Rethinking Multi-Family Design

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Apartment dwellers across the United States have been experiencing a decreased sense of community as their owners and operators have shut down gyms, pools, business centers and other common areas to limit the spread of COVID-19. Managers have been putting plans in place to ensure their residents are living in a clean and safe environment but are now faced with reinventing the ways residents can have the same living experience that prompted them to sign a year-long lease in the first place. This, like so many others like me has been my reality in the face of this pandemic. 

With people now working from home and spending their days inside, as a designer I’ve been asking myself how the built environment can better support a sense of community and foster interaction with others, while still maintaining a safe distance during a pandemic? As shelter-in-place orders begin to lift, how do we safely move forward? What precautions are here to stay and what will change? 

Looking specifically at the multi-family high rise scenario, there are potential ways that the lack of amenities can be made up in the units and operations of a community. I’ve outlined a few approaches – some can be implemented right away while others can be planned for in the future. I hope that these suggestions will promote a 360-degree at-home wellness experience during a time of quarantine and continue to be useful post-pandemic.  

Building Operations 

Building owners and operators have been forced to get creative to keep their residents safe and engaged during the stayathome order. Aside from all the virtual happy hours, there are other unique opportunities for an owner to provide a safe way for their residents to enjoy their amenities.   

Now that leasing agents are not giving future residents tours of the community and rely on imagery and virtual tools to sign new leases, this more streamlined service has made more time for agents to serve the existing residents.  

Many of my neighbors are personal trainers and rely on the state-of-the-art gym of our building in order to meet with their clients and record fitness content for their virtual subscribers. With the gym out of commission and while owners work to figure out the safest way to use these facilities as government mandates lift, what new operational approaches can be adopted to cater to these residents? Outlining a ‘schedule of access’ or the ability to make a reservation for the amenities is something that can be easily implemented by the community’s staff.  

My gym consists of two stories worth of space, spread out around 3,000 SF. On the second floor, there is a private yoga studio and a private group fitness studio, both equipped with a TV to stream fitness content. The open gym is separated by half walls, sectioning off the free weights from the machines, while a variety of cardio equipment lines the windows.  

By offering residents a way to schedule an allotted time to use one of the highlighted zones above, say twice a week, while maintaining a time slot between residents scheduled times to appropriately clean and disinfect the area and equipment before the next person, this will allow for a safe and streamlined way to promote the use of amenities. 


With the many integrated communication platforms, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, an apartment community can easily implement these programs for use among their residents and staff. Not only are these tools helpful to ping residents with an important update that would usually get lost in their email, but this can also facilitate a deeper sense of community by easily connecting residents to one another. Channels that residents can subscribe to can be populated to support a variety of interests from at-home fitness, cooking, gardening, pet care, etc. Within these tools, virtual games can be played just like when you’re sitting on a plane and can challenge seat 24A to a game of backgammon, you can get to know your neighbors through a friendly game of virtual trivia. The possibilities of connecting residents virtually to one another supports spatial distancing without compromising social interaction.  

With occupancy sensors, residents can access and monitor which common spaces are occupied in order to avoid face-to-face contact with others – not necessarily limited to a quarantine situation. By providing this live information, residents can see from their device if someone is occupying their hallway during a move-out/in, how many people are using the gym, and if the business center would be a quiet space to work that day. This would not only prevent most unplanned interactions, it could also help residents plan their day around “peak use hours.” 

In-unit features 

Unless you are an essential worker, residents are spending most of the time in their unit, only leaving for required, life-sustaining essentials. These residents have set up in-home office areas, gyms, e-learning stations for kids, and artist studios. With the growing amount of people working from home pre-pandemic, we are only going to continue to see that number grow exponentially due to the circumstances created by COVID-19. This begs the question, can unit components become adaptable for a more holistic at-home living experience?  

Murphy beds have existed since the early 1900s and continue to pop-up in efficiency styled living units, but these components are not for everyone and can come at a large initial investment to the property and require additional resources to maintain. There are other ways to integrate adaptable furniture at a smaller scale, like a built-in fold down workstation that can be easily tucked away when not in use.   

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Access to a fitness amenity, whether that’s a shared gym or pool, is a requirement for most residents.  With shared amenities closed, multi-family communities are looking to the hospitality industry to provide examples for personal wellness opportunities. Hilton’s ‘5 Feet to Fitness’ provides a personal fitness station equipped with 11 pieces of different fitness equipment and accessories. You can work out in the privacy of your room with your own stationary bike, TRX bands, medicine balls, and meditation mat. With the latest trends in at-home fitness, brands like Peloton and the Mirror provide purchasable equipment and a monthly subscription to hundreds of classes – most with live instructors. These types of in-unit amenities can be either added on to your monthly lease payment or part of a ‘premium’ unit option complete with all upgrades.   

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Apartments, in this moment, are taking on a new kind of multifunctionality. Our units serve not only as a shelter and refuge but have now morphed into our workplaces, gyms, restaurants, bars, and theaters. We now experience an entire day’s worth of demands within the confines of our walls. But with smart, meaningful in-unit design and changes made within our business and technological efforts, significant growth can be made to ensure multi-family structures resemble an even better tenant experience –beyond just the pandemic. The measures we are taking to promote overall wellness now will act as a catalyst for designers to rethink multi-family design in a way that will foster convenience, flexibility and connection in the future.