In an opinion piece published January 7th in the New York Times, titled “The Edamame Economy,” David Brooks writes about the changing design of hotels in America. The column is in itself unusual coming from someone who is more often found writing about politics and political culture. The only disappointment I had with the article is that it doesn’t deal at all with how the cultural changes he describes have influenced the apartment industry and apartment design.

In his column, Brooks describes at length some of the extraordinary changes that have taken place in hotel design through the years and how what has evolved reflects very changing demands by consumers. He shows how hotel design has changed from a time past when you “could go around the world and the hotels were largely the same…efficient and bland, offering quality service and ease of movement”, to today, when “the computer age has brought about” what Brooks describes as “the mass boutique.”

He describes how in an age when the internet has turned virtually everything into a commodity, more and more of the public want a product that they feel has some unique quality, some “integrity,” that makes it different than other products serving the same purpose. He notes that in recent years, there has been a “creative brand explosion.” Through this, companies have created products that perhaps are purchased less because of their inherent quality and more because there is something about the experience associated with the products’ consumption that creates the value. Brooks says “the market has taken one commodity product after another and turned it into an emotional experience.” And isn’t that what those of us who think of ourselves as apartment professionals do every day?

For years, it has frustrated me when I’ve heard colleagues or academics describe the apartment business as one that is commoditized. I resist that definition in part because I know that the only way to be successful in dealing with commodities is to make and sell them cheaper than everyone else. And to be the cheapest guy in town usually requires both being very large and somewhat careless about quality, two features that have never appealed to me.

But what everyone with eyes has learned from hotel operations like the “W”, or more pervasively from Starbucks coffee shops, is that people will value a product enough to pay more and even go out of their way to consume it if you provide an “experience” that is different than what they can easily obtain elsewhere. That is what the better companies in the apartment business try to do every day.

I mean, let’s face it, to some degree, a bed is a bed is a bed. So, why pay more for one than another? The really good apartment operators, from their locational choice, through the design of their communities to the level of services they provide, know how to differentiate the beds, the rooms, the apartments, the communities they offer from those operated by their competitors. They worry about design details – everything from the location of the windows to the material and color of the cabinets inside the apartments to the amount and design of the amenities spaces supporting the apartments. And with service as well, the first rate operators try to create an environment that makes the apartment community feel special, distinctive, and very much a home.

Apartments designed today are dramatically different than those designed twenty or even ten years ago. Most often today there is some retail in or near the new property. Typically the apartment unit itself is smaller and the finishes much “higher.” Virtually no one used granite countertops twenty years ago. Today, granite is almost passé. I can remember building one of the first apartment projects with in-unit washers and driers. No one today would build without these.

Public space in apartment communities used to be largely confined to a big lounge with an even bigger television. Today, public areas are an increasingly dominant feature in the community where every space looks like it was designed so that the consumer can sit with his or her computer and do whatever it is they do. And they are, with Wi-Fi everywhere, including the swimming pool deck. And each developer and each architect try to make their public space just a little bit unique, just a little bit different, and just a little special.

So with apartments, as with hotels, David Brooks’ observations hold true. There may not be, as he said, “an endless supply”, but there are certainly a great number of “consumers who have boutique identities and aspirations,” and success generally comes to the businessperson who figures out how to provide the experiences that satisfy those aspirations.