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Build-to-Rent: Baby steps but big ambition

The build-to-rent apartment business is still in its infancy. But it is learning fast. David Thame hears how design and amenity are already being rethought.

14/01/2020 7 min read
BTR developer Placefirst’s vision to transform the Central Street Car Park, Bolton

Barely five years after the idea of purpose-built, institutionally-owned rented accommodation was first mooted, there are just 35,000 build-to-rent (BTR) units in occupation in the UK.

After so much chatter, and so many years of hope and expectation, BTR is now meeting the reality of the UK rental scene. And it is already prompting some serious rethinking.

It’s not that the original designers got anything badly wrong – although a few did make mistakes. Rather, the problem is that, the moment human beings get involved, even the best plan gets gently screwed up. At least part of the problem is that UK BTR was originally based on the well-established US concept of multi-family living. And it turns out, surprise surprise, that what works in the US does not necessarily work here.

Heiko Figge is Head of Operational Asset Management at Moorfield, who are creating a branded BTR business. Moorfield has developed and operated 1,200 BTR apartments since 2012 and intends to continue investing in the sector through this new venture, called More. The most recent scheme to launch is Duet at Salford Quays, offering 270 apartments.

That a hotelier is running the business shows how BTR is no longer a pure property play and, just like in the hotel sector itself, design is now at the front of developers’ minds.

‘Since the new BTR schemes came along, the big lesson is be aware of your neighbourhood, and don’t blindly copy others,’ he says. This means amenities need to be tailored to the local demographic. ‘Why build a gym if there is a good one over the road, not least because it is expensive for us to equip and run – and will residents want to pay for it? And do you really need a cinema room? I mean, why would you sit down there watching a film when you can stream it from your apartment?’ Heiko asks.

The Forge, Newcastle

What is really needed is not fancy bolt-ons, but a design that fosters a sense of community. ‘We do this quite deliberately in our buildings. We create points of collision, so residents and our staff have no choice but to run into each other. We make sure things like the post boxes or coffee machines are in places you can’t help but be seen. Communal spaces like that need opening up,’ Heiko says.

The upshot is that poor designs – like lobbies that mean residents can get to the lift without even glancing at the concierge – are quickly rejected by Moorfield. Experience in Liverpool, where they owned the 240-unit Keel BTR scheme at Queens Dock, persuaded them they need this kind of interaction.

‘There was almost no communal space at Keel. People came and went without seeing anyone,’ Heiko confesses. No surprise then that Moorfield sold the block. Moorfield are now using data to refine their sociable spaces, and this is playing a role in the next round of designs.

‘As a hotelier, I’m always concerned about how people move around a building, where and when they have a coffee, when they take their rubbish out,’ he says. For instance, data mining revealed that, in their 232-unit Trilogy scheme in Manchester, they dispensed 21,500 cups of coffee in the six months from April to November 2019. One in four was a latte, and almost all were between 6.30 and 8.30 in the morning. The result: beef up staffing in peak times, buy more milk, and start to talk to residents about where else they can get good lattes (including offers). And, of course, none of this works if you can’t see the coffee machine from the concierge desk.

If this sounds a bit too hands on then, up to a point, Heiko agrees. ‘Sometimes we need to stand back a bit, and let things develop themselves,’ he says, pointing to the in-house tenant app, which lets tenants schedule meet-ups, ask questions and look for local services.

The sense that BTR design and amenity has improved since the BTR concept collided with reality is behind the latest work by developer Nikal. Their burgeoning BTR portfolio is centred on Birmingham’s £350 million Masshouse scheme. The first phase included 603 rental apartments in blocks of up to 27 storeys. The apartments have been sold to LaSalle Investment Management through a deal worth in excess of £100 million.

Nikal Managing Director, Nick Payne, says they have learned that apartment sizes aren’t what they expected. ‘We expected more takers for two-bed apartments, but actually it is one-bed apartments people sign up for – even couples – because they use the amenities in the building and so don’t need so much space in the apartment,’ he says.

Like Heiko, Nick has a sceptical approach to cinema rooms and gyms. ‘Things like that are good tools for marketing the apartments, for getting tenants over the threshold, but they do not give a good return to landlords because of all the equipment, cleaning and insurance. And they don’t get used if there is a good gym nearby,’ he says.

On the other hand, flexible lounge spaces and – a big surprise – spaces for quiet study and homeworking, turn out to be seriously popular. Cinema rooms are out, libraries are in.

We create points of collision, so residents and our staff have no choice but to run into each other. We make sure things like the post boxes or coffee machines are in places you can’t help but be seen

The other big discovery is that lobbies and entrance halls are complicated spaces, and that glamorous double-height boxes may not be the answer. ‘Yes, you still want a sense of arrival, and you want tenants to feel that their home starts at the front door to the building, not just the front door to their flat,’ Nick tells us. ‘But you need your concierge in the right place, and you need it to be lively. There is nothing worse than a dark lobby stuffed with letterboxes.’

Working at the sharp end of the BTR sector, property managers, urbanbubble, have an acute take on what works and what doesn’t. And Managing Director, Michael Howard, is a lot less sniffy about fancy amenities than cost-conscious developers. The twist is that the amenities he likes might not be the ones landlords or developers expected.

‘BTR is still so new. We’ve probably 80 apartment blocks live around the UK, eight or nine in a big city like Manchester, and customers now have a choice, which is helping us learn what works and what doesn’t,’ he says. The big take-away has been that every block is different. A highly socialised, community focused offer in one building works wonders in a block whose residents tend to be 30-something professionals. But the same approach (and amenities) are a turn off in blocks with younger – or older – residents, as Michael explains: ‘We have a smallish block in central Manchester, so there are plenty of amenities in the streets around it, and we found what residents wanted was not the kind of stuff they could find outside, but space for friends. The tenants were mostly in the creative world, so we gave them a clubby feel, something a bit like Soho House, and that’s just what they wanted,’ he says, referring to the upmarket club chain.

Design has been influenced by the hotel business, particularly by Scandinavian hotel design.

‘We learned that the lovely double-height lobby is useless if nobody ever lingers in it. We learned that large spaces that look great on the CGI do not work and it’s much better to divide things up into quiet areas, reading areas, TV areas…and we also learned that detail and quality of finishes really matters. Get the right chairs, the right colours, the right aesthetics and it all builds trust between the tenant and the landlord,’ he says. And cinema rooms? ‘We’ve turned one into a work room instead. Residents of one-bed flats wanted somewhere else to go, and we’ve seen kids do their homework there. Design spaces like that right and people can live outside their apartment, as well as inside it, and that’s what they like doing. Anywhere you can mingle and share and build a community is good,’ Michael insists.

Don’t bother with the cinema or gym, but maybe do bother with the dog grooming room is his advice. ‘About a quarter of our residents have pets, so it isn’t tokenism, it is not a waste of time. They like it,’ he laughs.

BTR is still so new. We’ve probably got 80 apartment blocks live around the UK, eight or nine in a big city like Manchester, and customers now have a choice, which is helping us learn what works and what doesn’t

Martin Ellerby is Head of New Business & Innovation at Placefirst, a BTR operator specialising in the less glamorous end of the market, with a mix of homes for families and multi-generational occupiers. The latest scheme, a £27.5 million project in Bolton, will provide homes for a wide age group, including houses. Martin’s demographic is very different from that of Heiko, Nick and Michael – and yet he comes to the same conclusions.

‘The key discovery is communal spaces. We make it a rule to find spaces for socialising, we don’t like big fences, we like common ground where people can bump into one another,’ he says.

Yoke that communal feel to homes that are genuinely liveable, and you have a winning formula. ‘We ask ourselves some basic questions like, where is the storage space in this home? Is there enough space to put up and use an ironing board? That sounds silly, but it’s important,’ Martin says.

Martin himself is the resident of a city centre apartment block and it has taught him some important lessons. ‘I don’t need to spend all my time in my block because there is a whole city out there. But what I do want is a sense of community, because that is what roots us,’ he says.

The BTR experiment – and experiment is the right word – is still in its infancy. And what works today may not work with tenants tomorrow, or next year, or in a decade’s time. Designers and architects will have to find ways to adapt to changing needs – needs that we do not yet understand.

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