NeWell: Rethinking Apartment Design

Oct 31, 2014 | Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Multifamily, Technology

I always tell people that one of the great aspects of the real estate business is that people who can think creatively, do things a bit differently, and have the talent to execute, can be very successful. Over the past 5 years I’ve been following the work of Alex Hodara, Vin Vomero, and Jeffrey Zucker, a couple of young guys in Boston making moves. From their reality TV show and brokerage business to their fledgling development company, these guys epitomize what’s great about the real estate business.

Every time I catch up with these guys they seem to be working on something new and interesting. They’re currently redeveloping apartment buildings in Eastie and completing their first ground-up development in Charlestown. Not surprisingly, Vin, Alex, and Jeff didn’t set out to build another run of the mill apartment building targeting young professionals. They re-imagined every aspect of home design and created NeWell, an innovative new approach to home design that combines both high tech and health.  

I asked Vin to share the NeWell story.

NeWell

Take it away Vin:

The concept for NeWell first began about 2 years ago. We had recently jumped into the development world, and I was looking for a way for us to differentiate our properties. As a person with a degree in biology, I was trying to come up with a way to put some science into real estate development.

An idea came to me, while trying to go to sleep, to attempt to build a better bedroom. It made no sense to me that each room is built exactly the same way, yet each has a different function. I began to do research on what makes a good night’s sleep. What I found is that cooler, darker, and quieter rooms combine for an environment more conducive to sleep. I thought about how, as developers, we could build an enhanced bedroom highlighting these items. I even designed and performed an experiment on myself to test out my ideas. What I found was that, compared to my standard bedroom, an improved bedroom increased my quality of sleep by 40%. What we are calling a “sleep sanctuary” was born. An apartment bedroom with soundproofed walls to reduce outside noise, blackout shades to eliminate ambient exterior lights, and a ceiling fan with a digital thermometer, in addition to central HVAC, to give residents the ability to customize their bedroom temperatures. Higher quality sleep leads to improved mood, better focus, more energy, and overall higher quality of life. The importance of sleep cannot be understated as shown by the almost weekly research publications on sleep.

From there, I began to look at each room of the apartment in a new light. I went from room to room looking for ways to make each a more healthy space. In the kitchen we use quartz countertops, a harder material than granite, which reduces the potential for bacterial growth as well as stainless steel appliances. The bathrooms also have quartz vanity tops as well as a UV toothbrush cleaner and antimicrobial toilet seats.

As I continued my quest to build a living space that could actually improve the overall health of its residents, I realized I was missing some major pieces to this puzzle. People spend 90% of their time indoors, and about 60% of that time is spent at home. The air we breathe, the lights we use to see, and the water we drink and bathe in all can have major impacts on our health. We upgraded our HVAC systems to accept 5in thick high-efficiency air filters and a UV germicidal sterilamp, capturing more airborne dust, pollen, dander, etc. and destroying mold, bacteria, and viruses. I designed a simple, resident-friendly, Adaptive Circadian Lighting system. This system causes the lights to mimic the sunrise and sunset, helping to maintain the body’s natural 24 -hour clock therefore improving sleep. We installed a whole-home water filtration system to remove skin and hair-damaging chlorine. All of these features combine to create a healthier living environment for our residents.

I am not completely sure why no one has really done this before. I suspect that, with the growth in the technologies that facilitate this model being so recent, others haven’t had much time to combine them into a package and market them together. Perhaps some thought the increased cost wasn’t worth giving such amenities to non-luxury renters. Cost was one of the main challenges in designing these apartments, but we were determined to make it work at this price range. Adding too many features can quickly balloon the cost, making it impossible to keep the rents at slightly above market average. Through careful sourcing and some ingenuity we were able to keep the costs between 1-2% of the total project budget.

Charlestown, MA is a great spot for us to debut NeWell for several reasons. Charlestown’s close proximity to downtown Boston as well as its population of young professionals makes for a convenient location. Our project is only 2 minutes walking distance to the Sullivan Square T station, which is just 2 stops from Boston’s North Station. Boston is a leader in innovation and health research. In addition, the community is hard working and health conscious. With several of the best hospitals and schools in the country in the Boston area, what better place to launch NeWell?

While we have gained a lot of experience in development over the past 5 plus years, there was a bit of a learning curve for us in developing these first NeWell apartments. Not only were we trying to design and build an entirely new brand of apartments, but this was also our first new construction project. Vacant lots are generally hard to come by in Boston. The dozens of projects we have done in the past were all gut renovations of some degree, so there were several aspects of this project that were new to us. Site work, excavation, and foundations were entirely new. Fortunately, we have a highly experienced foreman and a group of loyal contractors from our projects over the years that have helped us navigate this project.

I think the future of NeWell and the future of real estate development in general will be intertwined. I envision NeWell becoming the face of a new brand of healthy apartments and expanding its presence to other cities. As the idea catches on, you will see many of these amenities begin to become standard at certain price points. Luxury renters and owners will expect to see all of these amenities and more, whereas average renters will expect to see most of these amenities in their apartments. Much like granite and stainless, which were once only a luxury item, can now be found in apartments ranging from luxury to just below market average rent.

NeWell is a collaboration between Vomero’s Forza Development, Alex Hodara’s Hodara Real Estate Group, and Jeffrey Zucker’s Saltshaker Holdings. These three partners believe that providing dynamic, healthier living environments is the next big movement in real estate.

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