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10 Recommendations for Multifamily Project Success

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James Hall, PE

James Hall, PE

Principal - Development Services

The design of a multifamily site can be one of the most challenging projects from a site civil engineering design and coordination perspective. There are more buildings, building types, plan changes, and points of coordination with other consultants involved than with most other project types. City regulations, zoning issues, and often, unwelcoming neighbors, may further complicate the design and entitlement process. Without a knowledgeable partner, each of these points of coordination is an opportunity to fall short. With more than 200,000 units designed across the country, our multifamily specialists understand these challenges and how to plan for and overcome them.

These recommendations for multifamily project success are useful for emerging engineering leaders, developers, and industry partners to better optimize project timelines and budgets. Consider the following before beginning your next multifamily project:

1. Quickly eliminate projects that don't pencil out.

Perform a thorough site feasibility analysis. Check the zoning and allowable land use. Make sure setbacks, open space, residential proximity slopes, densities, and other zoning criteria appear to be achievable. Verify that this information is given to the site planner. Check that available utility capacities appear to support the site plan. What are the impact fees? What offsites will be required? Check drainage coming to, on, and leaving the site. Turn over rocks early to try to find deal-breaking issues and if the site isn’t viable, decide early, so the team can focus their efforts on a project that can get constructed quickly and profitably.

2. Be frugal.

Be practical and sensible while fulfilling your professional obligations to the public. Keep your design simple, efficient, and buildable. Don’t be wasteful. Keeping construction costs down starts with good design and will make or break a project. For example, look for creative grading solutions that minimize building splits, retaining walls, and, when possible, get the site earthwork to balance.

3. Prepare your own project-specific entitlement strategy and schedule as opposed to relying solely on the City’s.

Develop a realistic expectation of the entitlement timing and risk. Be optimistic, but realistic. Share what will be required from each member of the consultant team and when it is required in order to meet the agreed-to schedule.

4. Coordinate with other members of the design team early and often. Overcommunicate.

It’s may sound obvious, but there is nothing more important than coordinating with the architect, engineer, and subconsultants, especially MEP, early and often throughout the design and permitting process. You don’t want to get to construction and realize the architect has made changes to their buildings or plumbing which require changes to approved site construction plans.

5. Make the site plan buildable.

The architect usually draws the first version of the site plan. Engage early with the architect and engineer to troubleshoot this plan. Do so in the due diligence phase, during preliminary design with preliminary grading plans, utility plans, etc. Site grading is key to the success of designing a multifamily project. If the grading is not right, the project will look bad, function poorly, be hard to maintain, and could expose the owner to ADA lawsuits, maintenance issues, and unhappy residents.

Host a grading work session with the engineer, landscape architect, and architect. Don’t forget to reserve room for ponds, utilities, amenities and easements from the start so they don’t have to be added later, causing a ripple of issues throughout the site. Think through site circulation and parking early on and adjust the plan as needed. Figure out how fire access, hose lay, trash pickup, and loading are going to work. Be on time with your feedback. All these issues will come to light eventually, so address them as early as you can so they can be resolved and the whole team is working on the right plan. Spending the time to coordinate these elements early is more time-effective and cost-effective than having to fix them later.

6. Develop strong relationships and a good reputation with jurisdictions.

Know the rules thoroughly and follow them. If you need an exception, make sure your requests are reasonable, clearly communicated, made in a timely fashion, and well prepared so they have the highest chance of success. This will help you develop a good reputation, so when you ask for an exception, it is likely warranted and should be seriously considered. Work with City officials, not against them, for the best solution for the project—that’s what everyone wants, and you can usually help make that happen with a little extra effort, transparency, and preparation.

7. Clearly communicate deliverable expectations and processes.

Make sure the entire team understands the level of detail expected at each deliverable stage and produces deliverables that are as clear as possible, so bidders know what is expected and you get reliable pricing. A good consultant will adapt to your process and make your job easier.

8. Ask probing questions about off-site improvements and ask them early.

Off-site improvements have more potential to kill a project than on-site improvements because they are much more out of the team’s control and vary wildly from site to site. How about electric and gas? Who is investigating these items? Are there off-site easements needed? Who is responsible for obtaining them and what is your backup plan if they are unable to do so? Does the owner earn credits for building off-site improvements? Are there other sources of funds available to help with building? A good consultant will help assess these items. If any of them are deal killers, make sure someone is vigorously pursuing a solution.

9. Keep up with building changes.

Building plans change frequently during the process, especially on multifamily jobs. Site plans are often submitted with very early versions that get updated after the submission. Be proactive about asking the architect for changes early and often and update your plans accordingly. Make sure you understand the true limits of the building. Does it have a stone or brick façade that will impact dimensions? Where are the doors? What are the elevations at those doors? If you don’t understand the building thoroughly, you have little chance of making the sitework complement it. 

10. Design everything outside the building.

Shortfalls in design coordination most often happen at the edges of the consultants’ scopes, such as the MEP/civil edge, the architect/civil edge, and the landscape architect/civil edge. If one firm can handle the design of everything outside the building, then many of these potential shortfalls seem to disappear. Having the same firm design the civil, the landscape architecture, and the MEP is a great way to develop a coordinated, creative, and buildable design.

Want to learn more? Contact James Hall.

About the Author

James Hall, PE

James Hall, PE

As a Principal and Senior Project Manager at Kimley-Horn, James provides technical and managerial expertise for a wide range of Kimley-Horn’s engineering, planning, and surveying projects. With more than 25 years in the industry, he is experienced in site development services for all types of single and multifamily developments as well as for commercial, industrial, and retail sites. James's experience includes site planning, entitlements, annexation, zoning, complex development agreements, and design of grading, roadways, and public and private utilities. James has provided services for 20,000 residential units, over 10 million square feet of retail space, and hundreds of miles of roadways and utilities, and has worked on many of Dallas-Fort Worth’s most notable large-scale projects. Aside from running successful projects for his clients, James is also part of Kimley-Horn’s Board of Directors and helps lead Kimley-Horn’s land development operations for Texas.


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