Investors and developers behind real estate and city planning projects are highly attuned to the ups and downs of the global economy, since their work requires significant capital, raw materials, and international supply chain coordination (not to mention favorable local-government policies). The unprecedented instability of 2020 will reverberate for years to come, but it’s also being met by the ingenuity of numerous forward-thinking builders. From recognizing undervalued assets to pushing inventive building techniques, several companies are showing that big ideas and long-term vision will help us ride out the uncertainty ahead.
1. Stablegold Hospitality
For knitting together a housing safety net in struggling cities
Affordable extended-stay hotels may not be glamorous, but they accommodate hundreds of low- and no-income residents in cities across the country. By targeting and rehabilitating nine of these lower-end and often overlooked commercial properties in economically challenged areas in Georgia and North Dakota, Atlanta-based Stablegold Hospitality has created the kind of housing safety net many cities struggle to provide on their own, and, it says, turned a profit in the process. During the pandemic, the company, which partners with various local nonprofits, has temporarily reduced (or eliminated) rent and created an emergency fund for its staff.
For cutting the cost and timeline of construction
Veev is not the only company using a factory to make buildings, but with a uniquely integrated approach that pulls design, material supply chain, manufacturing, and construction in-house, it’s carving a niche of pure efficiency. The company can build housing at half the cost of traditional construction and four times faster, which it demonstrated when the City of San Jose set out to build emergency housing amid the pandemic. The 78-unit development was built in under 90 days.
For creating a building material that’s friendly to both the climate and the developing world
As one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of building materials, LafargeHolcim knows that construction is responsible for more than a tenth of global carbon emissions. To help counteract this impact, the company developed Durabric, a strong, affordable, and carbon-light earthen brick that requires no kiln firing. It’s bringing down the cost of building in Malawi where a quarter of the population lives in extreme poverty, and two mobile manufacturing plants opened over the last year are providing Malawians hundreds of jobs.
For making a long-term commitment to large-scale urban development
Providing more than 6,000 jobs and another 9,000 on the way for companies like Square, Boeing, and dozens of small startups, the mixed use Cortex Innovation Community in St. Louis, MO, is proof that large-scale planning still works. HOK has championed the urban ambitions of this 200-acre project since 2002, turning a formerly blighted industrial district into a live-work neighborhood and technology-focused business hub, with eight new buildings, three full renovations, and several new buildings under development. Last year, for example, a new hub for biotech company BioSTL opened in a historic building that housed a printing press in the 1930’s. Planned from the start to be more than just an office park, Cortex has been thoughtfully woven into the fabric of this part of the city with a central public park, multiple dining options and its own light rail station.
5. Ascent Real Estate Capital
For preserving affordable housing, creatively
A small firm with a bold vision, this Charlotte-based investment company has spearheaded the creation of a $58 million fund to preserve 1,500 units of affordable housing in its growing city while providing investors with modest but consistent returns. By buying up apartment buildings in gentrifying neighborhoods and using long-term deed restrictions to keep rents affordable, the effort is saving scarce affordable housing. The fund closed on its first property in December and has even partnered with local officials to convert property tax payments into rent subsidies for people with incomes as low as 30% of the area average.
For turning 3D printing into a way to build
Icon continues to demonstrate new applications for its novel building technique. Last March, the company 3D-printed six 400-square-foot homes at a planned community of permanently affordable housing in Austin. The company is also flexing its tech to build larger market-rate homes, too, and working with NASA on a project to one day fabricate structures on the moon.
For streamlining the renovation of vacant homes in Japan
Japan’s aging population is contributing to a rampant problem of vacant homes throughout the country. Renoveru is offering a solution in the form of renovation – a concept that’s still new in a housing market with little resale activity. Offsetting the waste of demolition and opening new opportunities to reuse vacant structures, the company brings together designers, construction companies, loan providers and mostly first-time homebuyers to renovate roughly 600 projects annually. In 2020, Renoveru launched a remote construction management tool, giving its designers real-time video access to review and guide contractors’ work on site.
For combining talents to mass-produce buildings
The logical offspring of home furnishings giant Ikea and construction behemoth Skanska, BoKlok is a prefabricated starter-home company with the reach and potential to revolutionize the mass production of buildings. Since dabbling with its first projects in the late ’90s, the company has developed about 11,000 homes for average income families in Sweden, Finland and Norway. In 2020, Boklok expanded into the United Kingdom, and inked a deal in December to build 1,000 new homes in Southern England in 2021.
For developing a carbon-neutral urban district
With nine buildings in the Barangaroo district of central Sydney, multinational construction company Lendlease has completed construction on a chunk of modern high-rise urbanity over the past year that’s surprisingly carbon-neutral. Key to the project is the centralized infrastructure shared by each building, from power to heating and cooling to waste management. A super efficient district cooling plant provides low-energy air conditioning by pulling in cold water directly from Sydney Harbor, resulting in massive savings.
For envisioning a path to the car-light city
An architecture and urban design firm charismatically led by Vishaan Chakrabarti, former director of the Manhattan office of the New York Department of City Planning, PAU drew on its NYC experience to create a surprisingly feasible proposal last July for transitioning to a nearly car-free urban environment. Grounded in policy and specific recommendations, the plan shows how to ban private vehicles from Manhattan without grinding the city to a halt. Though still a proposal, the concept represents the kind of clever and reasoned planning that today’s cities need.