Some units at 600 Douglas feature movable walls, fold-up beds and desks, and other amenities designed to make the best use of a limited amount of space. Courtesy Rockford Construction
Imagine if an urban living space could work like a type of real-life Lego home made up of not just re-arrangeable furniture but re-arrangeable walls, rooms and kitchen islands.
That’s the art and science behind Urbaneer, a new brand launched by Grand Rapids-based Rockford Construction. Urbaneer redefines urban living by finding new and technologically savvy ways to personalize and adapt compact spaces in urban areas for a new generation of tenants, said Bruce Thompson, vice president of Rockford Ventures and the mind behind Urbaneer. Rockford Construction is the parent company of Rockford Ventures.
Urbaneer assists developers and property managers by offering design services, integrated furnishings and managed services for downtown spaces, creating an “ecosystem of adaptable products and technology that work together to provide space optimization and convenience in multiple types of living spaces,” according to Rockford Construction.
Developing a mass-producible brand is a new step for Rockford Construction, which started work on the idea for Urbaneer a little more than a year ago, Thompson said.
“For a lot of folks moving downtown, it’s about simplifying life. They want to be adjacent to downtown, they want walkability, they want to be able to get to the bars and restaurants,” he said. “And so with Urbaneer, we’re developing products and services that really help developers like ourselves to deliver spaces that live larger.”
Urbaneer’s first implementation has come to life in the form of Rockford Construction’s 600 Douglas, a new development on Grand Rapids’ west side. Located at 600 Douglas St. NW, the development consists of 18 townhome units in four buildings. 600 Douglas, which was built by Rockford Construction and designed by Grand Rapids-based Integrated Architecture, offers a combination of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, ranging from about 450 to 1,250 square feet. Both of the two studio units, each of which is 485 square feet, have been created using the Urbaneer brand, Thompson said.
Stepping into the furnished Urbaneer studio, described by Thompson as a “clean, modern design,” is something like stepping into an apartment created by the minds of the wizards who created Hogwarts. The main wall that splits the unit moves on electric rafters, allowing for the creation of two spaces, whether another sleeping area, a storage space or home office space, Thompson said, adding this is why the wall also has a built-in desk, which neatly folds out. The desk is complete with a wireless power charger called Qi, Thompson said. Wireless power is something Urbaneer is looking to expand on in upcoming spaces.
The desk isn’t the only pull-down feature of the studio. On one of the studio walls, a comfortable bed can be pulled down to cover a furnished sofa provided by Holland-based Stow Co.
The idea of all these moving parts is to create multiple room options using only one room, according to Thompson, who said the key is to have it function in various scenarios.
“It comes back to the persona of who’s using it. Is it someone who is single that is recreational oriented (and needs storage place for sports equipment)? Is it someone who has lots of guests? Someone who works from home? … Or someone who just needs a crash pad?” he said. “That’s the beauty of where this is going — more personalization and adaptability.”
One of the key components to Urbaneer and compact living spaces in general is technology, Thompson said. Urbaneer is developing an app that would essentially control most of the key features in the apartment, such as lights, the door and the wall. Urbaneer also wants to include wireless power in the floor and wants to explore the possibility of wirelessly powered appliances.
Another technological development Urbaneer is considering is creating an app that forms a kind of “neighborhood network,” offering tenants merchandise discounts by connecting with local stores, a kind of neighborhood-based Groupon. It could also create ways for tenants to find discounts on practical necessities like dry-cleaning and groceries, pulling all the elements that tenants want into one brand that developers can now manage and offer, Thompson said.
This not only creates a holistic lifestyle, but it also keeps residents’ money in the neighborhood, he said.
“When you’re in an urban environment, that’s part of what you want. And in some instances, apartments are becoming more like hotels. There are more services, shorter-term leases,” he said.
“(This is for) someone who doesn’t want to just rent these four walls. They want to rent the neighborhood. Doing more for less is really what would define someone for Urbaneer.”
Thompson’s money is where his mouth is when it comes to living in the “upcoming” west side, which he called a “natural progression” of the city’s growth. He currently lives not far from 600 Douglas and can walk to work in 10 minutes.
“I can get to the stores quicker downtown than I could from East Grand Rapids,” he said.”We go to the East Beltline Meijer and Forest Hills Foods, and those are actually faster to get to than East Grand Rapids. … The Downtown Market is also very accessible.”
Urbaneer isn’t alone in its mission to utilize compact urban spaces. There is a national trend to make all living spaces more adaptable, Thomspon said. This is especially true inter-generationally with parents whose children have moved back home and are trying to find ways to adapt.
“Adaptable, flexible space is becoming a theme across all real estate. We think the greatest need is in urban apartments, but we don’t think it’s going to stop there,” he said.
“You can go across the different segments of multi-unit, which includes apartments, condos, assisted living, health care, student housing. … They all have a need for this type of thing. Then you start to look at single-family residences, and we’ve had discussions with homebuilders where they’re starting to … ask, ‘How do you create that two-bedroom-plus?’”
Urbaneer, which has more projects planned, is currently working with developers in West Michigan, as well as in Chicago, Columbus and Cleveland, and on the East Coast, Thompson said. As the brand expands, one of the challenges he’s finding is supply and demand.
The way to keep space affordable and market rate is to keep it compact, he said.
“We need to look at density. Worldwide, 50 percent of the population lives in cities, and it’s projected to be 60 percent by 2030,” he said.
“Grand Rapid is a microcosm. … You look at the last 20 years — the increase in people living in the corridors. It’s the same across the country. It’s really what people want.”