5 Innovative Multifamily Projects Showcase the Benefits of Building Better

The most widely used multifamily construction methods will always be those that strike the right balance of quality, compliance, and cost. As construction methods improve across the industry, so, too, will the standard for all buildings.

Across the country, developers and architects are working together to push the bounds of the multifamily construction process, creating prototypes for potential future standards of living. Some of these alternative projects aim to cut the cost of construction, often with the goal of making a building’s units more affordable. Others hope to create structures that can withstand severe weather or harsh environments, and more still work toward high-level energy-efficiency and sustainability certifications.

Above all, these projects demonstrate the strong returns on investment possible for innovative multifamily, whether in expanding the range of affordable housing or in providing more appealing communities. Here are just a few examples of how industry players are taking the leap into new processes and techniques.

Park 17

Park 17, located in Denver’s City West neighborhood, marks architect Valerio Dewalt Train’s second foray into high-rise modular construction with developer Kairoi Residential, general contractor MPC, and the Prescient prefabricated load-bearing metal stud wall system.

“When we started [our] second project, we kept the entire team together and applied all the lessons learned from the first project,” says Steve Droll, principal at Valerio Dewalt Train. “What VDT likes to do is really immerse ourselves in new technology, and then through a very deep understanding we find the ability to use it innovatively. And that really holds true on the Park 17 project. The Prescient system … think of it as a series of panels, put together and stacked on top of each other. And that’s for the entire structural system for the entire building.”

Because all the panels are factory-made and then transported to and assembled on-site, the overall assembly of Park 17’s superstructure took place over only a couple of months. “The building goes up incredibly fast. There’s tremendous time savings,” Droll says.

The multilevel forms stem from VDT’s navigation of the site’s zoning constraints. At eight stories, it skirts the City Park View Plane, which protects views of the mountains from City Park, then scales down in the middle and upper building portions to meet zoning requirements and create balconies for residents.

The site’s compact, triangular shape also posed a challenge in the building’s framing process, as the Prescient system was designed for rectangular site work. “Naturally, things that are load bearing want to simply stack on each other, but we were able to work within the system and deal with some complex geometries that you wouldn’t usually see in a building of this type,” Droll says. “These systems like boxes, they don’t like triangles so much. [But] when we really understood the system, we were able to incorporate these geometries. If you look at Park 17, there’s a building mass that fronts 17th Street to hold the urban edge, and there’s a mass that fronts Lafayette. But then, to work with the triangular street of Park Avenue, what we did was create a series of rectangles and rotated them, which created voids in the massing that we were able to capitalize on to create views, provide natural light, and create outdoor spaces.”

Park 17, completed in summer 2020, offers 190 multifamily units with ground floor retail space along 17th Avenue’s “Restaurant Row.” According to Droll, the white, angular grids that define the finalized exterior are designed to “create an architectural expression” of the internal modular system. “So many of these projects, it goes up and gets wrapped in something, and you really don’t know what’s behind it. We thought that by having this really taut grid, it really was an expression of this modular system behind it.”

Argyle Gardens

The Argyle Gardens community, located in the Kenton neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, marks the first built application of the LISAH, or Low Income Single Adult Housing, model for low-income and previously homeless residents. This design method utilizes highly efficient modular and prefabricated components to create beautiful and affordable supportive housing units to scale. Developer Transition Projects and architect Holst anticipate that this model of construction and living could be adapted to work across Oregon, including city and coastal applications.

Opened to residents in April 2020, Argyle Gardens contains 72 units across four buildings, with 36 studio apartments measuring 220 square feet in the largest building. Each of the three co-housing buildings, based on a single-room occupancy model, features two six-bedroom pods with two shared bathrooms and a large kitchen. The larger building offers a community room, laundry facilities, and support services for all residents.

Each building consists of four “rows” of modular unit components stacked two stories tall and divided by an interior hallway. Each of the rows was assembled off-site, delivered by truck, then crane-lifted onto site-built foundations. An outer shell of exterior finishes—gabled roof trusses, shingled roofs, and durable cladding—disguises the modular installation underneath.

According to the developer, “a co-housing approach, small unit sizes, and modular construction contributed to achieving development costs that were 31% lower than typical affordable housing projects.”

Les Maisons de Bayou Lafourche

Among the most important goals in the development and construction of Les Maisons de Bayou Lafourche—a soon-to-be completed mixed-income housing community in Lockport, Louisiana—was storm resilience. The project stems from Louisiana’s Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments program, which operates on a $40 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and aims to develop building strategies in response to flood risk and coastal land loss in the area.

Les Maisons de Bayou Lafourche is located in Lafourche Parish, which is mostly at or below sea level and susceptible to tropical storms as well as the storm surge and precipitation that they bring. Not only will the community provide much-needed mixed-income housing, as decided by parish residents, but it is also intended to serve as a prototype for storm-resilient affordable housing in other communities.

To eliminate thermal bridging, the homes’ walls combine 2-by-6 plates with staggered 2-by-4 space. Insulation includes blown fiberglass in the walls and open cell foam in the attic. The buildings themselves are designed after historic Creole cottages, and feature fiber cement siding, raised concrete foundations, green site infrastructure to direct stormwater, paperless drywall, and missile-impact-rated windows and doors. Developer Gulf Coast Housing Partnership is targeting a HERS rating of 55 on each home and a Fortified Gold designation for storm resilient construction.

The community’s 35 units range from one to three bedrooms in size and are geared toward a range of incomes. Twenty-one units are available to renters at 50% of the area median income (AMI), while seven are available at 60% of the AMI, six are available at market rate, and one is reserved for a manager living on-site. Each unit includes plug-ins for emergency generators.

Second + Delaware

As of its opening in 2020, the Second + Delaware community in Kansas City, Missouri, holds the distinction of being the largest apartment community built to Passive House standards in the world, according to the development team behind it. The building is designed to use 80% to 90% less energy in day-to-day operations than comparable buildings in the area, with design and operation elements unique to the Kansas City market.

With this project and its application of Passive House standards as a working model, co-developers Yarco and Arnold Development Group aim to emphasize how high environmental standards can equal attractive returns for investors. In the long run, they hope for the success of this project to increase the appeal of high-efficiency, low-impact construction for other developers and their investors.

“Typically, people associate energy efficiency and sustainability with adding cost and reducing return on investment,” says Jonathan Arnold, principal at Arnold Development Group. “And what the [Passive House Institute] figured out is, if you look at the building as a complete system and optimize all of the parts, what you end up doing is dropping the cost and increasing your return on investment in several areas. And while there are increased costs in some, the overall net return goes up. Which is the way that we are doing seed projects like this … [so] people can make more money doing the right thing.”

The walls measure 16 inches thick, with 6 inches of insulation between 6 inches of concrete pre-cast walls on the interior and 4 inches on the exterior, maintaining thermal comfort, providing sound dampening, and protecting against rot and moisture penetration. The triple-glazed windows with insulated frames are designed to keep the window’s interior temperature within 2 degrees of the interior air temperature.

“One of the most important components of the design of Second + Delaware, and the concept of Passive House, is the people who live there,” says Jonathan Cohn, CEO of Yarco. “The [wall design] adds to the thermal comfort of the people who live there, and the much more tightly controlled air exchange gives us the ability to add a level of air filtration that would be extraordinarily uncommon in multioccupant buildings.”

At 276 units, the community’s large scale emphasizes the efficacy of the building’s Passive House construction. The structure is built around a large interior courtyard, situated as a “protected space.” It offers over 50,000 square feet of terrace amenity space on its rooftops, as well as a solar array that massively reduces the building’s energy consumption from nonrenewable resources. According to Arnold, the structure is designed to last for “more than 200 years” and may be easily adapted for other uses as it ages. Units range from studios to two-bedroom apartments, with rents starting at $1,285.

Box 500

At six stories tall, the Box 500 apartment community in Salt Lake City is now one of the tallest residential structures in the world constructed from shipping containers. It is also the largest construction project to date for Eco Box Fabricators, a Salt Lake builder that specializes in adapting shipping containers for commercial and residential structures.

Set to open this summer, the community will offer 83 apartment units, including 48 studio apartments, 18 one-bedroom units, and 17 two-bedroom units. One of the units will be set aside as office space, and all others are open to applicants making 60% of the AMI for their family size. Rents will range from $829 to $1,204.

Because the project was considered a new type of construction, Eco Box Fabricators spent several years adjusting its structural and architectural elements to gain the approval of Salt Lake City’s building services. Given the builder’s intention to keep the units affordable, the city reportedly waived almost $300,000 in fees for the project, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

All units consist of two new 40-foot high-cube shipping containers, measuring 9 feet and 6 inches tall. The doors, windows, and other exterior openings are reinforced with steel C channels, and each one is framed out with metal studs and built to International Building Code standards. The units’ interiors walls are also cased with channel, which allows the containers to be bolted together on-site. Box 500’s exterior retains the look of its component parts, providing an industrial look and aesthetic that stands out from other construction in the area.

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