Sep 28, 2023

Color, Materials and Feeling at Home: Inside SFR and BTR Design


Experts weigh in on how best to outfit these in-demand properties

Single-family build-to-rent projects are seeing their stock rise, especially in some of the fastest-growing U.S. metros. The now-$4.4 trillion sector has enjoyed a surge in investment and development, marked by record deliveries and capital investment. Particularly appealing to residents are properties that provide the look and feel of a modern house with the finer finishes found in luxury apartment buildings.

Visual and aesthetic appeal, cost efficiency and branding are all key components of SFR and BTR design. What may be most appealing about these properties is that, down to small details, they can seem more like a long-term home than a short-term rental.

Preserve at Albertville, a luxury single-family rental community located outside of Minneapolis. Image courtesy of Watermark Equity Group

Single-family rentals’ positioning as private homes opens the door to numerous design opportunities. Decorating these properties like a permanent residence rather than a temporary apartment is key to forging an attractive look, Chelsea Dora-Shibley, president of the Interiors Group at HPAD, told Multi-Housing News. “We need to make sure that the interiors complement a private, residential home,” said Dora-Shibley, noting that this philosophy extends to every aspect of a residence and governs nearly every design selection that is to be made.

A kitchen at Canvas at Dernton, a single-family rental community in North Dallas. The community includes granite countertops, which complement the neutrally-colored walls and floors. Image by Jacob Sharp Photo

“Whether it’s a specific tile or a specific tapestry design, we are really trying to make sure that our shelf linings and cabinets lend themselves to feel [like a] single-family private residential home,” said Dora-Shibley, noting that the goal for these residences is to “set themselves apart from your average apartment and what you are used to in a rental facility.”

Attention to detail is something SFR developers are paying attention to, particularly in fast-growing and competitive Sun Belt markets. In many of these metros, personal touches are paired with the kinds of finishes popular at high-end apartments.

“Everything is elevated a little bit,” explained Mark Mitchell, director of design at BSB Design, which has participated in recent projects in Dallas and Savannah. For surfaces, man-made quartz and imported granite are popular, as are undermount sinks, tile backsplashes and high-end electric appliances. “You have granite in the bathrooms, you have wider and larger tub showers with glass enclosures.”

Miami-based architecture firm and interior designer LD&D uses that same approach when choosing materials, something that does not necessarily compromise cost-effectiveness. Due to their aesthetic appeal and versatility, vinyl tiles remain a design winner, according to Alejandro Bonet, a co-managing partner at the firm. “They are both beautiful and cost-effective.” Wood cladding, wood wall coverings and wood slabs in common areas paly a similar role.

Lighting and Wellness

A chief motivator impacting aesthetic choices has been their perceived impact physical and emotional wellness, something more new developments are paying attention to in the post-pandemic world. “We are seeing the same immaterialities that you would see in a high-end apartment complex,” said Mitchell.

A unit interior of Stillwell at Wellen Park, a single-family rental community in Sarasota, Fla., where HPAD provided interior design services. Image courtesy of HPAD

Both natural and artificial lighting play a critical role in SFR and BTR design. These properties offer many more opportunities for planned lighting than most apartments: “The decorative lighting that hits the right notes over the kitchen island and lighted fans in the bathrooms, the public spaces, or an entry foyer with a light fixture, and, when you get into the bathrooms, there is a vanity light with a mirror in that context,” Mitchell explained.

Lighting within baseboards, trims and crown moldings are also ways to incorporate lighting into design, something Mitchell says has been observed in newer designs. Bonet said his firm uses artificial lighting measuring out at 3,000 kelvin or less for such purposes, providing residents with a “warmer” touch.

Warmer Tones are in

As with interior lighting, designers have taken great care to select the right colors for particular rooms. These choices are informed by both a development’s location and the same kind of thought around wellness and aesthetic governing the use of light. “The homes themselves are at a transitional time with color,” Dora-Shibley observed. “Cool grey tones have been prevalent in the market for a number of years and now it is definitely trending towards warmer tones,” she added.

The clubhouse at Stillwell at Wellen Park. The space combines ample natural lighting with a warmer, more neutral color scheme. Image courtesy of HPAD

Dora-Shibley attributes this shift to residents’ desire to foster a sense of connection to a space, with more “neutral tones” such as blues and greens providing residents with a “blank canvas” to accommodate artwork, furniture and other personal belongings. “Having a neutral blue, green or something that would complement the majority of the population’s personal belongings also makes it more personalized to them, even within the space as an empty unit,” Dora-Shibley detailed.

Mitchell advocates a neutral approach, anticipating that beiges, cream colors and smoother greys are due for a resurgence. These colors create a “light, airy tone that allows the tenant to have more ownership in the space,” he said.

Location remains a driving factor for color choices. “A project in North Dallas is going to vary in its style approach to the project in Charlotte or Savannah,” Mitchell explained. Not only do the warmer, more neutral colors give renters a degree of autonomy over their spaces that is more difficult to come by in multifamily developments, but their minimalism also contributes to wellbeing, he said.

“I really believe that the neutral and soft colors give you a sense of wellbeing, and design is the ability to make you feel happier if you have the right environment,” said Dominique Bonet, partner and lead designer at LD&D. “If you know who exactly will be living there and the needs that they will have, you try to coordinate everything so that they can feel at home.”

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