During the 1970s, baseball fanatic Bill James began writing in-depth statistical breakdowns to determine why teams win and lose. Today he’s considered a pioneer in the field of baseball analytics, and his methods have been embraced and adapted to build championship teams and justify multi-million-dollar contracts.
Calling himself the Bill James of floorplans, Bobby Fijan — who studied applied math before entering the real estate industry — is aiming to bring that same statistical innovation to multi-family developments.
Frustrated by a lack of floorplan data, Fijan, a partner at Form Developers, has devoted himself to crunching the numbers to figure out what works and what doesn’t, helping rental projects make better use of limited space and increase efficiency.
Livabl recently picked Fijan’s brain, discussing what drew him to floorplans, common mistakes builders make, and space-saving trends including Murphy beds and pint-sized appliances.
What spurred your interest in floorplans?
The thing that really pushed me to think about floorplans is there are parts of real estate that are really driven by data and numbers, but there is no information about flooprlans. For instance, if the data tells you a market needs 600-square-foot one-bedrooms there isn’t any information on how that one-bedroom layout should be done, so most of those decisions end up getting made based on the personal preferences of people in the room as the units are being designed.
To me that didn’t make sense, because you’re making very important decisions about the makeup of a unit based on whether or not I like an island in the kitchen, not whether the actual renters prefer it. Since that data isn’t catalogued it’s basically impossible to decide, so the only way to know whether an island is actually better for renters or not is to look at all apartments and figure out which ones have islands, which ones don’t, and see if it increases rent or not.
That is one problem I found, the lack of data, and I also found bedrooms in new constructions are basically the same, and that doesn’t make sense to me when you look across different markets. So that’s how I got into floorplans, and that’s why I started thinking about how to catalogue floorplans into different attributes and dimensions.
How do floorplans differ between for-sale units and rental units?
In many markets for-sale developers have been required to pre-sell a certain number of units, so that forces them to go out and get feedback right away. Often units are built so that people can come in and customize them themselves, with different aesthetics and design elements, so developers are required to get customer feedback to have a very specific target profile.
In rentals people sometimes build demographic profiles, but they’re generally done with a design philosophy based around offending as few people as possible. That’s one of the reasons why walls are white, there are three different cabinet colours and two different countertop colours, to prevent people from hating it, and in my opinion that’s a terrible design choice.
I think it’s better to design products with people in mind to try and delight them, rather than try to make the fewest people possible hate your product. That doesn’t mean it isn’t risky to do pink walls and green subway tile, but I think it’s better if you start from a philosophy of making something beautiful that people will love.
If you look at a new construction two-bedrooms in particular, each bedroom is designed to be as equal in size as possible, because developers know a large portion of their tenants are going to be roommates. However, units designed like that aren’t the best for downsizers or families. So that’s a big difference in the philosophy between for-sale and for-rent, just being closer to the user.
From a value perspective, what are some design elements that impact rental rates?
One of the most powerful correlations to higher rent per square foot is higher surface area to volume ratio, which is a fancy way of saying more large windows.
Another important dimensional ratio is the bedroom square footage to the overall unit square footage. Bedrooms have this interesting effect where it’s almost always positive to make them smaller. Rent per square foot is going to go down as the bedroom size increases because it makes the rest of the unit unfurnishable or less efficient. However, if the bedroom is large enough that it can have a second use as a home office it will bring a little of that value back.
The rent per square foot for a one-bedroom plus den has been climbing because people have wanted a separate space in order to work from home. Apartments that have actual home offices are doing better relative to their counterparts, having that defined office space rather than using bedrooms or trying to utilize other space.
The data also shows that flexibility of use is positively correlated with rent. Where that can make a big difference is in more efficient urban kitchens, giving people the choice to have a fixed island or movable island. If you’re going to include an island it should always be movable, so that it doesn’t constrict the flow of the apartment.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen since you started examining floorplans?
What you’ll see in new two-bedrooms are living rooms that are narrower than bedrooms, which makes them very difficult to furnish. If you have the perfect furniture for the space that’s fine, but since apartments aren’t being built to be furnished people have to replace their furniture to fit the space.
That’s why flexibility is the most important, particularly in living rooms, where width is a big factor. It’s important to avoid having an apartment that’s locked into a certain kind of use without being furnished. You could mitigate some of these issues by having furnished apartments. Europe is far different than North America because they’ve adopted the practice of furnished apartments.
Leasing agents spend a significant amount of time being asked by tenants if their couch will fit in the living room or bed will fit in the bedroom, making sure everything is oriented the way they want it. In the future I would hope that a larger percentage of apartments are delivered furnished.
For movers, the most stressful part of moving often isn’t finding a place, it’s moving everything in and out. It blows my mind that people make decisions on an apartment based on their second-hand furniture.
What are some of the mistakes builders commonly make when designing floorplans?
I think the biggest philosophical one is not showing their floorplans to enough people. Real estate has a lot of different issues with equity and diversity, and that problem gets magnified when the people making the decision are older and much less diverse. Most of the people building an apartment project haven’t lived in an urban one-bedroom in a very long time, if they ever did, so they should show it to more people to see if they like the layouts.
For instance, I was speaking to an architect recently and she said that nobody builds a shelf in the shower for shaving, which makes things more precarious. So builders should dramatically increase the number of people weighing in on different units.
The other problem is that closets are too large. Real estate developers invest a large amount of money before the plans are even developed and walk-in closets have a positive correlation with higher rent, which makes it a priority item for some developers initially, but once it reaches the design stage and costs need to be reduced it becomes a slightly deeper closet. When there isn’t any data to direct the project it often comes down to what’s the most efficient to build, and that has a ripple effect on the rest of the units.
Also, there are very few circumstances where I would recommend a sink in an urban island. It’s much more expensive, and it’s always going to make for a less efficient layout. In my opinion it’s done because it looks good on Instagram, but it’s not a good decision if you’re looking to maximize rent.
Developers have begun tinkering with kitchens, offering less cabinet space and even omitting ovens entirely in some cases, and there’s been a shift toward Murphy beds. What do you think of these recent changes and what have you seen as far as space-saving trends?
I think having Murphy beds, or there’s a company called Bumblebee Spaces that offers beds that come down from the ceiling, are terrific ideas. Airbnb has proven that hotel rooms and apartments are going to keep bleeding into each other. To me this is a natural extension of that. Murphy beds make units a lot more efficient and smaller, which can increase affordability in major urban centres since most of the costs are tied to square footage.
In the kitchen, there are some interesting oven-microwave combinations or smaller convection ovens that help reduce space. The data shows that people, particularly in urban areas, should go with non-standard sized appliances. One of the things that really hurts kitchens is a 36-inch-wide refrigerator and a 30-inch-wide stove that takes up a lot of space.
Typically, people who live in a 350-square-foot studio aren’t cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving, so it’s better to opt for 24-inch-wide appliances. One of the reasons people don’t is because those smaller appliances are more expensive, and so in order to save money people will make their living rooms 12 inches smaller because they’re trying to save $500 on an appliance without recognizing the negative consequences of their reduced living space.