Low-budget designs still can have a big impact

The Meadows at Montbello
The lobby at The Meadows at Montbello, a new four-story affordable senior rental building Courtesy Scott Dressel-Martin/CHFA
Jennifer Pruett

Jennifer Pruett
Senior interior designer, Mandil Inc., Denver

After 17 years as an interior designer in Denver and as a Colorado native, I have been witness to all the changes the large influx of people to our state has brought. Clearly, somewhere along the line, we were discovered for our fantastic weather, our beautiful mountains and the seemingly never-ending array of things to do out of doors – or indoors, for that matter. With that, the need for housing, especially affordable housing, has never been so great. Over the years, I have been involved in countless multifamily projects, most in Denver metro and mostly mid- to high-end price points – projects in which the target audience has been savvy and makes buying or renting decisions based on aesthetics along with other factors, demanding high design and a growing list of amenities.

The demands of these projects have taught me what people really want out of their homes and communities; those things are largely the same across the economic spectrum.

“It takes a certain amount of darkness to see the light” is a phrase I was reminded of while wrapping up my most recent project, The Meadows at Montbello, a new four-story affordable senior rental building for the Volunteers of America, supported by public finance partner Colorado Housing and Finance Authority. While installing the common areas, I encountered residents moving in whose overwhelming gratitude was humbling. While I regularly receive some thanks and general appreciation for the work I do, this was different. These folks expressed something deeper, and I felt that this place was going to mean more to them than simply home.

Low-income people and seniors are among our most vulnerable residents; many have been homeless, near homeless or institutionalized in the past. For them, this building is a new start and an opportunity at normalcy. These are the people whose lives can be changed meaningfully, in some part, by design.

While touring other low-income properties around town as research for this project, it became clear that many of these types of buildings were fulfilling only the basic function of shelter and little or no thought had been given to aesthetics or amenity. I wondered if it was a result of a low budget that drove the outcome, or if it was simply lack of insight into the needs of the population.

In my mind, great design is not a function of a big budget, but rather a result of creative thinking and careful consideration of the end user. While 10 years ago it would’ve been much harder to design something beautiful on a dime, these days the market is flooded with low-cost/on-trend materials, and many are sustainable to boot. Some low-budget design elements that are part of any building can have significant impact – paint, for instance. Color can instantly transform a space from basic housing to a welcoming home.

Many amenities available to the average apartment dweller are invaluable to this more vulnerable population. And, some of the amenities that have the biggest impact on these communities are the ones we all care about.

•Connection to nature. We all crave it, especially in our gorgeous state. The architects responsible for the Montbello project thoughtfully placed the building on the site opposite the already existing building, creating a green space in between – a mini-park for residents to gather and soak up the sun. It connects the two buildings as well as creates a verdant space for events and recreation. A little outdoor space goes a long way.

•Access to technology. For those seeking jobs, keeping track of family and trying to regain financial stability, this can be critical. Simply utilizing a small space with a few computers to create a business center can easily service those who may not be able to afford their own.

•Community rooms. These are dynamic spaces that can be used for many functions, like movie nights, sports events and parties. They also can create mini-communities within a larger space. Lounges placed on each floor of a multistory building can provide a social space for those sharing the floor and feel like an extension of their own homes, fostering socialization and building relationships.

•Aesthetics. While it may not be an amenity per se, the aesthetic of a space can transform the well-being of those within. We experience a space with all our senses, so by using materials that not only look inviting, but also feel soft to the touch and welcome us in are crucial. Lighting also plays a critical role in this category, and while security is likely an important factor and some fluorescent lighting may be necessary, other layers of light can be added to tone down an institutional vibe. Chandeliers, lamp lighting and keeping the ambient lighting at 2700K (warm white) can effectively warm up a space.

•Curb appeal. The exterior of the building can play a role in the happiness of its residents as well. Who doesn’t want a little curb appeal? Many of these buildings often are positioned within communities that are becoming increasingly higher end and a sense of fitting in is imperative.

In the end, when we lift those who are at the bottom, we all benefit. I am grateful to have participated in a project that had a meaningful impact on those most in need. Take this project as a step toward good design earning a permanent home in low-income housing and a way to share a little love for all.

Featured in the November issue of Multifamily Properties Quarterly.

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.