In the realm of multifamily residential buildings—where Denver design firm OZ Architecture shines—adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic and those that could follow in the coming years means addressing one big, tricky question: How do you create community in isolation? “People need to be with other people,” says Nate Jenkins, an associate principal for OZ. “So, what kinds of spaces can we create that allow for a safe level of interaction?” Here, the architect shares some of the answers he and his team have been exploring as they design multifamily buildings for a new era.

The recently sold Economist, a micro-unit apartment building in Denver, features extensive operable windows that connect an exterior “front porch” with the internal community space, which offers a variety of clustered seating types, from co-working tables to lounge areas. Image courtesy of OZ Architecture

Now: Rooftop lounges with spectacular views
Next: Main-floor amenities and attractions
Why: “For years, the trend was to get all the building amenities up onto the top floors, so you could impress everybody into signing a lease. But that forced everyone to take an elevator to access them. Though we’ll continue to have rooftop amenities in many projects, we are getting more clients to subscribe to ground-floor and second-floor mezzanine amenities, which offer activity and a range of immediate connections to the street, and often allow for more permeable physical space through the use of operable windows and doors.”

Now: Crowded elevators that take forever to arrive
Next: Smart elevators that get passengers to their destinations more quickly and efficiently—and that prevent large crowds from forming in lobbies—by making fewer stops
Why: “Intelligent elevators are most common in office buildings—try them out at 1144 15th Street or 1401 Lawrence—but they’re coming to the apartment realm. The service is on-demand and you can see how many people are on each car and plan your ride accordingly.”

The Flex Space at the Gravity live/work community in Columbus, Ohio, receives the open stair from the lobby and offers a variety of seating groups—unified by way of an animated ceiling—to maintain safe physical distancing. Image courtesy of OZ Architecture

Now: Open common spaces where large groups can mingle
Next: Shared indoor and outdoor gathering areas distilled into smaller “rooms”
Why: “We’re taking cues from restaurants and finding creative ways to partition open space into seating areas for four to 10 people. Outdoors, that could be screen walls, planter-box partitions, canvas separators, or more permanent landscape treatments.”

Now: Stale, recirculated air
Next: Reengineered ventilation systems that maximize fresh airflow
Why: “The operability of windows, skylights, and other elements that bring fresh air into all spaces, from private units to corridors to common areas, is critically important, and building systems are being upgraded to provide much higher concentrations of fresh air. It might seem simple, but allowing a building to breathe—by bringing in fresh air and allowing stale air to be exhausted—can benefit all occupants.”

The lobby at Gravity reimagines the staircase as a healthy means of access to a variety of building amenities. Image courtesy of OZ Architecture

Now: Claustrophobic, poorly lit stairwells
Next: Wider, daylit staircases with a residential feel
Why: “The stair is the next big amenity; the new circulator. Art, color, materials, and windows or skylights for natural light are all helping to activate this part of a building that was once only used if the elevators were down.”

Now: Open-concept coworking spaces
Next: Private conference rooms that residents can reserve or rent
Why: “Most multifamily buildings’ community rooms are devoid of people these days, so why not reappropriate them as private conference rooms? When you create safe, habitable, onsite working environments, you’ve just added to the attractiveness of the building. These sorts of spaces are also potential sources of rental income for the landlord: If they’re planned and fitted-out appropriately, residents may be just as likely to rent an office in their building as at a separate co-working facility.”

Neon Local features three courtyards, each with unique personality traits. The central courtyard, shown here, features a pool and spa, a variety of seating types and groups, large planters, and direct access to the operable wall that’s shared with the gym. Image courtesy of OZ Architecture

Now: A glittering pool
Next: Intimate lounge areas for small groups
Why: “I think the public pool is gone. It’s a real space hog, it’s seasonal and expensive to put in, and pandemic-spurred rules and restrictions eliminate all the fun, impromptu pool-time interactions. All that real estate is now going to partitioned hangout spaces that create more outdoor access for everyone.”

Neon Local’s double-height gym comprises several adjacent rooms for a variety of activities. All of these spaces are washed with light from a clerestory and an operable, south-facing wall. Image courtesy of OZ Architecture

Now: A large, indoor fitness center for residents to share
Next: Less-crowded fitness rooms with large fresh-air ports, such as roll-up garage doors and sliding glass doors, plus plenty of outdoor space to train
Why: “The elliptical machine a few inches away from the rowing machine—that’s out the window. But open-air workout spaces with different flooring surfaces (think: artificial turf areas that mimic grassy playing fields) are definitely happening.”

Now: Small and/or inoperable windows in residences
Next: Larger, sliding glass doors with Juliet balconies
Why: “I think that large, operable glass doors with Juliet balconies, which allow residents to open up their units to the outdoors, are as important as walk-out balconies. These days, we’re doing Juliet balconies on almost every unit.”

Now: Single-purpose furnishings
Next: Smart furniture designs that facilitate working from home
Why: “Incorporating multipurpose built-in furnishings is something most developers have contemplated and rejected because of the high replacement cost, but that’s changing, especially among smaller, more agile firms. For one Denver project, we’re building in Murphy bed–inspired rotating wall beds that convert to home-office setups—complete with a full-height bookshelf system.”