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Condo Crazy: Building Teams rethink condo buildings to help developers win buyers over

As competition heats up in the condominium market, Building Teams rethink market-rate condo buildings to help developers win buyers over.

January 01, 2006 |

Stroll through the heart of virtually any major city in the U.S. and you'll see a slew of new condominium developments dotting the streetscape, from ultra-luxury high-rises to market-rate loft conversions.

This explosion of new condo projects is giving older empty nesters and young urban dwellers more choices than ever before. As a result, it's becoming tougher for developers, especially those offering market-rate units, to stand out from the crowd. "There's just so much competition out there," says Timothy Johnson, partner in the New York office of Seattle-based architect NBBJ.

Even though competition is escalating, most market-rate developments are "cookie-cutter" jobs that offer little in the way of lifestyle or design differentiation, says Johnson. But he and his colleagues at NBBJ have been rethinking the standard formula for condo living, experimenting with new unit layouts that maximize views and daylight, while minimizing precious square footage.

'Borrowed light' scheme

One design approach that is gaining popularity among developers is the so-called "borrowed light" unit plan. Most commonly applied to one-bedroom units in mid- and high-rise condo structures, this scheme involves pulling the master bedroom back into the interior of the unit and placing all living and entertainment spaces along the glass, says Johnson.

"Instead of having a 14-foot-wide living room and a 12-foot-wide bedroom along the glass, you have 26 to 28 feet of uninterrupted glass views looking out," says Johnson, who applied the scheme in two recent projects, including the Sail @ Marina Bay—twin sail-shaped towers (70 and 63 stories) currently under development along Marina Bay in Singapore. Of the project's 1,111 condos, about 35% are tiny studios, many of which are only 54 square meters (581 sf) in total floor area.

"We were concerned with the perception that these units would look really small and feel really cramped," says Johnson, who convinced the project's developers, City Developments Ltd. and AIG Global Real Estate Investment Corp., to employ the borrowed light scheme for all one-bedroom units that face the marina. It was a perfect fit, he says, because the developers' target for those units—young urban professionals—would much rather have striking views from the living, dining, and kitchen areas, where they can entertain guests, than from the bedroom.

Spectacular views of Singapore’s Marina Bay are saved for the living and gathering spaces at this studio unit at Sail @ Marina Bay. The 581-sf condo is one of numerous one-bedroom units at the development that incorporate a “borrowed light” scheme. Most commonly applied to one-bedroom units in mid- and high-rise condo structures, the borrowed light approach involves pulling the master bedroom back into the interior of the unit and placing all living and entertainment spaces along the glass.Photo: NBBJ

For developers, says Johnson, the scheme provides a way to offer much smaller one-bedroom units that "feel bigger" than they are. "If you're able to get away with 600- or 650-sf units in a market that typically offers 800-sf units, you can potentially squeeze more condos within the same footprint," he says.

Some developers are going so far as to charge a premium for borrowed light schemes, marketing them as a "unique unit type." The developers for Sail @ Marina Bay tacked on a 10% premium for the borrowed light units—on top of the 20% they charged for those with a view of the marina.

"If they're able to sell these at a 10% premium, while also squeezing more units into the building, that's generating much more dollars," says Johnson. And that's music to any developer's ear.

But there are several drawbacks to this approach. Many municipalities require that bedroom spaces have direct access to outside ventilation. By moving the master bedroom away from the exterior glass wall system, Building Teams must provide mechanical ventilation for that space, and they may experience resistance from city inspectors and code officials.

Occupant circulation is also an issue, says Johnson. At Sail @ Marina Bay, occupants must walk through a dressing-room closet in the master bedroom to access the bathroom in the borrowed light units. "As you can imagine, when they have guests over, their bedroom and closet will have to be in pretty good shape," says Johnson. "With just 54 square meters to work with, we could not do it any other way."

Other developers are creating the illusion of spaciousness by using movable glass walls that allow sightlines to various rooms and by replacing hallways and small rooms with expansive open spaces, says Daun St. Amand, VP and director of RTKL's residential practice group, based in Los Angeles.

"Spaciousness is an expectation for baby boomers and echo boomers, who generally grew up in single-family homes," says St. Amand. RTKL's one-bedroom plan for the 9th and Flower development in Los Angeles, for instance, places the kitchen, living room, bedroom, and dining room in one large, L-shaped space, separated by movable partitions. The kitchen is located in the middle of the floor plan and includes a breakfast bar, making it an integral component of the living and gathering areas—a trend that St. Amand says will continue.

"Where we all used to gather around the fire, we now all gather around the kitchen," he says. "As a result, we're starting to move kitchens further out toward the glass line instead of tucking them in the back of the unit." Many kitchens also come standard with a breakfast bar that can comfortably accommodate five to six people; high-end finishes, such as granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances, are de rigueur.

In the baby boomer market, bathrooms are playing a much larger role, both in size and function. St. Amand says bathrooms have become the equivalent of an "at-home spa," with oversized bathtubs, opulent finishes, and square footage that in some cases rivals that of the master bedroom. St. Amand predicts the master bathroom in some condos will one day offer the best view in the house.

Communal spaces in the sky

Developers are also devoting more space to public amenities and communal activities to woo potential buyers. "As competition gets tougher, developers want to provide amenities that will help them stand out," says St. Amand. "They're including amenities that you would expect from a resort or hotel environment."

While developers of luxury condo buildings might offer expansive lobbies, private elevators, pools, valet parking, and concierge service, those dealing market-rate units must be more budget-conscious. Theater rooms, business centers, workout rooms, rooftop gardens, and party rooms are just a few of the goodies developers are throwing at potential buyers.

In some cases, Building Teams can accommodate these amenities in the design with little or no impact to the sellable space. For instance, at Sail @ Marina Bay, NBBJ utilized mechanical transfer floors in each tower to locate an enclosed party room with an adjacent outdoor terrace. "We used the space that would normally not be used," says Johnson. Rooftops are also often under-utilized.

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