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✈️ Off to France and trying something new

Neat B and I are off to France for the next two weeks. We optimistically booked this trip at the beginning of the year and assumed that the world would be fairly normal and well-vaccinated by now. While there remains uncertainty, things are at least better than they were last winter when we were all caved at home.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I aim to post 365 days a year, regardless of what may be going on in my life. And that will remain the case for the next two weeks. But I have decided to challenge myself and try something new.

I’m going to exercise my photography passion a little and instead post a single photo each day. On some days it may have a caption or a short description, but on other days there may be no accompanying text at all. The plan is to shoot entirely on my Fujifilm X-T3. Or at least that’s the thinking right now.

I’m sure that there will end up being some great content for those of you who are interested in the built environment (architecture, design, planning, real estate). But if travel and beautiful photos aren’t your thing, feel free to check back in two weeks for our regularly scheduled programming.

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A tale of two different kinds of Brutalism

This article from the Guardian about two Brutalist housing estates in London is now more than five years old. But the story is perhaps just as interesting. The article is about two “New Brutalism” estates that were designed and built in the 1960s and 1970s.

The first is the Barbican Estate (which appeared recently on the blog over here) and the second is Robin Hood Gardens (pictured above, partially). Both were designed by notable architects and both have been equally divisive when it comes to their aesthetic appeal. We’re talking about Brutalism. So it’s likely that you either love them or hate them.

One of the big differences between these two housing complexes is that one is a private estate and the other is (or was) social housing. And perhaps because of this, the Barbican has remained desirable and Robin Hood Gardens was ultimately demolished starting in 2017. This is despite numerous outcries from the architecture and design community that it should be both preserved and listed.

We could get into questions of funding and maintenance, as well as the design differences between the two complexes (I don’t have any of these details), but even without all of this, I find these two divergent outcomes pretty interesting. Architecture, it would seem, isn’t everything.

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Pretextual planning

Strong Towns recently published an interesting set of articles talking about something they refer to as “pretextual planning.” Articles here and here. What they mean by this is that sometimes we create planning rules not necessarily because we think they are the right thing to do, but because they serve as good bargaining chips when dealing with developers and builders. For example, let’s not eliminate parking minimums but instead concede on it during the entitlement process. This, the articles argue, is not good practice. And I would of course agree with that.

But here is another very valid point that is made: when you make building so painfully complicated you end up creating a whole bunch of negative externalities. Not only does the cost of housing and building go up, but you also 1) make it more difficult for smaller builders to participate in the market and 2) you end up increasing the minimum size of new developments. And that is because as projects get more complicated and expensive, you end up needing larger and larger projects to amortize / justify the development expenses.

It’s really too bad.

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The capital of Ethereum

Few people in Toronto seem to be talking about the important role that this city has played and is playing when it comes to cryptocurrencies (specifically Ethereum). And if you believe, as I do, that Ethereum and other blockchain technologies have the ability to form the backbone for an entirely new kind of world, then this is kind of a big deal.

The Financial Times recently published this article about “Wall Street’s crypto whisperer.” It is about a guy named Joseph Lubin who is the founder of a crypto company called ConsenSys and previously the co-founder of Ethereum. Lubin is from Toronto.

If you read the article, you’ll see that Lubin is a pretty bright guy (and now a billionaire with his crypto assets). Born in Toronto, he ended up going to Princeton to study computer science. He worked on Wall Street for a bit (hence the whisperer moniker), but also did a bunch of other interesting stuff, including moving to Jamaica with a girlfriend and working on music production.

In 2013, he was back in Toronto and went to a Bitcoin meetup in the city. The article says it was in a downtown warehouse (which makes it sound pretty cool and underground). And at this downtown warehouse meetup, he met a guy (actually a teenager) named Vitalik Buterin. Vitalik had just written a white paper on what would ultimately become Ethereum and he gave Lubin a copy. Lubin was so “blown away” when he read it that he decided to join the movement.

The two (and presumably others) would then go on to live together in shared houses in Toronto, Miami, and Zug (Switzerland), and work on this new smart contract technology. Today, Ethereum has a market cap of nearly $400 billion (as of September 12, 2021).

Even if you ignore for a second that we’re talking about crypto technologies, this is still a fascinating city building story. It is fascinating because it shows the value of in-person urban interactions (again, the two allegedly connected at a meetup in a downtown warehouse). And it is fascinating because the Toronto braintrust has been instrumental in advancing a technology that could arguably end up powering not only the future of the internet but perhaps the world.

At the same time, it strikes me that we need to be much better at both celebrating and encouraging these kinds of new ideas locally. Are we out in the world telling this story to the best of our abilities? Have we properly positioned Toronto as one of the most important places for cryptocurrencies and innovation in general? Mayor Suarez of Miami has been a great promoter of his city in this regard.

“Innovation” isn’t usually neat and tidy. It happens on the fringe and it is often not obvious at the outset. Imagine what an Ethereum pitch would have sounded like back in 2013. But this is how new ideas start. And Toronto has proven to be full of them.

Photo by Narciso Arellano on Unsplash

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Productizing the delivery of new housing

One of the co-founders of Juno — a new mass-timber and modular housing company — was recently interviewed by Dezeen. Prior to cofounding Juno, BJ Siegel was Apple’s design director and spent 19 years designing and working on their stores. And so this is the lens that he and his partners are bringing to the real estate development space. (I also just learned this morning that their head of real estate is a former classmate of mine from Penn.) Here is an excerpt from the Dezeen article that speaks to their goal of productizing the delivery of new housing:

The third is Apple really challenged us to think about the way we deliver the project more like the way they deliver products through a kind of owner-furnished direct source supply chain model.

And that actually spurred a lot of investigation as to how to translate that work from a product into this industry [real estate development], which is really kind of not focused on that.

So that really was a big, big focus.

The company recently announced that they have broken ground on their first project in Austin, Texas. It is a five storey 24-unit residential project that is being positioned as “middle-income, market-rate” housing. They’ve reduced the building down to about 33 standardized parts and are using a secret type of mass timber that is manufactured in the US. Supposedly it’s better than cross-laminated timber, but the company is keeping it as part of their secrete sauce right now.

Juno is not the first company to identify this gaping problem in the development and construction space. The typical construction process is antiquated, inefficient, and filled with far too much waste. Which is why modular / pre-fabricated housing has been a goal of architects, builders and others for generations. Eventually we will figure out how to better productize the delivery of new housing and bring down its costs. And in my view that will be a great thing for consumers.

Rendering by Engraff Studio via Dezeen

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Does new housing supply need better economic incentives?

I watched a bit of the English leadership debate the other night. Eventually I got frustrated and went to bed, but I understand that housing affordability and overall affordability were important topics.

What is clear, to anyone who cares to look, is that in most big cities we are not building enough new housing. According to the above Economist article (linked in the above tweet), the “rich world” has seen new housing production drop by about 50% (relative to population) since the 1960s.

There are many reasons for this. But part of the problem is bureaucracy. Things move exceedingly slow. And another part of the problem is community opposition. Urban sprawl can be easier to swallow because there’s an out-of-sight-out-of-mind phenomenon at work. Stuff may be happening, but it’s not happening in my backyard.

But now that so much of what we do is centered around intensifying existing neighborhoods, we are faced with a battle between the incumbents (existing residents) and the future residents of a community that don’t have nearly as much say — if any at all.

What I like about the Economist article is their line of thinking for how to address this dynamic, which, at the end of the day, is rooted in what I will call expected selfishness.

The approach is around aligning incentives. How could we better structure the delivery of new housing so that more stakeholders stand to directly benefit? Because as we have seen with laneway housing here in Toronto, homeowners will gladly build in their backyard when they stand to benefit directly.

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The history (and future) of the grocery store

Slate just published a new thought piece on the evolution of the grocery store. It starts with the first “self-service” Piggly Wiggly in Memphis (an innovative approach at that time) and ends with the important functions that grocery stores serve today and will likely serve in the future.

The shopping experience has become increasingly omnichannel (i.e. online & in-store), which means that grocery stores are in the midst of transforming from simple retail stores to hybrid retail and last-mile distribution hubs. (Related post here.)

All of this is central to how we think about this real estate asset class and we are to happy share it publicly in this new thought piece. Slate plans to publish more of these and so, if you’re interested, I would encourage you to subscribe at the bottom of the page.

Full disclosure: I am personally long Slate Grocery REIT.