Standardized Design

8 min read

Replicating Tried and True Design Elements and Products to Build Livable, Engaging Communities 

Decades ago, people often equated standardized design in affordable housing with cookie-cutter, identical buildings and individual units with the same layouts and color schemes. Back then, the prototyped design was viewed primarily as a way to cut costs. Today, standardized design is still viewed as a way to rein in costs, but it is also embraced by affordable housing developers as a way to replicate best practices in designing engaging living spaces while creating a unique feel for each community.

Tax Credit Advisor spoke with leaders in the affordable housing space about the ways their companies utilize standardized design. They described a design process that is not so much focused on prototyping the larger, overall style of a community, but one that seeks to replicate smaller design decisions that work for people.

“When people think of prototyping, they often think about the units (in a community) or the buildings themselves,” explains Caleb Roope, founder and chief executive officer of The Pacific Companies (TPC), a builder of multifamily housing and charter schools. “We try to take it down to another level where we talk about how the bathrooms layout best, or how the cabinets work, or how the appliances are situated.”

Timothy Henkel, principal and president of Pennrose Development, views standardized design similarly.

“Standardizing and prototypes can mean different things to different people,” says Henkel. “Our standardization focuses on operational feasibility and creating a product we know we can maintain. It is a result of our operating experience and learning what products are more durable. We look at where we can best expend our scarce resources to get something that is operationally efficient.”

Livability Often Comes Down to the Small Details
Henkel says some of the simplest examples of standardizing design relate to unit turnover. At many rental communities, when a tenant moves out, managers recarpet and repaint the unit. Henkel says Pennrose tries to install products in units that do not require replacement or repainting, such as laying laminate vinyl flooring instead of carpet and using vinyl wall coverings instead of paint.

“The little kid with dirty hands who likes to run his hand down the wall can do that all he wants,” says Henkel of the benefits of vinyl wall coverings. “It can be easily cleaned without having to do a touch-up paint job. (Vinyl coverings) also are a lot more durable with things such as deliveries that can bang up traditional paint and drywall.”

Henkel adds that Pennrose’s “standardization has a lot to do with seeing where our maintenance people spend time and trying to reduce that time.”

Roope says his asset management team has “spent a lot of time working with property managers and residents to figure out what works best” and replicating that in communities.

“It can be about the finishings, layout of bedrooms, or balconies,” says Roope. “(Our team) works to figure out what is the best life experience you can produce with a unit.”

Henkel says his company tends to replicate design elements that have proven to be highly functional.

“We standardize the small pieces in unit design that adhere to accessibility and durability standards,” says Henkel. “For instance, we are careful not to overpopulate our units with too much cabinetry. We have moved away from a traditional kitchen island and have let it be a resident decision. We leave residents with furnishing flexibility to create a livable space.”

“We focus on functionality,” Henkel adds. “We make sure the site can receive visitors and the residents can take out the trash without clumsy movements.”

Project Layout and Site Selection
Roope says his company is highly “purposeful” in its use of standardization, starting at the land use approval process.

“When we lay out the site for the first time and go in for land use approvals, we will start with a prototype,” says Roope. “It’s fundamental to how we operate.”

Henkel says Pennrose often employs a “standard footprint” for design but deviates according to specific sites.

“Our emphasis is more on the operational aspects to make sure we are careful operationally to ensure such things as having centralized trash collection,” says Henkel. “We are saving the backs of the maintenance people. We co-locate the maintenance shop nearby.”

Henkel adds that some developers maintain standardized designs that can only fit on certain sites. Pennrose maintains flexibility in its designs so projects can fit on diverse types of sites.

“I have many counterparts that have standardized designs that can only fit on a certain type of site,” he says. “We are able to do short-wing and long-wing (projects) to make things work. Not every site is feasible. There are dimensions that work better than others. We have not standardized to the point where we are eliminating sites right from the start.”

Henkel says that in the affordable housing industry, sites that often become available “are often not the choice sites that the remainder of the housing industry is considering.”

“We are often easement restrained and utility restrained. There are grade restrictions and pitch and slope issues,” says Henkel. “We have become experts in how we make the site no one else can manage, work.”

Henkel says that in the highly-dense northeast and mid-Atlantic states, it is particularly important to be more flexible with design so that projects can work on the properties that are available.

“Our ability to be so selective to only pick a site where our prototype would fit is very limited,” Henkel says. “We can be standardized within the units, but we can’t make the building dimensions the same every time and put them on the site we want.”

Roope says TPC approaches site selection and standardization in a similarly flexible way.

“Because real estate is not often configured in a way that matches every prototype, we find ourselves introducing different design elements,” says Roope. “We can substantially use prototyping and then be prepared to be as flexible as needed to accommodate different sites.”

Avoiding Cookie Cutter Communities
Architect Jarrett Cooper, vice president and St. Louis director with Rosemann & Associates, says cost containment and quality are among the positive elements of standardized design.

“The repetitiveness of standardized design allows for a quality product that is ‘tried and true’ to efficiently be repeated,” says Cooper.

However, standardized design in affordable communities “depending on how far you take it” can result in communities being “marked” as affordable and may not complement surrounding neighborhoods architecturally, he adds.

“Strict standardization has been used in the past, but it made communities ‘stigmatized’ and easy to label as low-income and seen in a negative light,” says Cooper.

Cooper says Rosemann has several projects where they implemented a “hybrid” standardized design that avoids repetition.

“We have several projects where we implement a ‘hybrid’ design that utilizes the same unit plans but with unique exteriors, different types of amenities and different numbers of units so the community looks unique, but was designed efficiently using the same unit plans and similar building layouts as used with the client’s previous projects,” he says.

Cooper says a state’s Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP) can help set “minimum standards that even the playing field in an overall community.”

“However, if the design standards in a QAP are too onerous the uniqueness in affordable housing can be lost,” he adds.

Cost Predictability
In addition to cutting costs through efficiencies of scale, standardized design allows developers greater predictability in estimating and maintaining costs, which in turn gives investors confidence.

“Funders are supportive because they want predictability,” says Roope. “Funders want to see their loan payments made…You manage and reduce their risk when you have a product type you are used to building.”

Roope says repetition in design also reduces construction time and costs.

“The more repetition is introduced into the equation the more effective a worker can be,” says Roope. “Think of a worker who has memorized how a bathroom is built. They can work without looking at the plans all the time. That lowers costs and means things can be built faster.”

Standardized design also can reduce construction waste. Henkel says Pennrose’s design standards seek to use dimensions that reduce product waste. For instance, a sheet of drywall is sold in four-foot by eight-foot sheets. If dimensions in a unit require a lot of cutting of those drywall sheets, it will create more waste. To avoid that, the units are designed, as much as possible, to use full four-foot by eight-foot drywall sheets.

“That goes into our design standard,” explains Henkel. “We use multiple architects and sub-consultants, and they all see our standards and preferences.”  

Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, ME. She writes primarily about housing, local government, technology and education.