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Do homes need to become more of a product?

Yesterday evening I moderated a panel on innovation in real estate at the Rotman School. The panelists included Subhi Alsayed (Innovation Manager at Tridel); Michael Lio (President of buildABILITY Corporation); Alison Minato (VP of Sustainability at The Minto Group); and Tad Putyra (President and COO, Low Rise Development at Great Gulf).

Though the general consensus was that the real estate industry is terrible at innovation, it was comforting to hear that a number of both low-rise and high-rise developers are working on and/or towards building “net zero” homes. A net zero home is a home with no net energy consumption. What this means is that the home produces as much as energy as it consumes.

The general strategy with these homes is to design the building so that it’s as energy efficient as possible (as in R-40 walls and triple-pane glazing) and then use renewable energy sources (such as solar) to fulfill any remaining energy needs. Of course, the next step would be homes that actually produce more energy than they consume so that they become net contributors to a city’s energy grid. But let’s not put the cart before the horse.

There are a number of challenges to achieving this goal—one of which is on the consumer side. Many of the panelists mentioned that consumers simply don’t care enough about building performance and energy efficiency. Instead of worrying about air tightness, they’re worried about cosmetic things, like granite countertops and hardwood floors. That’s not to say that these pieces aren’t important, but they’re only one aspect of a home.

So what’s the solution? Do developers and home builders need to get better at consumer education? Or should utility companies be the ones shouldering this responsibility? After all, improving energy performance means lower utility costs.

One thought that came to mind (and I’m testing this for the first time with the Architect This City community), is that maybe homes need to become more of a product. Today, developers often market projects and communities ahead of themselves. But maybe that’s not the best way to drive innovation within the real estate industry.

For example, think about how car brands segment the market. When you buy a Mercedes, you expect a certain level of performance and quality. You probably don’t know about every little technological innovation in the car, but you assume that they’re pretty damn good.

With a new home on the other hand, you’re buying (insert generic name) on the Park or the Residences of (something regal sounding). The developer’s brand is secondary. And maybe that’s the wrong approach. Maybe it’s making consumers believe that the only thing that matters is whether you’re getting stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.

Maybe consumers need to know whether or not they’re buying from the Mercedes developer or from the Ford Pinto developer. After all, consumers make decisions based on heuristics. They need to be able to say to themselves:

“This home is $50,000 more, but it’s from the Mercedes developer so I can justify it. I’ll have less problems in the future, I’m sure.”

Instead, consumers are saying to themselves:

“This home is $50,000 more. Why is that? They both have stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. I’ll just go for the cheaper one.”

I refuse to believe that the real estate industry can’t be as innovative as other industries. There’s always a way. We just need to figure it out.

What are your thoughts?

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