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The Real Deal Los Angeles

Critics accuse multifamily developers of building “terrible” cookie-cutter housing stock across the US

Why do newly-built apartment buildings often look the same?
December 08, 2018 12:09PM

(Credit: iStock)

The proliferation of multifamily housing across major U.S. cities in the last few years has been great for battling the housing crisis in many cities, but there’s no question that the ubiquitous, and rather bland, appearance of many new buildings leaves much to be desired.

Across the country, much of the new multifamily housing stock bears familiar features — boxy structures with flat fenestration and uniform facades — and critics are up in arms, calling the buildings “terrible” and even accusing developers and architects of abdicating their responsibility to create “good design” for the public, according to Curbed.

Developers, however, say that the reason so many multifamily housing projects look the same can be attributed to a set of common factors at play in most American cities: construction cost, restrictive codes and zoning, and a lack of available land.

“Critics don’t understand what we’re working with, the parameters and the financial constraints,” said Scott Black, senior vice president at Nashville-based Bristol Development. “It’s like any other business: If you’re selling autos or selling widgets, there are certain costs, and a certain profit you need to make to do business in the future.”

The box-like edifices, for example, are an effort by developers to maximize rentable floor space. A more varied design will cost more to commission and build, so developers stick to formulaic designs that can be quickly adapted to a site. Meanwhile, wood-frame construction — typically five stories of apartments above ground-floor retail — is the cheapest option in areas with low height limits, and developers can further cut costs by installing cheap cladding such as Hardie panels, which are made from fiber cement.

Many cities also restrict where multifamily housing can be built, which means such buildings tend to pop up in clusters, amplifying the impact of their design, University of Washington’s Richard Mohler pointed out. [Curbed] – Dennis Lynch