Greener Grass

Exploring the black box of real estate

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    A Search for Greener Grass

    By amlocke
    Sep 16, '14 9:23 PM EST

    Architects rarely ‘architect.’ This is the lesson I learned 5 years ago while I was in my 3rd year in architecture school and had two summers of internships under my belt. Rather than the illustrious profession I had imagined, I was aghast to find the gaping disconnect between academic studies and professional practice. The importance of the progression of theoretical exploration in the built environment was highly stressed in the academic arena, but this pedagogy was scarce in the current architecture profession. Architects bowed to the whims of their clients, sacrificing truth, authenticity, and innovation for security, economy, and placating exteriority. Those endowed enough to find themselves designing on the fringes of theory and technology were treated like chattel, working 70 to 80+ hours a week, making less than their peers, with tremendous student loans, and living in substandard rental housing in some of the most expensive cities in the world. The profession in majority is a consultancy for formulaic repetition given rise to precedential innovation, whenever economically lucrative and legally prudent. Consequently, the practice of capital ‘A’ architecture has become a privilege given to the elite, designing for the wealthy 1% of the world.

    What’s the alternative? “Why can’t architects be their own clients?” John Portman pioneered this practice in his heyday, but was principally alone in the field as architects garnering an equity stake in their work was largely considered taboo. But the proscribed nature of the beast has not been the driving force in keeping architects from equity. The chief deterrents have always been what’s missing from the architect’s toolbox; real estate knowledge. However, it seems a plethora of architects have been cracking open excel and making the transition. James Loewenberg, David Hovey, Jared Della Valle, Tim McDonald, and Jonathan Segal have all expanded their skillsets into real estate without leaving the architecture profession completely. Clearly there’s precedent for such a transition.

    After returning from my 4th year study abroad, I started taking courses in real estate at a community college. I had my plan worked out. First I was to become a licensed architect by completing the required IDP hours and AREs, then obtain my broker license by passing the required test. Finally, I was to gain my contractor’s license by working with a licensed contractor for a single year on a development of my own. Combined with credit given to university level experience, I could obtain 3 licensures and become an architect/builder/owner 3 years out of undergrad. However, upon further exploration and discussions with mentors, I soon realized the severity of the legal exposure and investment risk, the bureaucratic stamina required in dealing with three separate, highly regulated licenses, as well as the sluggish growth rate of such a business venture. But what if I could practice without all the licenses? I would need real estate experience, and that is hard to come by for a 22 year old architecture graduate.

    I began a spreadsheet entitled grad school evaluation criteria. Among others, the headers included school, year established, tuition and fees, living expenses, duration, total cost, location, and experienced required. I swiftly priced out a number of options, disenchanted with some, and reluctantly lacking experience for one. This left Harvard University’s “Master in Design Studies in Real Estate and the Built Environment” and Columbia University’s “Master of Science in Real Estate Development.” I spent a year accumulating a solid application before I applied to both. Upon acceptance I spoke with faculty, students, and professionals, visited each school, and reaffirmed my career goals, as well as assessed the values of each program on a restaurant tablecloth before coming to a decision. I would attend Harvard.

    After completing an internship in real estate private equity over this past summer, I have now begun my second year in the MDesS Real Estate Program. Next week I’ll touch on the curriculum, the idiosyncrasies of the program, and why I feel it’s the most underrated real estate program available today.

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About this Blog

Greener Grass documents the lessons and experiences learned as a former architecture student studying real estate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. It seeks to share real-time insight into the industry, forging a better understanding for architects about what makes the project tick.

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