With every new project, affordable housing developers walk a tightrope between achieving a great design and staying within a tight budget.

A strong design is vital for residents and the surrounding community. Developers also often need to have attractive buildings to win the support of neighbors and local officials. At the same time, they are working in a cost-constrained environment.

To help balance the two sides, experienced architects offer their best guidelines for designing a development while staying within budget.

1. Define Your Design Vision and Goals Early

We have found that cost overruns and scope creep tend to happen when the goals and objectives for the design and budget have not been clearly laid out at the project outset or when the goals may not align between multiple team members,” says Michael A. Wiencek, principal and president of Wiencek + Associates Architects + Planners. “Understanding the direction in which the project is proceeding is so critical to achieving a successful design that looks good and meets your budget objectives.”

Utilizing design charettes early on is a great tool to define project goals early. Additionally, if you are intending (or required to in most states) participate in a sustainability certification program, you are typically required to have some sort of sustainable charette/planning meeting during the concept design or schematic design phase to determine what level of sustainability you are trying to achieve and what impact this decision has on the selection of your mechanical systems, stormwater management plan, structural system and roof loads, and numerous other systems. Analyzing these options early and then revisiting them at strategic intervals throughout the project life cycle will help to better manage costs down the road, Wiencek says.

Finally, assembling your team as comprehensively as you can at the very beginning will help to clearly define the design vision and, as a result, help to bring any and all expertise to the table around the vision and the project outset. Cost overruns are all too common when major team players, such as interior design, management personnel or landscape design, for example, are not brought into the project until late in the design process. Let the design inform what expertise you need around the table and assemble the experts early, advises Wiencek.

2. Select the Right Mechanical and Sustainable Life-Cycle Cost Analysis

Performing first-cost and life-cycle cost analysis has become a more common practice and a great way to understand how the design decisions you make at the beginning of the project will impact both your construction cost and your operating and long-term replacement costs down the road. Selecting the appropriate consultant to perform the appropriate analysis is key to getting this data, according to Wiencek.

3. Understand Comparative Construction Cost

“Every project is different, not just because of how it’s designed and constructed, but also because location makes a difference,” Wiencek says. “The regional differences between construction costs is profound, so understanding the market in which you are working is key to meeting your project’s budget goals.”

Project costs can vary widely due to a variety of factors that neither the design team nor the owner can control, so it is critical to know these factors early and design accordingly. Funding program limits (which often impose maximums on the design fee, construction costs, and developer fee), jurisdictional wage scales, and existing site conditions are just a few factors that can force you to make some tough decisions early on about the final design of your project and, if disregarded until later in the project life cycle, can blow your budget, according to Wiencek.

Building size and the usable space it contains is also key to understanding construction costs. This is not only from the standpoint of leasable or saleable square feet, but also from the basis of what structural system you employ in the building design. The structural system will have tremendous implications on what glazing systems, mechanical systems, and sustainability features (e.g., green roofs, which require a certain load bearing to be supported) can be implemented on your project.

4. Understand Square Footage vs. Amenities and Which Makes a Bigger Impact

“A common challenge for W+A on every project is deciding where to make the most impact on a project when you have a very tight budget,” Wiencek says. “One concept we have employed is ‘perceived value’, which simply means that we look for the areas that will be the money makers for the owner and the points of attraction for a future resident/occupant. Spaces such as a lobbies, corridors, and common spaces in apartment buildings, for example, are spaces that are often seen first, so these should employ a ‘wow factor’ that becomes the selling point for the property.”

Employing more resources in these areas and having simpler, but still open and well-designed unit interiors, for example, is a strategy for achieving high-level design while also managing costs. To do this, however, there must be agreement on the building design and target budget early among the owner and design team. Additionally, scope and budget review needs to occur regularly to ensure this objective is being met. Building in appropriate cost contingencies to the budget also helps to make resources available for these special spaces to have nicer design features that can make a bigger impact on the overall project, according to Wiencek.

5. Create Neighborhoods


“We like to place emphasis on site improvements to create ‘neighborhoods’ more so than ‘multifamily developments,’” says David Layman, president and CEO of Hooker DeJong, an architectural, engineering, and design firm. “Our team has utilized a whole host of design strategies to do so, including front porches, urban gardens, parks, fitness trails, splash pads, barbecue pits, athletic fields, and playgrounds. But there are other simple considerations that are often overlooked. For instance, we like to avoid site layouts with large expansive parking lots. Instead, our team weaves perpendicular parking into linear streetscapes between and among apartment buildings, which turns otherwise large hardscapes into pedestrian- and children-friendly neighborhood settings. We enhance these streetscapes further with human-scaled site lighting, sidewalks, greenery, traffic calming measures, among a myriad other options.”

6. Incorporate Repetitive Layouts and Standardized Systems


“Well-conceived unit types are best stacked vertically so that structural, mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems are efficiently integrated,” says Layman. “This notion is essentially multifamily 101, but worth reinforcing. Unique developmental characteristics can be applied to the exterior skin, where there are enumerable opportunities for further market distinction.”

7. Respect Stacked Flats


The Hooker DeJong team says the most popular design among its developer clients is stacked flats. These buildings are two-story, with one-, two-, three-, and four-bedroom units set side by side and the same floorplate stacked vertically. Each unit has a private entry, with the upper unit having its own internal stairway. The concept eliminates all common corridors, which reduces initial developmental costs as well as long-term operational expenses. Stacked flat building configurations are easily adapted for varying site shapes and sizes as well as different settings like greenfields, urban infill, and others, according to the firm’s architects.

8. Communal Terrace vs. Private Balconies


There’s an emerging preference to create one communal garden terrace or roof deck versus private balconies at each unit, notes the Hooker DeJong team. The developmental cost is often less for the former, and policy enforcement for and long-term maintenance of private balconies can be burdensome. At the same price point, a larger shared garden terrace or roof deck can be loaded with bells and whistles to become a popular social venue among tenants, especially for millennials who tend to favor amenity-rich rental communities.

9. Goodbye, Dining Room


The dining room seems to be dying a slow death, in favor of a more open great room, with an eating bar, island, or peninsula between the kitchen and living room, notes Layman and his team. “Perhaps dinner is becoming more about a comfy spot on the sofa with fast food and Snapchat?” he says.°