By Dylan Draves
It’s the challenge every developer faces—getting the most value from a site while sticking to your budget. This is especially true in suburban developments zoned for urban style development and where design approach makes the difference in a project penciling out, or not. In our more than two decades delivering a broad range of multifamily designs, we’ve learned a few things about maximizing density. Here are six cost-effective strategies we often employ to help unlock the potential of a site.
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 to of wood 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 units in Type I concrete construction
In urban mid-rise projects, one or two floors of units in concrete are often the most challenging and costly to build. But, again, this expense can be justified. Not so with suburban developments. So, putting the units only in the wood portion of the building creates high density without adding cost. For the 164th St. Apartments, we limited the concrete to a one-story podium and placed all the units on the five floors of wood construction above it. And we were able to get the density we wanted by using a larger portion of the site.
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.
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 5 th 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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