Is Build to Rent the answer to urban solitude this year? By Elgan Jones

The pandemic has had an incredible impact on the built environment, accelerating the creation of places that provoke interaction and resident wellbeing.

This is most pertinent in dense urban environments; where there was once a juxtaposition between the hustle and bustle of UK cities and a solitary existence for residents, there is now a trend for real urban communities. In this article, our colleague Elgan Jones reflects on the role of BTR in addressing the issue of loneliness, and the new developments and demographics that will shape the sector in 2023 and beyond.

In a world before Covid, we demanded less of our homes. Back in 2019 while working from home was an emerging trend, it wasn’t as commonplace, nor did buyers and renters prioritise social or green space, along with important access to nature as much as they do today.

Fast forward to 2023, and all that’s changed. Busy town and city centres have often been lonely places to live, with the solitude of an urban flat providing a stark contrast to the bustling world outside.

As we move into a new year and continue to create new homes which meet so many modern needs, I believe that Build To Rent (BTR) is a way forward for those looking to address the issue of urban loneliness.

What is BTR?

BTR is more common overseas, and long been a trend in cities in the US, where purpose-built homes are created and managed by a single long-term owner or manager.

The result is a hospitality style experience, and a building filled with communal leisure areas, gyms, restaurants and other facilities that bring residents the valuable opportunity to meet and socialise together.

BTR buildings are becoming more popular in the UK – with examples such as our own work at Kampus in Manchester – but there is so much potential for this sector in unlocking the loneliness that has sometimes been experienced by urban dwellers.

The short-term future for BTR

It’s encouraging to see architects and developers pushing boundaries and bringing refreshing new ideas into their BTR spaces. The influences of lockdown are there to see, and beautiful buildings help to foster a sense of community, be that through shared entrances, outdoor spaces, roof terraces, shared workspaces, bar areas and more.

But I think the future lies beyond the aesthetics.

BTR offers lots to residents – namely a hospitality-style service and experience in a residential context. The benefits to those living in a BTR building are great – from speedy repairs – all handled by one building owner – to a single utilities payment each month; it’s this level of service that sets the sector apart.

Developers and managers should recruit, invest and coach colleagues who help bring that community together, connecting people living in the building and ensuring that the physical spaces are maximised for use in the intended way. That often comes through recruiting from the hospitality sector, something that’s becoming increasingly common as developers recognise the adaptability of those essential skills.

There are other encouraging trends that allow residents to proactively manage their own wellbeing. Pets are now a common fixture in BTR buildings; allowing animals in such residential blocks has proven another swift and effective way of helping individuals to reduce the impact of urban loneliness.

The future of BTR

BTR is an area that HBD will continue to deliver moving forward; in summer 2022, we submitted plans for 310 homes at Mabgate in the centre of Leeds, in a building that would offer communal and creative spaces. In Birmingham last year, we held a public consultation on proposals for 420 BTR homes at Neighbourhood. Our plans also include private gardens, roof terraces, social spaces, a gym, lounge, workspaces and a concierge.

Couple our own BTR ambitions with the shift in market trends as a whole, and it’s evident that we need to keep creating new spaces that offer homes for rent. Figures released last month suggest that the sector is now worth £65bn – up 60% from 2019.

There’s diversification on the horizon too, and we need to look further at other types of residents who want great spaces to live, in busy yet accessible urban environments, while still socialising and living fulfilled, happy lives. Key to this is one of the sector’s growth predictions where there’s a forecasted a spike in demand from those over the age of 55 – an age range which has had plenty of its own experiences of loneliness.

If the projections are to be believed then the needs of younger urban dwellers, and the preservation of the social contact of older residents means that BTR developers must continue to nurture real, mixed communities.

So now as we look to a new year, HBD is maintaining its commitment to this area of our work, creating diverse places in which people can live, work, play – and actively choose to minimise the potential for loneliness.