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Were the Victorians better city builders?

A team of researchers at UCL recently surveyed 2,500 households across the UK to see how the design of their homes and neighborhoods has impacted their experience during lockdown (May to June 2020).

Perhaps most notably, the report, called Home Comforts, found that people living in housing built in the last 10 years were more likely to feel uncomfortable during lockdown (1 in 5), compared to those living in homes built before 1919 (1 in 7).

On top of this, people living in Victorian era housing were more likely to say that their neighborhoods were meeting their everyday needs, which seems to translate into convenient access to basic amenities (5 to 10 minute walk).

So what does this tell us?

That people want more ornament and clearly defined Zoom-friendly rooms? That the Victorians were better at city and community building? Or maybe that Londoners living in low-rise pre-1919 housing are generally well-established and have the ability to afford more conveniences? It’s likely a bunch of different things.

There’s no denying that the way we build our homes and our neighborhoods has, for better or for worse, changed over the last 100 years. But let’s not forget that it’s easy to romanticize the past and the things we used to do. I’m sure it wasn’t puppy dogs and ice cream for all of the Victorians.

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Smarter, simpler, happier

A good friend of mine in Philadelphia just recommended a new book to me by Diana Lind called, Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing. I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t in good conscience recommend it to you all or comment with any sort of precision.

But the New York Times seems to think that Diana has convincingly argued that the single-family home is at least partially to blame for a whole host of our societal challenges — everything from economic inequality to loneliness.

This is, of course, not an entirely new narrative. But it is perhaps a timely read given that we are living through a period of time where loneliness seems to be on the rise and people are allegedly fleeing our urban centers in search of space and distance.

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In support of simplicity

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I’m not exactly sure who this quote is attributed to — maybe Einstein — but regardless, I love it. I’m a big fan of simplicity.

I have a cookbook in my kitchen by Jamie Oliver where each recipe contains no more than 5 main ingredients. There’s a picture of the 5 ingredients, a picture of the final product, and a short explanation about how to make it. It’s my favorite cookbook (and also my only cookbook).

When I go to a restaurant I prefer to see a short menu rather than a long menu. Not only because it’s easier to make decisions that way, but because I have little confidence that a restaurant with an interminable menu can make that many terrific dishes all at once.

And in architecture school, I remember being taught that every design project should really only have one principal idea. If you have two ideas, that’s probably one too many. Distill it down. Clarify the idea that you’re trying to communicate.

Because here’s the thing about simplicity: it’s usually more work to make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. It takes effort. It takes iterations. Whether that be in cooking, design, or in writing.

But once you’ve got it, simplicity is a beautiful thing. And it also greatly increases the chance that somebody will actually remember the message that you’re trying to get across. Five ingredients. A short menu. And one architectural idea. That’s all it might take.

Photo by Jakub Dziubak on Unsplash

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3 ways to get into real estate development

The most popular post on this blog is this one here called, “What real estate developers do and why I became one.” This post alone has been responsible for a good chunk of the organic traffic that this site receives since I wrote it back in 2014. If you search for “real estate developer” in Google it usually comes up on the first page.

Probably because of this post, the number one question I receive in my inbox is about how to become a developer or how to transition into development from some other discipline. Usually this comes from someone who is early on in their career and/or is in architecture (which is not surprising given my background as a fake architect).

I have tried to respond to this question publicly and at scale with a number of different posts. But many of you probably haven’t seen them before, and so I figured it would be a good idea to summarize some of them here (they’re usually tagged with “developer dirt“):

If you’re looking for a more succinct summary of what to do, here is what I would suggest to you. You basically have three options.

1) You can convince someone to take a chance and hire you, even though you likely don’t have any development experience. Maybe you have a background in something relevant such as real estate law, architecture, or politics (good). Or maybe you don’t (less good). Either way, the best way to position yourself is to understand what it is that developers do and figure out a way to create value for them from day one. You want to be in a position to say, “Yeah, I know I don’t have any direct development experience, but I can do X, Y, and Z for you starting today and I think that would be helpful to you for the following reasons.”

2) Get a relevant degree. I’m thinking an MBA in real estate or some sort of master’s in real estate development. The reality is that the development business has, in many ways, become more institutionalized. It has gone, though obviously not entirely, from rich private families developing with their own balance sheets to more institutional capital sources, such as pension funds. Because of this, there are going to be hiring managers out there who need to check off certain boxes. For example, does this person have a real estate degree? This may make it harder for someone to take a chance on you if you don’t have the right experience and/or credentials.

3) Just go out and do it. Despite becoming more institutional, the development business remains, in my view, a deeply entrepreneurial endeavor. You have to be able to problem solve and you have to be creative. The best developers I know don’t focus on can’t, they focus on how. Because there are too many obstacles in this business. A can’t mentality wouldn’t get you very far. So consider renovating a triplex, building a laneway suite, or doing something else that allows you to take a piece of real estate and create some additional value. Because that’s all that development really is at the end of the day.

If you found this post useful, please consider sharing it with someone that you think would benefit from it. And if there are other topics that you would like me to cover (or cover in more detail), please feel free to leave a comment below or to at me on Twitter. I prefer Twitter over email because it forces brevity. Happy Canadian Thanksgiving, all.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

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The Palace of Purification

Constructed throughout the 1930s, the R.C Harris Water Treatment Plant (pictured above) is the largest water treatment plant in the City of Toronto. It produces over 120,000 million liters of water each year, which represents about 30% of Toronto’s drinking water.

Designed by Scottish architect Thomas Canfield Pomphrey, it is also the city’s largest collection of Art Deco buildings. This makes the complex pretty unique. Because it was designed to be both a critical piece of municipal infrastructure and an architectural icon.

If you’ve ever visited the grounds, you’ll know that the plant is the furthest thing from utilitarian. There’s an opulence to the buildings and an incredible attention to detail, both of which are characteristics of the Art Deco movement. And if you’ve never been, I would encourage you to go.

The above photo was taken on Sunday afternoon.

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Project Profile: Hinterhouse by Ménard Dworkind Architecture & Design

I recently discovered a company called Hinter (a colleague, who clearly knows me very well, sent it to me). It’s exactly the kind of the company that I would love to start, if only there were 30 hours in a day. They’re a non-traditional hotel in that they work with “iconic architects” to build unique spaces that are distributed and hidden in nature. (They also have a policy of planting 10 new trees for every booking.)

Today’s post is a profile of their Hinterhouse (hh1) by Montréal-based Ménard Dworkind Architecture & Design. The space is located in La Conception, Québec, which is about 15 minutes from Mont-Tremblant. It’s 980 square feet (which is all you really need) and has 2 bedrooms. There’s also a private sauna and outdoor shower in a separate outbuilding. As soon as I saw it, I felt inspired and immediately opened up Realtor.ca to look for available land. Maybe it will do the same for you.

All photography by David Dworkind.

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Canadian real estate fundamentals

Last week was the Vancouver Real Estate Forum. Benjamin Tal (chief economist at CIBC) opened things up, as he usually does, and he was pretty candid about what might be coming this winter. Here is an excerpt from a recent Globe and Mail article summarizing the event:

“It’s reasonable to assume that the next six months will not be very pretty,” said Mr. Tal. “The honeymoon of the summer is basically over. Now we enter the winter months, and I think the next few months will be much more difficult. We will have a situation where we will clearly see a second wave, and it’s already starting. This second wave will overlap with the flu season, so everybody will be very confused. The fear factor will rise, and that’s something we have to take into account when we look at the trajectory of the economy.”

Indeed, today kind of feels like the official start of the second wave. Here in Toronto, indoor dining, gyms, and a bunch of other things were just shut down for the next 28 days.

But I think the more important takeaway from the article is this one here: the fundamentals around Canadian real estate remain incredibly strong. Another excerpt:

“Let’s visit the market in 2023: I suggest the market will show the same trend we have seen in as 2019. This is a pause, but the fundamentals of the real estate market in Canada are so strong that the demand factor will continue to be there and supply will be limited. I suggest that after a two- to three-year period of some sort of softness, despite the V-shaped recovery that we are seeing, I see continuation of the trend.”

As I’ve said before on the blog, it’s easy to get caught up in shorter-term and ephemeral headlines. But if one can look through some of that to the other side of this health crisis, I think we would all be in a position to make better decisions.

As a general rule, I don’t like making long-term real estate decisions based on what is expected to take place in the next 6 months.

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Percentage of young Americans now living with a parent

Here’s some data from the Pew Research Center looking at the percentage of young people (18- to 29-year olds) in the US that live with at least one parent. It it based on an analysis of monthly Census Bureau data and is obviously interesting/relevant given that this pandemic seems to have precipitated a number of people moving back home. As of July of this year, 52% of young adults were thought to be living with at least one parent, which is up from 47% back in February.

At first I was surprised to see these numbers as high as they are. But it’s really the 18-24 age bracket that is driving this number up, which makes sense given that a chunk of this demographic is probably in school, not working, and now unable to do much on a campus. Among 25- to 29-year olds, the range is significantly lower, with just over a quarter (26% -> 28%) living with their parent(s).

What I’m curious about now, after seeing this chart, is what is driving some of these regional, ethnic, and gender differences? Why are young midwesterners seemingly less likely to live with a parent compared to those in the northeast? Is it cultural? Economic? Or something else? And is the above an indication that maybe women are more independent than men?

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Bjarke Ingels and Rut Otero’s houseboat in Copenhagan

So I just learned that architects Bjarke Ingels and Rut Otero live in a converted Norwegian houseboat in Copenhagen’s harbor. A friend of mine sent me the Architectural Digest article this morning with the caption, “now I want one.” The space is exceedingly cool and interesting, but supposedly the heat and water stop working on occasion. Minor annoyance, I suppose. But in addition to being cool and interesting, there’s also a resiliency argument. Houseboats don’t have to worry about sea level rise, because they just float. (Could this type of floating housing be deployed at scale? Ingels thinks so.) In this case, they also repurposed an existing structure, which is generally more sustainable than building something new. I guess I’ll take one as well.

For the full houseboat tour, head over here.

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The internet is no longer American

This is the topic of Benedict Evan’s latest blog post, which is all about the internet, regulation, and the rise of China, as well as other countries. The internet is now deeply ingrained in everyday life. As of 2017, about 40% of Americans had met their partners online. We do everything online. But 80-90% of the world’s internet users are now outside of the US. There are more smartphone users in China than in the US and western Europe combined. And venture capital dollars have started to diversify away from just the US (see above chart). All of this — but mostly Tiktok — has Americans questioning how best to handle and how best to regulate.

Here’s an excerpt from Benedict’s post:

Both of these are captured in Tiktok. This is the first time that Americans have really had to deal with their teenagers using a form of mass media that isn’t created in their country by people who mostly share their values. It’s from somewhere else. That’s compounded by the fact that the ‘somewhere else’ is China, with all of the political and geopolitical issues that come with that, but I’d suggest that the core, structural issue is that it’s foreign. This is, of course, a problem that the rest of the world has been wrestling with since 1994, but it comes as something of a shock in Washington DC. There’s an old joke that war is how God teaches Americans geography – now it’s regulation.

For the full post, click here.

Image/facts: Benedict Evans