James Pearce: BTR models must provide a sense of community & why they need to look to MONA
James Pearce: BTR models must provide a sense of community & why they need to look to MONA
17 February 2023


James Pearce

Build-to-rent (BTR) is an emerging property sector showing large amounts of promise for investors in Australia, with major players Mirvac, Lendlease, Greystar, Brookfield, Home and Sentinel already working on build-to-rent projects across our capital cities.

The market is responding to the 31 percent of Australians who are already renting, as well as the reality that the prospect of home ownership is increasingly challenging for many people, especially younger generations.

BTR is a high-service model where tenants live in communities of like-minded renters in buildings that are professionally managed by on-site staff. In the BTR model, tenants become customers, who expect a better experience than in the traditional renting model.

To win these customers’ loyalty, and for the model to be successful, these properties must provide a sense of community and well-being among residents.

Architecture can play a crucial role in providing the appropriate infrastructure to build a great community.

In creating thriving communities, BTR operators establish desirable places to live, while also building great brand profiles and substantial marketing through positive word of mouth.

Adversely, poor functionality ultimately results in dissatisfaction with occupants and staff.

The building becomes less desirable, more expensive to run and less competitive in the marketplace. Financially, BTR is a finely tuned machine, where a building must remain competitive throughout its lifetime. This makes it essential to keep running costs to a minimum.

To design spaces that are welcoming and encourage community engagement, Fender Katsalidis often looks to a 2011 project, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, which holds a special place in the public consciousness.

Employed as a project architect at the time, I had the privilege of working with Nonda Katsalidis on MONA’s unorthodox approach to museum design. With a focus on intrigue, self-exploration and fun, it was a huge success, even establishing a new phrase in Tasmania coined “the MONA effect’.

Borrowed from “the Bilbao effect” for the revitalisation of the Spanish industrial town after the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum was built there, the impact was a startling increase in tourism from visitors travelling to Tasmania to visit the museum before staying on to tour more of the island.

To put it in perspective, one in five visitors to Tasmania go to MONA.

The popularity of MONA has validated FK’s previous approaches and encouraged us to create something new within the BTR spaces we are currently designing for. The broad appeal of MONA, and its ability to welcome its users and entice them to interact with their surroundings, is something that continues to shape the way we create compelling homes and promote broader appeal for the whole community to interact with these new neighbourhoods.

Any project designed for BTR should provide a building that is more than just wonderfully functional – it should also provide the emotional experiences appropriate to that function. The building should have character and spirit to engage with those living and working in it. To borrow from MONA — not just a precious, clinical, hands-off, white box but a robust, rugged, characterful incubator of cultural ideas, inviting engagement and an exploration of what it means to be human.

For BTR to be successful in Australia, intelligent and cherishable building design will be required to foster loyalty and affection from residents. Looking beyond the current build-to-sell apartment market, and learning from existing beloved public projects, is key to delivering the experiences required to make this sector a success.

And, when it is successful, these projects will support younger generations with safe, secure, and high-quality homes that will set the next benchmark in apartment design.