Think about a budget studio apartment and the first image that springs to mind is a tiny, drab hovel with a bare light bulb swinging forlornly from the ceiling. Banish those dreary visions of coldwater flats forever, because Portus Funds, headquartered in Denver, has created a new class of stylish yet affordable studio and 1-bedroom apartments. Instead of bland boxes, these cleverly designed units attract tenants and encourage them to stay.Boutique Apartments from Portus Funds, a private real estate investment company, feature upscale interior design, great locations, and a touch of whimsy. From new construction to facilities dating back to the turn of the century, Portus Funds invests in Denver’s downtown neighborhoods. (Investors can invest in Portus Funds through their IRAs and 401[k]s.)Extreme MakeoverDuring a time when so many downtown neighborhoods are razed for new construction, Portus Funds highlights the unique architecture of its multifamily housing facilities, H20 and Aperture. Originally, the H2O Building was constructed in 1956 and the Aperture Building was built in 1961. Portus Funds modernized the Aperture Building in February 2002 and the H2O Building in July 2004.“When we launched the Boutique Apartment category, we really wanted to differentiate ourselves from our competition,” says Grant Barnhill, president of Portus Funds. “Going with a themed building and having an arts-oriented element in the design helped to differentiate us.” These spirited facilities incorporate industrial finishes with bold colors and artwork from local artists.The use of interior design themes in Portus Funds’ Boutique Apartments is fun and unexpected. Aperture Boutique Apartments has 32 studio units at 350 square feet each. Each floor of the apartment building also has a single 1-bedroom apartment at 550 square feet.The photographs and camera theme of the Aperture Building are sparked by Barnhill’s love of photography. Each apartment unit is outfitted with a built-in breakfast bar, hardwood floors, concrete countertops, metal backsplashes, and bright paint colors. “I’ve lived in older apartments and they’re charming, but after a while you want modern amen-ities,” says Gallagher. Each unit also comes with an additional storage locker.Aperture’s common areas have contemporary furniture and photography-inspired artwork. A 1940s-era drive-in movie projector dominates the lobby. Vintage motion picture cameras attached to the walls greet visitors in the apartment building’s entryway.The 25 units at H2O Boutique Apartments feature multiple amenities: DSL, built-in desks, bookcases, blond wood cabinetry, recycled hardwood flooring, carpet, and granite countertops. With a playful water theme throughout, the building even has decorative submarine parts.Green AcresPortus Funds renovated H2O following the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED™) Green Building Rating System®. “Residents are aware of what a healthy building is, and what it isn’t,” says Barnhill. In Colorado, residents are very aware about environmental and building concerns. Sustainable features include recycled carpet; low-VOC paint, flooring, and carpet; Energy Star® appliances; energy-efficient windows; recycling services; and convenient access to public transportation.“Portus is really geared toward building a sustainable company, and it was real important for me to come up with a sustainable design as close as possible to a LEED standard,” says Branhill. Currently, the USGBC does not have a LEED standard for multifamily housing. Barnhill is interested in collaborating with the USGBC to develop a pilot program for apartment buildings.Future buildings acquired by Portus Funds will be modernized according to green building practices. Barnhill hopes someday to own 100 multifamily housing facilities across the country in different markets. He notes: “I am most proud that we build green and that we provide quality housing that is creative and different and at an affordable price.”Curb AppealClose to hip downtown amenities, Boutique Apartments attracts the 22- to 35-year-old demographic group. “It’s so close to downtown, but you don’t get the noise that is often associated with downtown,” says Greg Gallagher, a resident at Aperture Boutique Apartments. A major factor for Gallagher choosing the Aperture Building is that it is in the emerging Uptown district, well-known for its coffee houses and night spots. Two miles from the über-hip LoDo area, these apartment buildings are also only 5 blocks from City Park, a popular destination for jogging and socializing.“It’s so nice to come home to and it’s nice to tell friends where I live and have them say, ‘I know that cool building on the corner of 18th and Williams,’ ” says Julie Hart, resident manager at Aperture and H20 Boutique Apartments. Already popular icons in their neighborhood, these apartments attract and retain tenants in a tough market with their design and unique nature.To retain tenants, Portus Funds offers renewal incentives and highly responsive maintenance services. In addition, the management company encourages community building. Barbeques and tenant breakfasts foster socializing among tenants and goodwill toward the building management. “Boutique Apartments is something I believe in and there’s a lot of pride living here and working here,” says Hart.“When I lived in Chicago, I didn’t know any of my neighbors and it did not feel like home. But here they have done a fantastic job,” says Gallagher. This sense of community promotes tenant retention. The apartments’ annual turnover rate is between 30 and 40 percent, when the industry standard is 60 to 70 percent. “I could afford something else, but because I enjoy where I live, it sparked me to sign another 18-month lease,” says Gallagher.Barnhill plans to increase amenities by installing a work-out facility and a rooftop deck in the Aperture Building. These serv-ices will be shared by residents of both buildings to encourage further socializing and community building. “I’ve met prospective residents who have seen several blah, yucky apartment buildings and I show them one of our apartments, which are brand-new and gorgeous and cool and fun. They are so happy,” says Hart. “I lease to people who have found their new home. I love my job.”“We want to create environments that people feel comfortable in and there is a sense of connection within our buildings and with the community,” adds Barnhill. This fresh approach to apartment living will flourish as Portus Funds acquires additional facilities in the Denver area.Outdoor concerts in the park and a swinging nightlife, downtown Denver offers many attractions. Although Boutique Apartments are a part of the downtown’s revitalization, it is also a part of a rethinking of what affordable apartments can be. “Our homes are a reflection of ourselves, and that extends throughout the building,” says Hart. “Good taste, upwardly mobile, artistic; it feels good to be associated with someplace so cool.”Regina Raiford Babcock ([email protected]) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.