Money-Saving Design is a Win-Win for Multifamily Developers

KGA is working with Trailhead Community to design a one-of-a-kind multifamily community. Half of the units will be dedicated to adults with developmental disabilities while the other half will be for middle income active seniors and young professionals.


When a developer is planning to build a for-sale or for-rent multifamily property, there are many cost-saving design-solutions that can be implemented from start to finish. Knowledgeable and experienced architects and planners know where to look for creative approaches that can shave substantial costs from a project’s bottom line and increase profits. Below are a few examples.

John Guilliams
Director of Design, KGA Studio Architects PC

Density. The cost of land and entitlement fees have skyrocketed during the past few years, in some places as much as 20% to 30%. And, while there’s little to nothing a developer – nor its architect – can do to control these costs, much can be done with regard to how the land is used. Take full advantage of the allotted space – the smaller the footprint of a building or unit, the more units you can fit on a parcel of land to help the project “pencil out.” Current ordinances and anti-growth sentiments are hindering some of these creative solutions, but skilled architects and planners are finding effective approaches that adhere to design guidelines and working with municipalities to solve these roadblocks.

Relationships. Getting all of the project’s stakeholders to the table at the beginning of planning and design is essential in streamlining important approval processes for the duration of the project. Especially one where you’re asking for a density increase or other zoning variance. A team with a strong reputation of work ing with municipalities is always a good starting point, especially if it includes the architect, developer and civil engineer. Understanding the surrounding community, its history, possible friction points, and the shared vision is critical in soothing the “nimby-ism” that remains as one of the biggest challenges in the quest for more density. A collaboration needs to be formed with community groups right away for any chance of success. Remember, time is money, so upfront work in these areas can get the project started quicker and on a positive note.

Value engineering. Value engineering takes on two different roles and perspectives for a project depending on whether it’s a for-sale or for-rent development. Due to the current litigation environment surrounding construction defects, condominium construction is almost nonexistent. When approaching for-sale projects, the project team must be careful not to value engineer the things that can trigger a lawsuit. Water and sound transmission are normally the first things the lawyers look for, so never cut corners in these areas. Accessibility is often a focus when designing units but can be overlooked in amenities and common spaces. On-site storage units are a great example. Storage is a popular amenity, but be sure it is fully accessible, or it could lead to a potential lawsuit.

Value engineering during the design process of for-rent properties often takes on a different meaning, especially if the owner plans on holding the property as a long-term investment. The team must evaluate how much the property will cost to maintain over time and what the potential replacement costs will be for the building’s operating systems. Life-cycle cost and maintenance play an important role, since both of these factors affect the bottom line.

Cost-saving design solutions. A great deal of cost savings can be realized for a multifamily project by designing for cost saving construction. Keep things simple: reduce corners, simplify roof forms and consider construction sequencing. Using a “repetitive kit of parts” approach to standardize items such as exterior detailing, interior layouts in kitchens and baths, and even mechanical equipment layouts can achieve great cost savings. In for-sale projects, keeping specifications and finishes simple helps keep costs lower in the beginning; the owner can always upgrade later when he can afford it. When selecting finishes in for-rent projects, life-cycle costs should be considered. The cheapest finishes right now might actually end up costing more in the long run.

There are numerous challenges that will impact the bottom line of a new multifamily development, whether it’s for-sale or for-rent. In order to maximize profitability – and save time during the design and construction process – it’s imperative to identify and work with a team that has experience and success at providing solutions that work.

Published in the March 2020 issue of Building Dialogue.

Edited by Building Dialogue