The Creative Process for Real Estate Design

04 November 2021

At their hearts, architecture and interior design are creative functions which require teams of collaborative designers to bring a building together. To better understand the creative side of real estate development, we sat down with Senior Development Manager, Courtney Brower to explore the creative process and how it’s playing out on Focus’ newest project, 203 South Marion.

Where does the design process start on a project like 203 S. Marion?

Typically, once a site is under control, we will partner with an architect to begin the design process. The first step is to explore the constraints of the site which will ultimately dictate the type of building that can exist there. Typical analysis starts with an understanding of the site’s zoning which will dictate the height, density, and depth of the building. For example, at 203 S. Marion the extra length of the site allowed for a C-shaped design, resulting in space for an amenity terrace and extra light exposure.

A designer will then take into consideration the context of the existing environment like neighboring buildings, the orientation of the site and nearby green space. The materials used in the surrounding structures may be replicated in the new design or the building might be oriented to overlook a park. In Oak Park, the brick façade of the building reflects the detailing of the historic neighborhood, and the opening of the C-shaped design is oriented to achieve the best light exposures.

How does the architecture of a building inform the design of the interiors?

Our design mentality is that the interiors and exteriors of the building should be congruent, or that they should be in harmony with one another. For example, a building with predominantly rectangular features on the exteriors, hard corners or square windows, should have similarly shaped interior features like rectangular portals instead of archways. Additionally, decisions you make about the exterior design may have impacts on the interiors. For example, when hanging a glass curtainwall on a sleek modern building, your unit designs will be laid out such to maximize the exposure of the floor to ceiling windows. Lastly, the style of the materials used inside the building offers an opportunity to create new connections between the decisions made on the exterior. At 203 S. Marion for example, the interiors offer a more modern interpretation of the traditional neighborhood by maintaining the clean rectangular lines while relying on bold colors, unique wall finishes, modern artwork and fixtures to deliver a more contemporary dynamic.

How do the demographics of the surrounding community inform the design process?

It is key to consider who you are designing for when creating a space or place. While Oak Park is technically a suburb of Chicago, the community is much more urban than some of its other Chicagoland counterparts. Oak Park is a community with a lot of artists, designers and architects and it was that context which informed the transitional feel of the building at 203 S. Marion. Beyond the design mentality of the community, there are a variety of generations which call Oak Park home. Young Professionals who may rely on nearby mass transit for city commutes and “hip” baby boomers who are more connected to an urban lifestyle but with the benefits of suburban community. That variety directly informed the unit mix at 203 S. Marion where we offer smaller studio and one-bedroom units as well as larger three-bedroom apartments and ground-floor maisonnette units with private entries which might be a better fit for move-down renters.

The creative process requires participants to have the ability to imagine the end result. What are the most important tools at your disposal when trying to envision the outcomes?

In the beginning of the process, we put together a mood board, or a collage of images which establishes the aesthetic of the design. The images reflect aspects we’d like to see in the future building and will act as a reference point throughout the entire development process. From there we start to compile sample materials, develop 3D renderings of the various spaces inside the building an of the building itself and use technology like Revit models which digitally build spaces and allow teams to explore applications at scale.

Finally, teams may even build physical models of certain spaces or features before scaling the design. For example, at 203 S. Marion, we will be escalating the schedule on one of the lower-level units so that we can test materials and color schemes before applying them to the rest of the units in the building. This allows us the opportunity to anticipate issues and improve quality early in the process and limit costly reselections later in the project.

Design tends to be the biggest driver of cost; how do you balance creativity and economics during the design process?

There are several ways that we balance design and cost. One of the most important things you can do as part of the design process is to maximize the efficiency of the building’s size and shape. Taking the time to develop a building design which prioritizes efficient layouts and achieves desired unit counts will increase the long-term value of the building which ultimately supports all other design decisions. Once we’ve maximized the layout of the building, we rely on our experience, trusted partners, and vendors to inform decisions about materials and design elements. Typically, we focus our dollars on high-impact moments for the tenant, for example, upgraded hardware and finishes in the units versus expensive millwork.

Is there anything else that makes the process at 203 S. Marion unique?

Our project in Oak Park is a planned development which means it’s truly a community process. To receive approval from the city council, we presented our design to the plan commissioners whose feedback then informed the design of the building directly. That process directly impacted the design of the building in several ways, for example the community gave us the direction that they did not want a high-rise building. Even though the economics of a taller building made for better financials, Focus ultimately decided to build a 7-story, mid-rise building as a response to the desires of the community. Additionally, Focus has developed public arts program at 203 S. Marion based on the requirements of the planned development process. This component will incorporate art within the property as well as within the public right of way for the benefit of the community at large and will be developed in partnership with the Oak Park Arts Council.

To learn more about the 203 S. Marion project or to discuss a project of your own, please reach out today.

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