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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.

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Average price of a home in the Toronto region increased 13.5% last year

The Toronto Regional Real Estate Board released its 2020 housing figures this week. And I suspect that the numbers are probably directionally similar for many city regions around the world.

2020 saw more home sales than 2019 with 95,151 homes changing hands. This represents an 8.4% increase compared to last year. December was also a record month with 7,180 sales — a 65% year-over-year increase!

The average selling price in the Greater Toronto Area also reached a new record of $929,699. This represents a 13.5% increase compared to last year. Once again, December was a record setting month with an average selling price of $932,222.

When you look at sales and average prices by home type, the biggest drivers were low-rise homes outside of the city. No surprises here.

But consider the price spread that now exists between condos and detached homes. In the City of Toronto (“416”), we’re talking about an average price delta of nearly $850k. That would be an expensive home in many other markets.

Of course, condos tend to be smaller than detached homes. And so different prices per pound. But total price matters a great deal and historically a widening spread has moved many buyers over to the condo market.

I suspect we will see that happen again this year.

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Project Profile: Side Gallery Barcelona

Side Gallery opened up a new 700 square meter exhibition space in Barcelona last month that is worth showcasing. It’s a beautiful space. Designed by Spanish architect Guillermo Santomà, the space sits within an old 19th century factory that used to house an Italian pasta company. It’s minimal and stark white, but the architecture of the former factory still comes through. There’s also a prominent greenhouse featuring flora that is local to South America. Fitting given that the gallery focuses on Latin American design. Have a look.

I also love these images from the architect, which (I think) use light to completely transform the space.

All photos via Side Gallery and Guillermo Santomà

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How much home can you afford?

Each quarter, publishes a report that looks at the annual income required to quality for a residential mortgage in the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. To do this, they look at the median home price for each city and then apply a 28% debt-to-income ratio (principal and interest payments divided by before tax salary). They also assume a 20% down payment and a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. In their latest report, that comes with an interest rate of 3.15%.

Below is a chart showing what they consider to be the 10 most affordable and the 10 least affordable metros (chart via the New York Times). I don’t think the cities on this list will necessarily surprise many of you (though I didn’t think Pittsburgh was this affordable), but it is interesting to see it all quantified. It’s also worth thinking about what might happen to these figures as that 3.15% number comes down. Shockingly, the price of highly-levered assets tends to be correlated with financing costs.