As part of GUDC’s living laboratory approach, I interviewed Granite Development Company president Mark Congel about residential Universal Design’s return on investment. Congel has developed many properties in the Syracuse, New York including the universally designed apartment complex, Destiny Arms. We discussed financial and non-financial ROI as well as the impact Universal Design has had on Destiny Arms. This conversation pinpoints some of the unique benefits UD offers developers and builders. - Michael Rotella, GUDC Director.
Michael Rotella, GUDC Director: What was the impetus for your involvement with Universal Design on Destiny Arms as well as your other current development projects?
Mark Congel: I was originally both introduced to the idea and inspired by my father, Robert Congel. He became involved in the concept of Universal Design in its very early years, subsequently he became a significant supporter and proponent of UD. When I was began redeveloping Destiny Arms and we got into design details (layouts, floor plans, common area circulation, etc.) I simply thought why not? Why wouldn’t I, if I was able, insert a layout guided by Universal Design. It provides an ideal living experience for every tenant.
Rotella: Do you think Universal Design executed well can translate into measurable ROI? Has it at Destiny Arms?
Congel: As Universal Design or its concepts can cost us a premium somewhere between $75,000 and $150,000, the short-term ROI will be put behind schedule but these are long term assets for me. In the long-term UD will positively impact the ROI. It is hard to specifically gauge now as we have just stabilized. We can say with certainty, that we have a number of less than able bodied tenants who chose Destiny Arms because of the Universal Design. They specifically chose it because of the wider hallways, the wider doors, the offer on our part to install automatic blinds, automatic door openers, “smart” thermostats, “smart” key fobs, etc. Tenants with these needs and the desire to be in an all inclusively designed building will continue to choose Destiny Arms over the years, positively affecting our occupancy and gladly paying rent for the unique offerings here. In the long term this will give us a competitive advantage positively impacting ROI.
Rotella: What non-financial or less tangible ROI have you seen from Universal Design within the Destiny Arms project?
Congel: These answer is similar to the one in the previous question. We have had a positive energy from tenants because of the uniqueness of our offerings. We internally trained our management team to thoroughly understand the specifics of UD in our building and how we anticipate they will impact the tenant. This has lent itself to a collaboration and optimism not just within our company but between landlord and tenant. The tenants understand that we have put more time and attention into an all-inclusive, amenity-based property and they exhibit total appreciation for this. This has allowed the positivity with our tenants to go beyond a typical satisfactory tenant-landlord relationship. Additionally, even tenants who are not specifically looking for UD in a building have expressed their surprise and preference for the better design that comes with UD based building.
Rotella: Was it a challenge to pursue Universal Design? Why or why not?
Congel:The determination of how to alter and extend a traditional design into a UD offering had its challenges. With the assistance of a GUDC consultant the transition was very smooth. The only challenge that remained was coordinating all with our construction team/general contractor which went very smoothly.
Rotella: Do you have a personal story that got you interested in utilizing Universal Design as an access strategy in your projects?
Congel:I’d refer again to my father, Robert Congel. When UD was just a fledgling concept I can remember the seemingly disproportionate enthusiasm my father threw into the idea and group. He offered them resources because he believed this idea was not only worthwhile, but it should be the future of building. As I undertook my own designs I recalled his belief behind UD and it did not make sense to build a Destiny Arms without incorporating Universal Design.
Rotella: Are you using Universal Design elements or principles in future projects?
Congel:Yes, we plan on using them in a number of projects going forward. Even those which are not fully incorporating with Universal Design concepts will have aspects of it in place wherever possible.
Rotella: What do you think other developers should know about using UD in projects?
Congel: It is relatively easy to facilitate into a project, even one that has already begun to be designed. We had an initial design and mid-stream we incorporated UD. It blends into the project beautifully. Its presence is not conspicuous other than perhaps offering the sense of more space and room in given areas, which most people prefer. I believe it is aesthetically more pleasing than a non-UD design. I also believe that if executed and incorporate properly, a universally designed building, overall financially and in non-tangible ways has a positive influence on the project.