Why Don’t Developers Give Residents Amenities They Actually Want? A Conversation with No Walls Studio

Why Don’t Developers Give Residents Amenities They Actually Want? A Conversation with No Walls Studio

Immersive rooftop amenities help urban multifamily real estate developers create standout projects. And they’re critically important to provide experiences that will resonate with the future residents of each new community. 

We recently met up with Jake Rynar and Andrew Johnson of No Walls Studio who concept, design, and implement cutting-edge multifamily, hospitality, and placemaking brands. They strongly believe that real estate should be more than buildings, more than walls – real estate should be an experience that creates customer loyalty. We couldn’t agree more.

Our conversation centered around the reasons there is often a disconnect between what developers build and what residents want, how to identify that disconnect, and what to do to overcome it.

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Beware “The Room”

Loft Six Four: Tell us about the concept of “The Room” and why those of us in the real estate industry don’t recognize how much of a problem it can be. 

Jake: “The Room” is a made-up space where all sorts of placemakers ranging from developers, architects to other stakeholders in a built project gather to discuss and speculate on what occupants or tenants will want in their spaces and what will be most valuable to consumers. 

Often, the types of conversations we hear happening in “The Room” are, What are my competitors doing? or What have I seen? 

In essence, these questions are getting at mass appeal. What have I seen en masse in a big city across multifamily developments that we want to emulate exactly? 

And those conversations tend to lead to sameness. They lead to spaces that are effectively interchangeable and lack retention, encouraging people to turn over and go to the building across the street.

And no matter how innovative you think you are, we all operate in “The Room” to some degree.

Loft Six Four: That’s definitely something that resonates with us — trying to get to the bottom of what’s going to make this project stand out. What’s going to make it appeal to a certain type of person? 

Jake: The tricky thing about the industry we work in is that, for the most part, we have largely not consumed the product that we inspire, that we create. We’re typically not the same audience we’re delivering to. And so we are often assigning a lot of our lived experience and our perspectives to people who have fundamentally different lived experiences and perspectives that are coming from different parts of the world or different lived experiences.

They have different backgrounds, they’re in a different life stage. They may be single or they may be cohabitating. They may or may not have kids or pets. The list of permutations goes down the line. 

So we try to extract our decision-making from our bias and to be able to get real world and on-the-ground perspectives that make for more informed and more valuable choices.

Brand Expression & Signage, Ratio (Columbia Heights, MN)

Why Developments Often Miss the Mark with Consumers

Loft Six Four: Why is there often such a disconnect between what placemakers and developers are building and what residents actually want? And how is it different in real estate development versus another type of product? Because often, say you’re in tech, the same thing could be true in that the end user’s not going to be exactly the same as the people developing it. But you see maybe less friction in that industry than you do here. 

Andrew: You can iterate on tech, right? You can test and validate, you can keep improving and learning from users and development. With real estate, once you build it, you can’t really change it. 

Jake: Real estate has, for a very long time, been separated from the idea of agile development. Meaning that you can, with an idea, build a minimal viable product, collect feedback, create measurements around that minimal viable product, improve it and expand upon it and then commercialize it.

But, more often than not, we don’t have the capacity or the ingenuity to prototype real estate. That’s something we’re changing at No Walls Studio. Built products are often one of one. So, the context of the site is often thought of by capital partners, or whoever comes together to build a community, as a distinct product that will never have another form.

The opportunity to improve doesn’t always exist. And we don’t build in that space to make a development more modular, more multivalent, or to create rooms that have the capacity to expand or contract or offer different use cases. It’s not typically part of the ethos of placemaking.

But we are, through our service offering, trying to change that and actually emulate technology development or product development in a more true sense.

Interior Renderings, Ratio (Columbia Heights, MN)

How to Avoid Building Spaces No One Wants

Loft Six Four: Each project is so vastly different, even when we’re focusing on our niche of rooftop amenities, which is a very specific type of space. From project to project, the configuration, the context, even the way that the other consultants or the developer works is so different. Only some of the insights we gather along the way can be reapplied to another project. 

So how can those involved in producing multi-family real estate preemptively identify any disconnect that might exist between what they’re planning and designing versus what the consumer actually wants? What are some strategies you’re implementing to give a developer the best shot at success?

Andrew: What makes No Walls unique is that all of our brand decisions are rooted in research. We already understand what the consumer ultimately wants and needs based on their daily habits — how they shop, where they shop, how they live, where they go, when they go there, and why they do the things they do.

And we use all of that to help build and create a brand that not only translates to their lifestyle, but also informs how we design and program the spaces — whether that’s through signage, collateral, interior decisions, activation, and/or brand procurement. It also informs how leasing and property management present themselves on a daily basis and communicates during the lifecycle of a resident. 

Jake: We don’t just look at built brands. I would encourage developers to also think laterally. That means looking at what’s happening in culture. Culture is the water we swim in.

What’s happening in fashion? What’s happening in food? How emergent or how common are these changes or these trends? How do we as placemakers incorporate some of the persistent and most powerful elements of what’s happening to think about creating a new brand that’s different?

So, for us it’s having a broader lens on the inspiration that we pull into a project. That it’s not just consistently looking at other multifamily developments in different parts of the US. It’s having a point of view on a target audience. And that’s not something that is limited to their income or other demographic data that we often use to determine the viability of a project.

Leaning simply on data points like income can’t be where you stop. This point of view on your target audience is something that can extend to their perspectives, their hobbies, or other elements of their lifestyle. So you create a space that speaks most effectively to a certain group of people. The example I often give is even if you were building a product for a billionaire, you would have a wildly different experience if you’re building for Bill Gates than if you were building for Kanye West. 

And so it’s our job to help you build a deeper perspective around your audiences so that you make choices through a more refined lens. That way you have an identified audience that’s often more attitudinal and behavioral than just demographic, and you can better determine if you’re spending money the right way.

And in turn, you spend less money on things people don’t want. For instance, if you’re planning an urban development with a focus on design and experiencing the culture of the city (the food and beverage, art and music), that group may not be interested in a golf simulator. They may be much more interested in a space with a projector and a lecture hall where you could bring in movers and shakers who are actually shifting the dialogue in culture in that part of the world. Not to mention you save a lot of money on a golf simulator that will never get used, right? So it’s really creating a lens to make strategic choices and to have a brand that’s different.

And there are a lot of ways to get at that. But just setting out with the intent to do that, to have a direction and have a perspective, gives a lot of groups a leg up. 

Amenity Renderings, Ratio (Columbia Heights, MN)

Design Your Projects with Empathy

Loft Six Four: There’s an architect named Bjarke Ingels who talks about empathy as one of the greatest abilities of a designer. But, if you just try to design something for people in general (or a really broad range of people), you can’t really empathize as well as opposed to if you could narrow it down to a believable persona or someone you actually might know.

Would you say that even designing for a friend or someone you know personally would be better than designing for those standard demographic datasets? For those who maybe don’t have the opportunity to go out and gather specific data on consumer preferences or really immerse themselves in the neighborhood where they’re working?

Andrew: I was laughing while you said that because whenever I have a friend ask me to design something for them, I immediately think absolutely not for so many reasons.

Jake: I don’t think either is really good. I don’t think designing for your best friend is a true way to forge empathy with your customer. Unless of course your best friend represents a perspective that’s deeply connected to your unique strategy and your unique capabilities.

Ultimately it comes down to what’s your unique capability as a developer? And what’s your pitch to capital to do something different? That’s going to generate an oversized return. Your perspective sits on top of that unique capability and that unique strategy. And you better have an addressable market that’s meaningful, viable and energized.

It’s still important to find a way to gain perspective from that market, even if you’re doing desk research, even if you’re having the conversation around some of the lifestyle elements of the people you’re serving. 

Here’s another example. If it’s a transit oriented development near a major university system, and you’re trying to capture students who just graduated from college, the best thing you can do is think about those students and try to gain their perspectives and test your own.

But you shouldn’t necessarily just go to your friend who may be a mirror image of you and, you shouldn’t build a project without any perspective of who your audience is and what they care about. 

Loft Six Four: Because if you are designing based on things you’ve heard from other people in your social group or family, you’re still in “The Room,” correct? 

Jake: Exactly. We often find that family plays an oversized role in development choices just because a lot of developers have been doing this over many generations.

And so we’re just trying to present an avenue to get a little bit more context.

Renderings, Ratio (Columbia Heights, MN)

Balancing Innovation and Expectation

Loft Six Four: Is housing currently more of a tradition in America than it is a product? Do we make decisions based on how it’s been done traditionally? Or are we actually looking to meet the changing lifestyles of real people?

Andrew: I think that development as a whole is stuck in time. So what we are doing at No Walls is radically different (or at least different in how it has traditionally been done or approached). It is quite progressive in the way we think and approach projects, and it takes a specific type of developer and mindset to work with us.

We need our clients to understand how they’re currently doing it in order for them to understand what they should be doing differently. 

Jake: I’m optimistic because I see a lot of the groups we work with recognize that we are in a different world in terms of what we want from where we live.

Obviously the pandemic has created an environment where a lot of us work from home and that’s a good portion. That’s a primary place that we work. It is creating an environment that emphasizes micro mobility and walkability in 15-minute cities. It has created an environment that’s more biophilic and focused on outdoor space and roof decks. So very apropos to the work Loft Six Four is doing.

These groups will hire us to investigate their big bets and help them understand them more meaningfully. Because developers have historically just worked on housing products that were very similar but they’re now realizing that there’s a different set of consumer needs.

It’s translating that realization into meaningful design. Not every workspace should look the same, right? So there are a lot of different ways that we work during the day. And so we worked with a lot of groups to help them understand those ways of working. 

Not every context is walkable to the traditional sense. So how do we introduce walkability or the idea of walkability that connects to consumers in that market in a unique way? Again, development has historically been very traditional. It continues to be traditional. There’s a lot of inertia around doing similar stuff, but I think we’re at an inflection point because of the pandemic. It’s opened the door for smarter and more interesting choices.

Renderings, Ratio (Columbia Heights, MN)

“To Be Different, You Gotta Do Different”

Loft Six Four: Loft Six Four’s confidence in that is building, too. The projects that do take what might be perceived as a risk end up with outsized success. The most elaborate rooftop designs, the most stunning spaces we’ve been able to create. The difference between not really investing in a space and doing it a hundred percent is the difference between nobody caring about it or using it and it becoming hugely popular.

We’re so confident now because we’ve seen those projects have an incredible amount of success, it almost doesn’t feel like a risk. It feels that if you do something to stand out and be different, or you do have a strong brand or a unique perspective, people are going to gravitate to that because it’s not there. It’s almost non-existent in some communities. 

Andrew: To be different, you gotta do different. 

Loft Six Four: It’s almost a guaranteed success. Let’s say you’re a developer and you want to stand out. You want to be different and you’re going down this path of identifying a unique target and trying to differentiate around a distinct brand. Are there any challenges on the horizon or words of caution that you might offer?

Jake: It’s a nuanced idea in the sense that we say people don’t want to live in a logo. A lot of your identity is wrapped up in where you live. So developers need to build a brand and have a differentiated perspective. Put some meaning behind the space that you’re building and designing.

Being focused on a target audience, having values and a promise that’s unique. Those are things that need to happen no matter what – those are foundational.

The way you express your creative identity and the extent to which you introduce that meaning to all of the gestations of the space – that needs to be moderated through a group that has some experience doing it right. That ensures every resident can create their own home in your apartment building, office building, or hotel. 

There are also degrees of brandedness that make sense for an environment. And that changes on a project by project basis. Those changes are based on the nature of the people who you’re targeting. No matter what, those things that I just talked about, those sort of foundational things that sit below the surface that make up the bulk of a brand, those need to be there. The extent to which you go wild with brand identity and some other elements of brand that can be toggled up or down.

Loft Six Four: It should say something about a person if you meet them and they say, I live in this distinct and unique building. It should immediately trigger, oh, I know what type of person you are. Versus, I live in one of the ubiquitous “Lofts at such and such a street” that all look and feel exactly the same. That tells me nothing, right? You can’t connect with someone just based on knowing that. 

Andrew: One other thing we often see is that it doesn’t always get translated down or up, whatever it may be. So once the building gets launched, it takes a team, right? It takes the property management staff. It takes the ownership group. It takes many individuals to make a brand come to life and be a part of everyone’s day to day.

We can deliver an exceptional brand. We can do all the right things, physical touch points, digital touch points. We can do all the research in the world, but if the core team that’s executing it on site is not acting or instilling what we’ve put forward, then that’s where it falls short. You have to have a property management staff and an ownership team that wholeheartedly believes that brand is just another step towards success. And that interiors alone won’t sell itself. 

So, it’s all of those little touch points, all those little details — the way you speak, the way you dress, the way the building smells, all of those things are brand and you have to be very meticulous.

Signage, Ratio (Columbia Heights, MN)

Where Do Developers Start?

Getting out of “The Room” can be difficult, and so can determining what it is your potential residents actually want from your development. Build a foundation for a strong brand by 1) focusing on a target audience, 2) having clear and distinct values, and 3) formulating a unique value proposition. 

Loft Six Four creates standout rooftop amenities based on the foundation of strong brands. The further from “The Room” we all get, and the closer to the unique perspectives of your building’s future residents, the greatest chance you’ll have for complete success.

No Walls Studio concepts, designs and implements cutting edge multi-family, hospitality and placemaking brands. Their work spans research, strategy, positioning, brand design, spatial experience design, and on-going brand activation.

Contact them at hey@nowalls.studio.