Designing rental homes of the future by architecture’s king of BTR

‘Design is imperative to longevity’: designing the rental homes of the future by architecture’s king of Build to Rent, Russell Pedley.

Legal & General's Blackhorse Mills development designed by Assael Architecture | BTR News.jpg
Legal & General's Blackhorse Mills development designed by Assael Architecture.

The latest figures from the British Property Federation and Savills paint a promising picture for the UK’s Build to Rent sector. According to the quarterly statistics, the number of these homes grew by 13% in the last year to a record 212,777, driven for the first time primarily by growth in the regions.

By Russell Pedley, Director and Co-founder, Assael Architecture

Although still a shadow of its multifamily counterpart in the United States, Build to Rent is increasingly establishing itself as a community-focused alternative to the traditional Private Rented Sector (PRS). The asset class is experiencing an ‘arms race’ in quality, design approach and the provision of amenities, majoring on resident health and wellbeing.

To ensure the sector’s continued growth, architects must set the pace by delivering high quality offerings that differentiate Build to Rent homes from others on the market. Indeed, since first being appointed by US developer Gruppo CE back in November 2008 to review what a purpose-built rental scheme might look like for London, Assael Architecture has been front-and-centre in pioneering first-class design for Build to Rent schemes.

Though Build to Rent might have been an entirely new concept to the UK residential market only 15 years ago, three decades of development in the multifamily sector presented a prime learning opportunity for this nascent asset class. Looking to the North American model for inspiration, we started out by establishing the design principles best suited to purpose-built rental housing.

At the time, the UK’s rental market lacked clear guidance around best design practice, with standards largely catered to home ownership. But by visiting a total 21 developments across Boston and Chicago, and analysing their use of layouts, facilities and resident-focused services, we learnt a great deal about the keys to the success of the asset class across the pond – from optimised floor space, to onsite amenity spaces and front-of-house concierge services.

Communal area at Legal & General's Blackhorse Mills development - Assael Architecture | BTR News
Communal area at Legal & General’s Blackhorse Mills development.

Our findings went on to inform the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) Build to Rent: Best Practice Guide published in 2014 – setting out the design principles that would guide the sector’s development – as well as some of the UK’s first ever dedicated Build to Rent projects.

In partnership with developer Grainger Plc, our Young Street and Hortensia Road schemes in Kensington and Chelsea, first drawn up in 2012, included many of the design features that have gone on to define the sector in the years since. An extensive public realm sought to complement the surrounding area, while onsite communal spaces like a gym, private cinema, and business suite all of which are professionally managed set the schemes apart from others on the market.

Back then, investors were reluctant to take a chance on this emerging asset class. But in the years since I co-authored the Best Practice Guide, Build to Rent has become increasingly desirable, especially given the safe haven it has provided to institutional capital during Covid-19. Last year witnessed record investment in Build to Rent of £4.1bn, up on 2020’s previous record, with no sign of slowing anytime soon.

One of the major attractions of purpose-built rental is its ability to provide investors with long-term income streams, rather than a one-off sale whose value depends on market fluctuations. But to ensure the length of occupancy this requires; architects have to design homes that residents will want to live in for the long term.  

Crucially, as larger developments than traditional rental housing, Build to Rent schemes must consider how residents experience not just the homes themselves, but the whole range of interiors, amenities, public realm and wider location.

Our designs for Legal & General’s new flagship Blackhorse Mills development, for example, promote resident wellbeing through both their interiors and an enhanced public realm.

Providing scenic views over Walthamstow’s reservoirs, the project has been designed with its local environment in mind. An adjacent ecological corridor serves the double purpose of connecting the development to others in the area while protecting local wildlife – necessary given the site’s status as a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI). Through innovative designs like these, Build to Rent architecture is challenging outdated public perceptions of rental housing.

Amenity at Legal & General's Blackhorse Mills scheme - Assael Architecture | BTR News
Amenity at Legal & General’s Blackhorse Mills scheme.

The Best Practice Guide also emphasised the need for Build to Rent to create more than just individual homes but sculpt entire communities. Civic spaces are particularly important in fostering the neighborliness that residents desire. At Blackhorse Mills, a new community hub will see the development become a focal point for the local area, with a publicly-accessible forum that can host exhibitions, shows and events.

Looking to the future, the continued popularity of home working will likely mean that shared working spaces, similar to those pioneered by the co-working sector, will increasingly factor into development design. Providing dedicated areas to work, away from the distractions of home but without the burden of commuting, will be a priority for the post-Covid workforce.

And although Build to Rent is often thought of as the preserve of younger generations, demand is increasing across the board. With over 5.4m British people now over the age of 75, part of the growth in this sector is likely to be driven by later-living communities, with their own unique set of design demands.

Beautiful design will also need to be matched by appropriate public policy. The need to think about a place as a whole over individual buildings – including public space and biodiversity –  has been recognised by the National Design Guide which, perhaps unsurprisingly, namechecked Build to Rent.

But these developments remain something of a mystery to many local authorities. Planning controls, regulations and mandatory conditions precedents cater to open-market sales, suggesting the need for reform if the asset class is to reach the same heights that it has in markets abroad.