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The rental market is set to boom, and apartment builders and developers are ramping up for it.

Urban renters — many of them young Gen Y-ers or “Millennials” — are looking at renting an apartment not as a temporary phase before buying a home, but as a long-term lifestyle choice that supports a full, urban experience. Here are several building trends that reveal how developers are responding to these new priorities.

Location, location, location

This Belltown apartment is centrally located

According to a recent webinar panel of industry experts hosted by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), location is the most important determining factor for renters in urban areas.

Nathan Manley of Seattle chose his high-rise apartment building in downtown Seattle because it’s centrally located, with “access to just about everything.” At his doorstep are a light rail station and two cinemas just a block away. Whole Foods is three blocks away.

It’s important for lifestyle,” said Manley, who works at Microsoft. “I deliberately chose to not live near work because lifestyle was more important than having to commute.” But the fact that the freeway is right there makes commuting a bit easier, too.

Kenneth Leung chose differently when he and his partner moved from downtown Seattle to be near his partner’s work in neighboring Bellevue, a city they consider to have a more “family-friendly” feel. Their newer building is just one block from the Bellevue Square/Lincoln Square shopping district, and two blocks from the Bellevue bus station.

Access to amenities, transit

In both renters’ cases, access to amenities and transit were important. Brandon Nicholson, principal at NK Architects in Seattle, says that this is a continuing rather than a new trend: “What [builders] are doing is filling in the empty spaces or the under-utilized land within transit-oriented neighborhoods that already have transit and already have a neighborhood character.”

Tenants at the recently completed Alto apartments in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood can make use of 20 or so bus lines running within two blocks of the building. “And soon Metro Transit will be starting to run their RapidRide through there,” said Paul Shema, principal at HEWITT in Seattle, which designed Alto.

Building green

Apartment builders and developers across the country are starting to insist upon green design. Encouraging them are environmental design standards and rankings such as LEED, an international certification system, and regional programs like Built Green® Washington.

The Alto project is seeking LEED Silver rating for its sustainable design, while Nicholson and his wife are on target to get LEED Platinum for an apartment building they’re developing in the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood.

Sarah Hatfield and Hugh Schaeffer of S + H Works, an architecture firm located in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, have noticed more local developers meeting “Built Green 4-star” standards of sustainable construction and energy efficiency.

“By meeting this Green standard, the project benefits from zoning incentives such as increased FAR (floor area ratio) and height bonuses,” said Hatfield.

Smaller units, large common areas

Common areas like decks appeal to apartment renters

Downsized units offer renters a more affordable, energy-saving housing alternative in dense neighborhoods, with shared multi-use spaces providing additional amenities.

“The rooms provide an efficient living space for tenants who are ‘on the go’ and don’t want the space (or expense) of a more traditional apartment,” said Hatfield, who has been following this trend in small rental units, including micro-units and efficiency studios.

Designers are making small units attractive to renters by incorporating flexible space using sliding partition walls that tenants can customize, by adding lots of closet space, and by relying on shared common areas to create moments of community interaction.

A good example is the recently completed Arthouse building across from Belltown’s Art Institute. Designed to entice students and young adults, the small, more affordable units are also flexible and livable, while the top floor features three types of amenity space facing Elliot Bay: an enclosed common room with a wall of glass that can be opened up to a covered area, which opens up to a roof deck area with a fire pit.

“The idea was that if you’re a tenant tucked back in a unit by the alley, you still have the ability to go up and experience the view and everything that property has to offer,” said Nicholson.

Niche amenities

Fitness rooms, bike storage, garden space, pet areas and even Zipcar parking are just a few examples of lifestyle design features that designers and developers are implementing to meet renter demands.

Alto has two on-site Zipcars, while pet-owning tenants must be happy about the rooftop dog walk area.

“People in the building can take their dogs up there late at night or early in the morning in an area that’s irrigated, so it’s washed down several times a day,” said Shema. “One of our clients tells us they see up to 75 percent of their tenants with dogs.”

It looks like that’s one trend that is going to stay.

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About the Author

Angela Sucich is a former writing and English instructor turned freelance writer. She has written stories for outdoor sports publications such as Bike and Mountain Bike, and web content for a range of clients, including Starbucks, Eddie Bauer and Virtuoso. She holds a PhD in medieval literature from the University of Washington.

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