Interior design is a vital component of Build to Rent

Turning a BTR scheme into buildings which feel like home is not a simple process of buying the right wallpaper and a sofa

Chotip Arora has the answers to key questions in successful interior design

Listen to the QA with Chotip Arora

The Best Practice Guide spoke to one of Britain’s foremost designers and discovered the practicalities and the passion required to create spaces which will attract residents – and keep them.

Q: What does interior design include when dealing with a Build to Rent scheme? It’s not simply the internal décor and furnishings, is it?

Interior design is not about choosing the right wallpaper and finding a matching sofa. It’s about understanding the feel of a space and connecting to those who are going to be using it.

It’s about how an individual feels, thinks, smells, hears and behaves in a space.

In simple terms, design adds value, which creates trust, which builds happiness, which results in profit.

Within this winning formula, there are multiple factors to consider.

  • The design must be proactive, for example. It needs to be fresh for each building, to give each its own identity and character.
  • It also needs to be innovative and to look to the future, as the design that’s being developed will take three to five years before it’s complete.
  • It’s also essential to design for living. Would you be happy to live in the building yourself?
  • Identify your customer; know who the target market is for each building

Example: In Wembley Park, Quintain Living’s BTR developments are designed around the concept of a series of villages. With multiple developments on the same site, it was important that each building had its own identity, such as Canada Gardens’ urban country vibe, the focus on wellness at Madison or the design of The Robinson to suit recent graduates and younger renters.

With the core concept in place, it’s time to move on to the interior design, the furnishings and the interior architecture. It’s a layered process, with each layer (furniture, signage, graphics, sound, scent) building up the development’s identity.

Picture showing grass, cubicles, planting at Wembley Park

Social space is important

Social spaces are also important as they serve as an extension of the home and can do much to promote social interaction, engagement and wellness. These areas need to be factored into a BTR scheme’s plans and budgets from the outset, while the identity is being developed.

We know that focusing on social values leads to happier residents.

Evidence of this is commonplace and is known to have a material impact on positive behaviours.

You create a place that they are proud to call home and look forward to returning to and spending time in. And that’s the powerful tool for driving up profit.

Key takeaway: Designing for living adds value, creates trust, builds happiness and maximises profits.

Q: When is the right stage for a developer to engage with an interior designer?

A developer should engage an interior designer as early as possible – from the inception of the project, ideally. With the interior designer involved from the outset, they can work alongside the architect to create the flow and feel of the space.

It can also be more cost effective to involve the interior designer from the outset, rather than trying to shoehorn them in and retrofit that feeling of home at a later stage.

Example: At Canada Gardens in Wembley Park, the initial design focused simply on apartment buildings. The interior design process looked at what could be achieved with the external areas, creating a country feel that ultimately flowed throughout the identity of the whole development.

Don’t design by spreadsheet:

  • A list of apartment and room dimensions won’t suffice.
  • It’s essential to test-drive plans in terms of understanding how a space will feel once furnished and ensure that the rooms feel large enough.
  • Decisions that make sense on paper (adding risers for cabling, for example), may not translate well into reality.
  • The result? Apartments that will be hard to let or hard to keep residents in for the longer-term.

Please do:

  • Have a continuous relationship with the developer
  • The relationship should go from the beginning of the project to beyond the very end so, for example, you can adjust social spaces to the changing seasons.
  • Bring in an interior designer at the inception of the project to create a partnership that delivers benefits over time. Interior design isn’t a bolt-on service.

Key takeaway: Better interiors = greater occupancy and fewer voids = better ROI (Return on Investment)

Q: What are the strategic considerations when designing for a BTR project?

Firstly, design for living and you’ll maximise your ROI. This means identifying your customer and understanding them. It means innovating and taking a proactive approach, for example by using tech to your advantage. It means having designers who take a proactive approach and look to the future.

Budget is the next strategic consideration for BTR schemes. While sticking to a budget is a factor, it can be a false economy to skimp on the interior. Strategic investment in the detail of the interior is what delivers a long-term returns, not just how good the building looks on the outside. If a building looks stunning externally but the corridors are dingy and the place doesn’t smell good, investors aren’t going to maximise their returns. That means allowing a reasonable budget for the interior, so that each home can feel like home.

Thirdly, attention to detail. Designing for the BTR is all about attention to detail, while also designing around volume and scale, of course. You need to be able to design for hundreds of units but also provide sufficient attention to detail that every individual apartment has the feeling of being somewhere special.

Social spaces need very careful thought as every square inch of amenity space takes away from the space that can be occupied by apartments with paying residents.  It’s a fine art to balancing resident happiness and wellbeing with budgetary considerations.

 Key takeaway: Balance design for living with an appropriate budget for maximum success.

Q: Can interior design foster on-site community engagement as well as enhance the experience of an existing local community?

Absolutely. Interior design can provide spaces that help shape the on-site community and support engagement and integration with the existing local community as well.  This can be done through physical spaces and, increasingly, through the introduction of technology to create a more immersive sense of engagement.

The interior design process becomes the link between the new residents and the existing ones. It delivers a solution to the engagement and expansion of the existing local community.

Example: At Canada Gardens, in Wembley Park, the interior design process brought in a coffee shop on the ground floor.  It has become a community hub, connecting not just the on-site community but those already living in the area.

Key takeaway:  Imaginative design can help new residents integrate and engage with the established community

Q: What are key steps in the process of developing your ideas into reality?

While each building is unique, there’s a clear underlying process of developing ideas into reality:

  • Understand the site and identify its requirements while focusing on the user experience from the outset
  • Develop the identity of the building with the user experience always at the core
  • Deliver that identity through layers, from finishes to scent to sound while keeping in mind that delivery will be three or more years down the line.
  • Get operational buy-in for maintaining the longevity of the investment in interior design

Key takeaway: Everyone must be part of the journey because without them, it won’t be possible to maintain the vision

Q: A two-part question on using design to support a client’s commercial and operational interests.

What design measures can be implemented to gain additional revenue?

Shared economy spaces are ideal for this.

  • If the BTR development includes a flexible, hireable studio space, for example, then companies can come in and use that space for yoga classes, art lessons, workshops and a whole range of other events that promote engagement and integration, as well as delivering income.
  • Creating tech-led, rentable spaces has huge potential here, particularly when technology is used in a proactive way. Display LED screens allow users to stamp their own identity on the space yet leave it as they found it at the end of the day.
  • Flexible layouts are also ideal, with everything easily changeable. Soundproofing and sprung floors that support a wide range of uses are key.
  • Coffee shops, bike hire/repair shops, garden centres that are also cafes or delis; there’s scope for a whole range of income streams when you provide services that are required for living.
  • Gaining additional revenue is also possible through the provision of hireable amenities – allotment beds, work from home sheds and a playroom that can be hired for children’s parties are a few examples of this.

Q: How can design support the operational requirements of a Build to Rent scheme?

Design can support the operational requirements of a BTR scheme in numerous ways.  Key areas to consider in terms of supporting operational requirements include:

  • The lobby area – how people will flow between the concierge and the post room (or using an automated storage solution if there isn’t a concierge)
  • The corridors
  • Storage rooms and parcel lockers
  • Moving in and moving out arrangements – lifts, trollies, doorway widths, wayfinding
  • The location of back of house services
  • How lighting changes between day and night
  • Using music to filter out negative background noise
  • Using scent to create a sense of welcome and wellbeing and to eliminate negative odours

Key takeaway: Shared economy spaces are a useful income stream for operators / developers while zoning is a very handy way of identifying spaces through their look and feel.

Q: What long-term trends in customer behaviour affect decision-making in interior design?

Any long-term trend in customer behaviour has the potential to impact the interior design decision-making process.

One recent example is the increase in working from home, which has led to a steep rise in demand for home offices. Rooms that would once have served as a guest bedroom are now more likely to be used as a workspace, so interior design needs to reflect that.

The emphasis on wellness in recent years is another example of customer behaviour affecting decision-making in interior design.

Example: At Canada Gardens the shared areas are packed with plants to improve air quality and air filtration. There’s a living curtain of greenery extending down from the library balcony, while the clubhouse is awash with hanging baskets.

Covid is, of course, something to consider as part of this. Touchless door entry systems, retina scanning instead of keypads, remote drop-off parcel lockers and designer hand-sanitising stations can all support the shift in customer behaviour that the pandemic has created.

Q: How do you ensure that the design intent is understood in the operational phase? Are there key takeaways for an operator once the scheme is completed, in terms of how the interior spaces are managed and maintained?

This goes back to continuity. The interior designer should work closely with the operator from the outset, so the operator will have a deep understanding of the concept by the time the building is handed over. That collaboration can include presentations, regular visits, walkthroughs and a range of other measures.

It’s important for the interior designer to keep on top of project at every stage and ensure that the operator’s decisions are made in full awareness of the building’s identity. This will feed into maintenance decisions, such as the operator knowing that they will need a maintenance contract for extensive internal planting.

The handover should, of course, include details of things like scents and sounds, to ensure they are maintained. Scene-setting is also key – the interior design focuses on setting everything from books to plants to cushions in a certain way – and the operator needs to document this in order to maintain it.

Regular and seasonal reviews can be helpful.

Q: How is material specification different for the BTR sector?

Material specification in the BTR sector needs to be based on a combination of cost, volume, availability and (increasingly) sustainability.

  • Sourcing local materials is important, as it mitigates against supply disruption issues. The same applies to using local tradespeople and craftspeople.
  • Interior design for BTR schemes means you’ll need to access to high volumes of materials, so you have to factor that in from the start. You can’t run out of flooring halfway through the building!
  • Early planning helps deliver efficient procurement plans and processes, which drive down costs and increase returns.
  • Establishing the building’s identity early on also means it’s much easier to source materials that fit with that identity. It gives you longer to find options and ensure that they are budget-friendly. And it’s essential if you’re running a tender process for sourcing materials at scale.
  • Of course, cost is key. It’s also important that materials are easy to use. For example, consider tile cutting for hundreds of individual bathrooms. Addressing this early on, through the procurement stage, is really important.
  • It’s also essential to ensure that materials are robust and durable. They need to be easy to maintain and replace.
  • Using sustainable materials and working with partners that are in tune with each building’s identity can be very helpful.

Listen to the interview here.

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