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Tokyo-based BALMUDA delivers one sexy toaster

Founded in 2003, Tokyo-based BALMUDA refers to itself as a creativity and technology company that creates home appliances and other products designed to deliver “thrilling and wonderful experiences.” Last year they entered the US market with products such as The Kettle and The Toaster. A toaster is perhaps one of those things that isn’t usually described as being thrilling. But BALMUDA The Toaster is one beautiful toaster, and according to Monocle Magazine it has become a sleeper hit around the world. (The company went public last December in Tokyo and its share price is up nearly 80% at the time of writing this.) It has a special steaming technology that keeps bread moist on the inside and crispy on the outside. What you do is add 5 cc of water to the toaster before heating it up and that produces a thin layer of steam within the appliance. I never knew that my bread needed this, but clearly it does. Watching the latest movie from The Minimalists has taught me nothing. I hope these guys start shipping to Canada very soon.


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A few thoughts on working from home/anywhere

One of the big questions for this year is about whether or not work from home (WFH) and work from anywhere (WFA) policies are going to stick following this pandemic. It’s something that I mentioned in my 2021 predictions at the beginning of this year because it is something that would obviously have a massive ripple effect. So today I thought that it would be interesting to look back on data and articles that were published prior to 2020, before everyone really started prognosticating about the rise of fully distributed workforces.

What is clear, at least from census data, is that working from home was on the rise before COVID-19, but that it still only represented a relatively small percentage of the overall workforce. The numbers are significantly higher if you consider people who maybe occasionally worked from home, but for those who were 100% remote, it was estimated to be only about 5.2% of the US workforce in 2017 (~8 million people), about 5% in 2016, and about 3.3% in 2000. But the question still remains: Now that many/most people have had a taste of the increased flexibility, to what extent will it stick?

There’s a ton of research out there about the impacts of working remotely — covering everything from productivity to morale. But one takeaway that makes intuitive sense to me is that WFH/WFA flexibility is perhaps best when two things are present: 1) the employees already know how to do their job really well and 2) the work that these employees are doing is fairly independent.

The corollary to this is that remote work is probably not the best environment for newer and younger employees who would benefit from being around other more experienced people, and for situations where collaboration among coworkers and outside humans is essential for the job. When I think of the job of a real estate developer, I would place it high on the collaboration scale. Building a building involves a full orchestra of people that all need to be playing in sync. Personally, I find that easier to do when you’re sitting across a table.

My belief continues to be that we are are greatly exaggerating the extent to which work is going to disperse in the short-term. I recognize the trend line that existed prior to this pandemic and I recognize that some jobs are perhaps well suited to decentralization. But I think we will continue to see real limits on how much of this sticks as we move past this moment in time and into 2022.

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New Wellness Toilet by Toto will analyze your poop

Toto announced a new product this month at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) called the Wellness Toilet. It won’t be available to consumers for at least several years, but the plan is for it to do two key things to improve overall health and wellness. It will scan your body when you sit on it and it will analyze your poop. (Not urine?) It will then make recommendations via your smartphone about how you might start to make better life decisions. Presumably this will include being more active and eating better. This, to me, feels like an obvious way to innovate around the toilet. If it were available today and it actually worked, I would likely be an early adopter. Either way, I look forward to hopefully including this in future development projects.

Here’s more about the product from Toto’s press release:

The WELLNESS TOILET uses multiple cutting-edge sensing technologies to support consumers’ wellness by tracking and analyzing their mental and physical status. Each time the individual sits on the WELLNESS TOILET, it scans their body and its key outputs, then provides recommendations to improve their wellness. There is no additional action needed, so people can easily check their wellness throughout their daily routine, every time they take a bathroom break. They will see their current wellness status and receive wellness-improvement recommendations on a dashboard in an app on their smartphones.

The residential bathroom is the perfect place to support people’s wellness for a variety of reasons. First, although there are a number of other products that track individuals’ wellness (e.g., wearable devices), it is more convenient to monitor and analyze the body as a part of the everyday routine act of using the WELLNESS TOILET, to which individuals are accustomed. Second, toilets and people have two unique touchpoints that cannot be found elsewhere – the skin and human waste. The WELLNESS TOILET is in direct contact with individuals’ skin when they are sitting on it, and it analyzes the waste they deposit — a wealth of wellness data can be collected from fecal matter.

Image: Toto

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Design makes everything better — architecture as product

Vincent interviews David Wex of Urban Capital Property Group. They discuss architecture as product, business and development, condo design, and insights from real estate development projects. Full transcript at Host: Vincent Van den Brink, Architect + Partner, Breakhouse, Inc. Guest: David Wex, Partner, Urban Capital Property Group Announcer: Danielle Pothier, Senior Architect, Breakhouse, Inc. Producer: Brenden Sommerhalder, Director of Analytics + Integration, Breakhouse, Inc. Production Assistant: Jamie White, Manager of Social + Front of House, Breakhouse, Inc. Theme music: Ghettosocks

My friend David Wex of Urban Capital Property Group — who I featured in my “BARED” blog series back in 2016 — was recently interviewed by architect Vincent Van den Brink (of Breakhouse) for the firm’s podcast called, Design Makes Everything Better. It’s a great listen and I particularly like the bit around branded vs. opportunistic real estate development. In the case of Urban Capital, David would describe his firm as being a branded developer. They build a specific product and it doesn’t really change when they build across Toronto and in other markets. Expect exposed concrete ceilings and exposed ducts, among other things. If you can’t see the embedded podcast above, you can have a listen over here.

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Project Titan

Apple’s self-driving system and/or car project has been in the news again recently. Last month, Bloomberg reported that the company was hoping to start production by as early as 2024. But this week, projections were revised and we’re probably looking at least 5 years. The details are pretty limited at this stage, as is typical of Apple (although Hyundai has been saying things). It’s also not clear whether the company is set on developing both an electric vehicle and a self-driving system, or just the latter. But the company has been hiring lots of engineers to work on the project, including a bunch of ex-Tesla employees. Supposedly, Apple now has “several hundred engineers” working on this initiative, most of whom are focused on the self-driving system part. Who really knows how and when this all unfolds, but I would bet that software is going to continue eating the world.

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Carleton University’s Certificate of Real Estate Development

Next Tuesday, January 19, I am helping to teach the introductory class of a Certificate of Real Estate Development program that is jointly offered by Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business and Azrieli School of Architecture & Urbanism. Here is a full list of the instructors and key note speakers that will be participating in the program. Obviously it is all being done online this time around.

One of the great things about this program is that it’s a partnership between their school of architecture and their school of business. As you might expect given my background, I am biased in my view that this is a great way to teach real estate development. And it’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed my time so much at the University of Pennsylvania. I was free to take classes at whatever “school” I wanted to.

When I later went on to study at the Rotman School, I actually tried to advocate for a better real estate development curriculum and for increased collaboration across the business and architecture schools (both alma maters). The response I got, at least back then, was that Rotman already had a real estate major and that it was fine just the way it was. Cool.

For more information or to register for Carleton’s Certificate of Real Estate Development program, click here. I think there are only a few spots remaining.

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Demand for short-term apartment rentals grew in 2020

Apartment List’s quarterly Renter Migration Report (Q4 2020) offers up some interesting insights into what may be playing out in the apartment sector right now. The most striking takeaway seems to be the surge in people looking for short-term rentals (leases of six months or less). And while the data has historically shown that those looking to move to a new metro are more likely to be looking for a short-term rental compared to those searching within their current metro, that spread really widened starting in the spring of last year. See above.

And when you drill even deeper, the most popular inbound destination — at least according to Apartment List’s search data — seems to be Honolulu. In the second half of 2020, about 26.8% of users searching in Honolulu from somewhere else in the US were looking for a short-term lease. This is compared to 14.9% during the same time period in 2019. Intuitively this makes sense to me. If you’re in lockdown and working from home, why the hell not do it from Hawaii? We’ve all have this same thought.

Apartment List goes on to speculate that this short-term rental spike could be an indication that the inbound and outbound flows we’re seeing right now with certain cities may not be all that permanent. People are simply optimizing for the current environment. Though this data is representative of intent, rather than of leases consummated. Either way, that would be my guess. But who knows. Maybe some people will discover that surfing in the morning and working from the beach is a pretty enjoyable way to live.

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Building under the Gardiner Expressway

For a very long time, there was a great debate in Toronto about whether or not the elevated Gardiner Expressway should be removed from downtown and replaced with something else. As recently as five years ago, that debate was centered around removing the eastern portion of the expressway and replacing it with a large surface boulevard.

But that ship has sailed. A controversial decision was made not to remove the “Gardiner East,” but instead reroute it (that wasn’t my first choice). At the same time, wonderful new city building initiatives, such as The Bentway, have started to reclaim the long overlooked spaces that sit underneath it.

Another good example of this is the “West Block,” which was recently unveiled at the northeast corner of Bathurst St and Lake Shore Blvd W. New retail uses (such as the above LCBO) and new public spaces (note the above stair/seating combo) have been tucked underneath the expressway’s structure, creating a beautiful contrast between old and new.

It reminds me of some of the urban spaces that you might find in other dense urban centers such as Tokyo, because this may be the first fully fledged retail space located underneath the Gardiner. I think it is. But here’s what’s counterintuitive: the more we embrace the Gardiner in these ways, the more it will recede into the background.

At some point in the near future, these spaces will be filled with people. People eating outside at restaurants. People sitting on the above steps enjoying an illegal drink (because of our antiquated liquor laws). And when that happens, I’m sure most won’t even consider what’s above their head.

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A new $162 million fund dedicated to climate change

This week, Union Square Ventures, which describes itself as a “thesis-driven venture capital firm,” announced a new $162 million Climate Fund. The thesis for this fund is pretty simple. They want to invest in companies that either provide mitigation for or adaption to the climate crisis. The thinking behind this approach is as follows. They want to invest in companies that directly attack the causes of climate change (mitigation), but they are also recognizing that the climate crisis is not some distant thing. It’s already here, which is why it’s important to also focus on companies that are dealing with the consequences of it (adaptation).

One of their first investments is in a company called Leap. What Leap does is provide the connective (software) tissue between local energy devices/applications and the broader energy markets. For example, let’s say you have a Leap-enabled smart thermostat. If the grid is in need of power, it might automatically reduce your local energy consumption so as to help with load balancing on the broader network. In exchange for this, you would earn money for your contributions. In effect, Leap acts as a kind of virtual power plant.

Why does this matter? Well, it matters because two important things seem to be happening with energy production: (1) It’s moving toward renewables and (2) production and storage are both decentralizing. Assuming this trend continues, there will be an increasing need for software to help manage energy consumption, production, load balancing, the broader energy markets, and so on. That’s where companies like Leap come in. It’s also why many are arguing that Tesla is so valuable. More than an EV company, it is creating a new decentralized renewable energy network through its car batteries, powerwalls, and solar panels.

That does sound valuable.

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

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How to get rich (and why talking about money is okay)

I’ve written about this before on the blog, but one of my qualms about architecture school was that it was too often taboo to talk about business and money. Why? Talking about and understanding the realities of the world doesn’t have to mean that you’re compromising on good design. Constraints are often good for design innovation. Similarly, I’ve always felt that personal finance should feature more prominently in schools at an early age. It should be considered a basic life skill.

In any event, I came across this tweet thread last night by Naval Ravikant talking about how to get rich (without getting lucky). It’s from 2018, but the lessons — and there are many — obviously haven’t changed. (For those of you who may not be familiar, Naval was the co-founder of AngelList and was an early stage investor in companies like Uber, Twitter, and Opendoor.)

When you see a headline like this it’s perfectly normal for your bullshit radar to go off. (In fact, it is one of his points.) But this thread is not bullshit. It’s about building wealth. Owning equity instead of renting out your time. Working hard. Taking a long view. Leveraging your time and skills. Understanding compound interest. Partnering with people of integrity. Being accountable. And becoming the best at what you do because you’re pursuing genuine curiosity (among many other great points).

Here are a couple of his tweets. But I would encourage you to have a full read.