A rendering of Pacific Pine in Long Beach, California, a hybrid Type I and III building made of five stories of wood frame over three stories of concrete. | Images courtesy MVE + Partners

The Ins and Outs of Designing High-Density Projects

Carrie Rossenfeld Multifamily

High-density projects are gaining ground in Southern California as a good solution to the high costs of land and urgent need for affordable housing options. MVE + Partners, an architecture firm with offices in Orange County and Los Angeles, develops high-density building systems that draw from successful and leading-edge high-density projects completed in other states and abroad, a representative from the firm tells SoCal Real Estate. We spoke with Matt McLarand, president of MVE + Partners about the types of buildings that work best with high-density design, some of the common design and construction challenges related to these projects, and how different demographic groups relate to high-density projects.

Matthew McLarand

SoCal Real Estate:What building types are most appropriate for high density development projects?
As a primary point, there are different levels of high-density (HD) housing. For example, we have a project in Huntington Beach where 30 units per acre is considered HD, but in Downtown L.A., it’s more than 300 units per acre. Typically, to achieve higher densities, building typology changes from wood-frame construction (Type III or V) to concrete and steel framed construction (Type I or II), especially as building height increases.

When determining the building type for a HD development, the developer and architect will consider such factors as the marketplace in the desired area, cost of land, possible rent payouts, and permitted and desired densities in the area. For example, you can build a HD building in an area like Riverside, California, but you couldn’t do a Type I building because you couldn’t get the rent rates to pay for it like you would in an area like Downtown LA. A Type I building is the top of the food chain. You only see that emerging where rents can satisfy it and where the required densities are allowed, which is usually in downtown districts.

Can you tell us more about hybrid Type I and III buildings? Why are they appropriate for HD buildings?
The hybrid building of construction Types I and III is a building with three levels of Type I construction from grade to a level-4 podium, with five levels of Type III construction rising above the podium. For developers looking to achieve a high-density project, this hybrid-type building can provide them with high density and still offer a high-quality and code-compliant living environment at a cheaper construction cost than a completely Type I building.

What are some of the common construction and design challenges related to HD projects?
There are quite a few challenges to building HD projects, many of which depend on the municipality. Challenges can include varying code interpretations, zoning rules, constructability, finding skilled labor, and of course, cost and efficiency, which all have to be balanced against the aesthetics required to achieve beautiful architecture. For example, the higher the building, the more life-safety codes become an issue. We have a challenge currently in which a varying fire-code interpretation might require us to buy the fire department a new type of truck and provide training for it. We see interesting code issues quite often, though buying a city a fire truck as a condition of approval is a first.

Cost is also a challenge. High-density, amenity-rich, code-compliant buildings tend to be in urban areas where land, materials, municipal affordable-housing requirements, and labor are expensive, which can be complicated when you have to factor in the rent required to fill the project. However, the challenges we face to achieve higher densities also push us to be even more innovative and think about more creative ways to construct projects.

How do millennials and urban dwellers feel about HD?
From what I see, millennials and urban dwellers embrace high-density buildings. HD buildings tend to offer greater connectivity to infrastructure such as public transportation, as well as retail and nightlife centers, which offers an attractive lifestyle to millennials. They are willing to trade off smaller living spaces for the ability to go out to dinner, socialize, and move around more easily via public transportation. A lot of young adults grew up with parents who had to sit on freeways in traffic during long commutes to and from work. They highly value their time and don’t want that kind of lifestyle for themselves. They’d much rather live and work in one place, which makes our HD environments a powerful and exciting option for them.

Where do you see the future of HD in the California housing market?
I believe it’s inevitable that high-density housing will continue to grow. HD areas offer an efficient use of space and greater mobility between work, shopping, and entertainment spaces. Less investment in infrastructure, such as roadways, in the 1990s ultimately created stronger urban areas. Los Angeles has finally caught up by expanding the Metro, allowing for these urban cores to develop. They put transit-oriented-communities incentive plans in place to allow developers to create better HD housing around urban centers, so people could get from point to point — like from Downtown L.A. to the beach — using public transportation. I see a huge push for this to continue, at least until the 2028 Olympics. You see it all over the Bay Area as well. San Jose continues to grow with a strong downtown framework, and that momentum will intensify.

In urban areas where we have a shortage of housing and a large desire to congregate and move swiftly and conveniently around without getting in and out of cars, the housing solution is not going to be in the single-family home. Cost escalations are pushing some people in the Bay Area into the pre-fab market. However, there are design and construction challenges to every type of project, and we welcome the opportunity to find creative ways to solve them to create these efficient and stimulating environments.

The Spring Street Towers, two 24-story mixed-use residential towers in Downtown L.A., are Type I buildings made of concrete and steel, materials that are commonly found in high-rise buildings.