Thinking Outside of the Box in Multifamily



Buzzwords come and go in multifamily like in any other industry. “Crushed it!” was introduced what seems like yesterday, but it’s already in the Urban Dictionary graveyard, to be replaced by something a little more up to date.

So pardon me when I show my age by “thinking outside the box.” That catchphrase went out when grunge arrived on the scene. But it’s still relevant (not like those loose-fitting flannel shirts) and something multifamily professionals are finding applicable in the race to stay competitive. Developers and property managers have embraced new amenity ideas and convenience offerings to lure residents in an industry where those who stand still gather moss.

Many look for such inspirations at the multifamily conferences and shows, which offer great insights and education. A wealth of untapped creativity is out there begging multifamily minds to open.

This year, I’ve vowed to explore new ways to tell the multifamily story. The route leads to a few events that offer builder, land use or sustainability perspectives. They are not on everybody’s roadmap.

Big data has inundated business and multifamily but it’s manageable

I recently attended my first International Builders’ Show and witnessed an overwhelming display of crisp thinking. Builders these days aren’t just trying to build a better mousetrap but a bigger, faster mouse (never mind that the show was just a few miles away from Mickey’s home in Orlando).

After checking in, my first stop was the Orange County Convention Center West Hall, part of 583,000 square feet of exhibit space commandeered by the National Association of Home Builders. The West and South halls held more than 1,500 manufacturers displaying their wares.

Thankfully, I brought comfortable shoes.

Immediately it appeared to be serious business on the show floor. A walk down the aisles yielded towering structures and lavish presentations that lured attendees. There was the occasional home improvement star posing for selfies with attendees, and one guy seemed to break a sweat trying to hit the bell with a sledge hammer. But a carnival it wasn’t.

Show invites the senses to indulge the mind

Breathtaking collections of lateral thinking awaited the 85,000-plus who attended over three days.

A pedestrian-like bathroom faucet was transformed into a work of art, heralding a water experience akin to a swim in the Caribbean. A can of paint inspired less time for dirty exterior building maintenance and more under an umbrella sipping a cool drink. A smart refrigerator doesn’t just keep food fresh but practically prepares it for you (and lets you know who’s at the front door).

And even though the target audience for the world’s second largest builders show was primarily single-family home builders, multifamily professionals could parlay a few hours on the trade show floor into a wealth of fresh opportunities.

Several apartment developers and builders huddled at Multifamily Central on the third floor to discuss workforce housing, indoor air quality, top products and ductless air flow. A 30-minute session on the 30 best products for multifamily, a favorite each year, was standing room only.

Fold-out balcony opens the mind

But the best action was in the exhibit arenas of the West and South halls, linked by a brisk walk across a pedestrian bridge that promised a new experience halfway below. A chrome-plated Tesla Triton poised at a charging station attracted numerous photos from the curious.

In the West Hall, a large skylight manufactured by Velux America folded out into a small balcony. The Cabrio balcony is a roof window that, when extended, turns an attic into a desirable place to be. Raise the glass up and out juts a wrought-iron balcony.

The product isn’t anything new from the 75-year-old Denmark company that specializes in roof windows and modular skylights. It is often used on pitched roofs to open up the attic, according to a company representative. The company’s website says the product will “turn your roof window into a balcony in seconds.”

But why limit installation to a roof?

This seems perfect for an urban multifamily environment where there’s little room to move around, much less have a balcony. A living room window could easily be transformed into a full-on breath of fresh air by opening and pushing out the balcony. What a way to view the city skyline in the evening, I thought.

I asked the Velux rep if the Cabrio could be used with multifamily installation, and I got a quiet nod.

“I suppose it could,” he said. “It’s mostly for opening up an attic and following the contour of the roof.”

Come to think of it, he said, one of the first installations more than 20 years ago was at an old cathedral that had a large, high-pitched roof. Behind the shingles were two stories, and the church bought a few Cabrios to open up the floors to the outside.

Offerings ask what value they bring to multifamily

I’m neither a builder nor an architect, so I’m not sure how practical a Cabrio is for multifamily applications, although it seems to hold promise.

But leaving the Velux booth, a world of possibilities opened. Everything soon came into focus.

Each appliance, shingle, fixture and piece of Hardie board appeared a little differently. How could these products not only improve the integrity of a building envelope but offer value for retention and new leases?

I was clearly outside of my box, and it felt good. Oh, and as a first-timer to the show, it’s safe to say I hardly crushed it. There is just so much more to see and experience. I’m hoping to do that next year.


Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

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