversee interiors for the building, the direction was that the design needed to meet the needs of a high-tech crowd but still create a sense of community among residents. Understanding that many of ViVo’s residents would be working from home at least some of the time, and, with no commute to Google’s Cambridge office, many would be Google employees, Mary Cook Associates designed the building’s club room as a versatile multifunctional space to appeal to remote workers as well as those looking to relax, gather or game. The space was outfitted with plenty of tables to encourage collaboration, a lounge with comfortable seating, large-screen monitors and a bar area with electric fireplace. On the walls, Cook’s team utilized vibrant colors to enhance creativity and, in the fitness center and lounge, installed brightly colored acoustical panels to absorb sound.

“We were inspired by the brand-identity colors and used them to create wall panels that had acoustical properties as well as a vibrant color pattern that energizes the space,” says Mary Cook, Founder and President of Mary Cook Associates.

Similarly, when Morgante Wilson Architects was tapped by developer Fifield Cos. to design the interiors and common areas at E2, a 356-unit luxury apartment community in downtown Evanston, Ill., the team developed an overall design vision inspired by the suburb’s intellectual and friendly attitude, as well as the target resident for the property – a younger demographic that included students from nearby Northwestern University.

“We’re a local firm based in Evanston, so we were extremely familiar with the personality of the area and the people who would be drawn to E2,” says K. Tyler, Principal, Interior Design, with Morgante Wilson. “Given Evanston’s eclectic, artistic personality, as well as the future residents of the building, we wanted to keep the building happy and youthful, with nothing too slick or serious.”

With that in mind, Morgante Wilson selected wall coverings that were textural and conversation-worthy for the hip, down-to-earth Evanston crowd. For example, to create a warm and inviting backdrop for the main resident lounge, the team covered an entire wall in the space with thousands of individual wood pieces.

How Can We Connect the Community to Its Surrounding Environment?

When possible, it’s always smart to explore how a building’s location or exterior surroundings could influence its internal surroundings in terms of flooring or wall coverings – from both an aesthetic as well as practical standpoint. Is the building in an urban area or suburb? Is it in the Northeast, where residents will enter the building with snow-covered boots? Or will the building be subjected to the sun, which can be very harsh on floor and wall coverings?

One example of taking location into account for a building’s flooring is Chicago’s Hyde Park Tower, which was renovated to better compete with the flurry of new apartment buildings nearby. To open up the building’s lobby, Mary Cook’s team removed walls to eliminate closed-off offices used for management and leasing. Floor coverings then played a major role in the new lobby, with Mary Cook Associates using them to designate space for different functions. While most of the lobby was covered in large-format porcelain concrete-look tile, the leasing area was floored with carpet tiles, which not only resulted in a cozier ambiance, but also helped absorb sound to enhance privacy.

“The tile we installed in the lobby elevates the experience for anyone walking through the front door,” Cook says. “Not only does it now feel like the lobby of a luxury hotel, but it also—along with other renovations—made the building competitive with newer properties in the neighborhood.”

Area surroundings also played a role in the flooring and wall coverings at The Atworth at Mellody Farm, a new apartment community in Vernon Hills, Ill. Morgante Wilson was influenced by the building’s suburban setting, which backs up to a river and forest preserve, so it chose paint colors and wallpaper in earthy, natural, dark tones. A dark charcoal tile inspired by the look of natural slate was selected for the floors of the main lobby, leasing office and mail room.

“We complemented the nature-inspired colors and textures we used on floors and walls throughout the property with accents and accessories in sky blue, navy and shades of forest and emerald green, as well as tree-inspired mural wallpaper installed in the lobby hallway and lounge,” Tyler says. “They all work in unison to reflect the property’s wooded surroundings.”

Another example of bringing the outside in is 727 West Madison, a new elliptical-shaped glass high-rise in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. There, Morgante Wilson’s goal was to design interiors with a glamorous look on par with the building’s chic urban neighborhood. Since many competing apartment buildings had a dark, lounge-like feel, the team at Morgante Wilson decided to differentiate 727 West Madison by using sophisticated, yet light and elegant, wall coverings. They also designed a custom, stylish terrazzo lobby floor with bright brass inlays, which evokes a sense of opulence upon entering the building.

“Given the building’s location and elite renter demographic, we wanted to up the wow factor in the lobby, so we created our own mix of sparkling aggregate for the terrazzo, including mother of pearl and mirrored pieces,” Tyler says. “The floor has a big impact and the perfect shimmer, which reflects the sophisticated mood of the building.”

On the walls, Morgante Wilson used light-infused, rich paint colors as well as textural wall coverings, such as hand-applied Venetian plaster finishes and inlaid wood wallpapers.

How Can It Feel More Like a Home?

With an increasing number of renters by choice entering the market, many of whom are downsizing empty-nesters, it’s essential that designers create an environment to appeal to those who left the comfort of their single-family homes behind.

“We want our design to feel more like a luxury home than a commercial property,” said Morgante Wilson’s Tyler. “One way we do this is by applying a similar design approach to what we use in single-family homes, particularly for paint colors and wall and floor coverings.”

Since Morgante Wilson’s interiors team often incorporates hand-knotted abstract silk and wool area rugs into its clients’ single-family homes, the firm adapted the same concept for 727 West Madison by working with commercial carpet manufacturers to create custom hallway runners – but constructed in nylon to be more durable in high-traffic areas.

“By taking something that is so completely functional, like a hallway runner, and giving it an artful twist as someone would do in their own home, we’ve really elevated the experience for residents,” Tyler says.

Mary Cook Associates created a similar home-like feeling at Hyde Park Tower, where it covered hollow metal unit-entry doors with a warm walnut woodgrain veneer. The wood instantly transformed the look of each hallway, creating a rich, welcoming feel for potential residents that replaced the former institutional look.

How Will the Space Be Used; How Can We Enhance Durability?

Certainly, most design decisions on paint, floor and wall coverings are made with aesthetics in mind. But functionality factors into the final choices as well, particularly when it comes to durability.

In the fitness center at Hyde Park Tower, Cook’s team creatively used repurposed floor tiles to add dimension and interest to the walls. According to Cook, not only did this treatment solicit a nostalgic feeling and conjure memories of high school gymnasiums for many residents, but it was a smart and durable choice for the walls.

In the past, using marble or natural stone flooring in an amenity space was often ruled out because it wouldn’t stand up to the high traffic of a rental building. However, with the advent of new materials, designers can install porcelain tile that has the look of stone or even wood, but at a fraction of the price.

Morgante Wilson used an imitation technique in 727 West Madison’s exercise room when it wrapped columns with wood-like wallpaper. The result was so realistic, residents couldn’t tell it was not real wood unless they touched it. Not only does the wallpaper hold up better than real wood, but it’s much more affordable than millwork or wood paneling.

By asking the preceding four questions, rental housing developers and designers can ensure they will make the right paint, floor and wall covering selections that will not only attract renters, but also help them enjoy amenity spaces to their fullest.

“The better we get to know our clients, the better we can design spaces that actually enhance the way they live,” Cook says.

Emily Johnson is President of Taylor Johnson, a marketing communications agency that specializes in the real estate industry.