I have been practicing architecture for over 30 years, with a focus on mixed-use development and multifamily housing for most of that time. I have come to learn that a successful living project is dependent upon understanding and capturing demographics. Most people who live in mixed-use developments--typically characterized as buildings with retail on the ground floor and apartments or condos above, located in a highly walkable, active urban neighborhood--aren't just renting a place to live, they are choosing a lifestyle, and are also often renters by choice. Right now, the two demographics this lifestyle appeals to most are in vastly different stages of life: Millennials, or Young Professionals, who perhaps don't want or can't afford to buy a house at the present time but like to be where the action is and enjoy amenities; and Baby Boomers, or Empty Nesters, who perhaps no longer want the responsibilities associated with owning a home and would like to simplify their lives, be part of a community, and enjoy a new sense of freedom. Both are seeking fun, energetic places with convenient, pet-friendly living situations.
Twenty or thirty years ago, most twenty-somethings would have hated the idea of running into their parents at the same bar or restaurant. But now, especially in urban areas, both groups are looking for the next hip wine bar, foodie-approved restaurant or up-and-coming coffee shop. They are using the same apps to make dinner reservations and hail an Uber to and from. Sometimes they even share rides (insert "lol" here). Both demographics are experiencing shifts, lending to their worlds colliding. Many Baby Boomers and Empty Nesters are at a point in their lives where they want to down size. They no longer need the space to raise a family and are looking to reduce the clutter that has accumulated over the years and start fresh, or just "tidy up" Marie Kondo-style. Millennials and Young Professionals are also downsizing to reflect their values. More and more, we are seeing this group willing to sacrifice square footage in living units for higher quality finishes, interesting amenities and increased convenience. To them, bigger isn't always better, with many choosing quality and convenience over quantity and increased responsibilities.
Our real estate developer clients and friends are increasingly telling us these are the two demographics they want to attract and build for. Although they want similar amenities around the site and throughout the building, they have differing desires when it comes to their individual living spaces. When building for Millennials, we tend to design smaller living units that are highly flexible so residents can have the option to transform the space to meet their needs and have room to entertain vs. paying for an extra room they may not use in a traditional way. For Empty Nesters, we have found that they prefer 2-bedrooms / 2-bath units to have a guest bedroom availability for when family or friends visit. This can also accommodate living situations for people who share custody with children going back and forth between households. This demographic is also very interested in concierge services, such as housekeeping, pet and plant care, grocery and dry-cleaning services, etc. Although these two groups have slightly different desires and tendencies, developers don't necessarily have to cater to one group or the other; in fact, they can, and should, cater to both to increase occupancy and retention rates.
Some examples of these multi-generational, mixed-use developments we've designed at EUA include Ovation 309, Freshwater Plaza, Bottleworks District, Metreau Apartments, Rhythm Apartments and Ironworks. For Ironworks, we designed 50% of the 1-bedroom units with the bedroom and living room along the exterior wall for increased daylight and the remaining 50% with an internal loft style bedroom with only the living room along the external wall. Both units were the same size and dimensions. Millennials tend to view the living space as an area for entertaining and relaxing, and bedrooms just as a place to sleep, while Empty Nesters tend to view a bedroom as a restful place where they will spend time in to unwind. Initially, the client was concerned about the number of units with internal bedrooms instead of designing all to a more conventional approach, but ultimately, they ended up getting more demand for the spaces that prioritized entertaining vs. the traditional apartment set up.
A lot has changed in the world for twenty and thirty-somethings today from the time when most Empty Nesters were in this age bracket. For one thing, our sense of privacy is vastly different. Where people used to be more private and socialize mostly with people around their age, we now have the internet, which, for many people, is an open book. Young people today are "friends" (real or digital) with a wide spectrum of people across multiple generations, with which they tend to share quite a bit about their lives. Our connectivity is also different, with technology such as Skype and Facetime allowing us to have video conversations in real time vs. writing letters. It may seem trivial, but I think we are more aware of what each other are doing now, for good or bad, and this knowledge factors into how we interact with each other and even some of the decisions we make. I believe as a result of this, the generational divide feels a little less drastic in today's world in previous times.
I love the challenge of designing spaces where people live. While most basic needs generally stay the same, demographics preferences and lifestyles do not. Although it's tempting to be conservative or conventional when designing spaces that have proven to be well-received, continued success requires innovative solutions and constantly taking the pulse of what people want. Personally, I'm excited about the movement we have seen in the design of mixed-use developments and blending of generations and look forward to seeing where it all goes from here.
I could keep going but I'm meeting one of my kids at the new small plate restaurant downtown. Don't worry, I'll post it on Instagram for all to see. Feel free to send me an email or DM with your thoughts. What do you look for in mixed-use developments?
Chris Gallagher, AIA, LEED AP BD+C