Greener Grass

Exploring the black box of real estate

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    Filling the Void

    By amlocke
    Oct 7, '14 12:57 PM EST

    Architects are generalists. The core of our curriculum - design, tectonics, construction, structural engineering, mechanical systems, sustainability, urbanization, zoning, etc - prepares us to juggle multiple components of the architectural process, aggregating into a cohesive end result. We are problem solvers, but are we problem finders? In other words, can architects recognize opportunities in the built environment to improve the way humans live and interact with each other? I undoubtedly believe yes…and no.

    Innovation and invention is ubiquitous within an architecture school, but practicality is at times scant. When did the last studio project you completed have a capital plan? Your loft space offers daylight into your closets - so stoked for you - but what’s the absorption rate in this market? I have a sketchbook full of great ideas, or so I thought until I learned how to underwrite. There is a multitude of opportunity to actually implement great design in the world, but the architect does not have all the necessary tools in his toolbox to capitalize on alone. It would seem the architect can either find individuals with complementary skillsets and equal value on design, or learn the complementary skillsets. But how many bankers do you know can hold a conversation about “Junkspace”? If you find one, handcuff yourself to them and forget about graduate school. Unfortunately, the capacity of my rolodex was exiguous in this category. If I was to become some sort of “hyper-generalist,” I would first need to fill the void in my financial toolbox. The solution, as I mentioned in detail in my previous post, was Harvard’s Master in Design Studies in Real Estate and the Built Environment (MDesS REBE).

    Program Director/Area Coordinator Bing Wang expressed the most decorous mantra for the curriculum in two words – “Thought leadership.” By this she explained, “don’t follow the market, theorize its trajectory.” In a recent panel discussion Program Director Frank Apeseche further augmented the benefits of the MDesS Real Estate program touching on four points:

    1.The concentration of research faculty at the GSD facilitates thought leadership.

    2. Access to classes and faculty at Harvard Business School, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard Law School, and Harvard College allow students to exploit resources.

    3. All colleges at Harvard have the infrastructure for innovation, and specifically, we have the capacity for innovation around real estate.

    4. An ever-growing network connects the industry to students and faculty.

    Frank’s explanation of benefits certainly touches on the crux of the program, but a meticulous discourse of select courses may portray a more exhaustive understanding of the program. As are all MDesS concentrations, the Real Estate program is a three semester degree, but can be “split” and extended into a two year program. This requires “splitting” 20 credits in your second year into two semesters, essentially taking two courses one semester and three the next. This allows the student to concentrate more thoroughly on thesis research.

    With four required courses and eight electives, the degree is highly customizable, allowing one to concentrate on a single or multiple facets of the real estate industry. Interested in risk management - take a class at HKS. Want to dive into small business - take a course at HBS. Even polishing up your architectural theory is entirely possible, though not recommended. I came to the GSD to fill a void, and thus far have been successful in doing so.

    The following classes were recommended based on their relevancy to my career path:

    Semester 1

    Real Estate Finance and Development

    Richard Peiser


    This is the core of my real estate curriculum. Here I learned through the case study method how to evaluate, underwrite, and analyze all stages of the development process for all product types. Guest lecturers, to whom the cases were written, would occasionally visit to teach the course.

    Market Analysis and Urban Economics

    Raymond Torto


    Underwriting skills have little value if you don’t know where and when to build. The micro and macro “analytical tools” necessary in reading the market are taught in regards to the cyclical market trends in project specific global markets.

    Real Estate and City Making in China

    Bing Wang


    This course explores the convergence of real estate concepts and paradigms with “city making” in the bourgeoning new urban development in China. Given the growing relevance of real estate in China, this course is a must for those interested in any global sophomoric market.

    East Boston Waterfront Studio

    Alex Krieger, Larry Kurtis, Matthew Kiefer

    Independent Study

    Listed as a studio course and taught by an architect, developer, and lawyer. I worked within interdisciplinary teams to master plan the phased redevelopment of one million square feet within the East Boston Shipyard.

    Eastie Art Yard at full buildout

    Eastie Art Yard Phase 5 Analysis

    Semester 2

    Public and Private Development

    Jerold Kayden


    This course remains highly relevant given the emergence of public private development deals. At its core is the exploration of complex frameworks of public planning and private development goals. The crux of the class was a mock negotiation between teams of developers and city planners.

    Design of Real Estate

    Bing Wang


    This course answers the question – what is the value of design? By exploring various building typologies and their given value and relevancy in contemporary development, I gained an understanding of how design may be quantifiable. This is where my sketchbook ideas were put to the test.

    Global Leadership in Real Estate and Design

    Bing Wang, Eugene Kohn


    Similar to a studio course, this field study traveled to Guangzhou, China to explore our site and the region, meeting with stakeholders, brokers, and developers. Given the locale, innovation was critical as once again my interdisciplinary team formulated a financially feasible and architecturally progressive design for 22 hectares of waterfront property.

    Tiantang Ding Master Plan

    Tiantang Ding's Mountainous Cross Section Tiantang City from the Pearl River

    Advanced Real Estate Finance

    Richard Peiser

    Elective Seminar (half semester)

    Building on the previous semester, the course delves deeper into real estate financial analysis, ranging from distressed debt to international real estate funds. I am yet to understand why it’s not a required course.

    Building and Leading Real Estate Enterprises and Entrepreneurship

    Frank Apeseche

    Elective Seminar (half semester)

    For those interested in “starting your own thing,” this course discusses the ingredients which formulate sustainable real estate companies. From acquisition and turnaround to startups, the course breathes insight into the inner workings of a real estate company.

    Semester 3

    Real Estate Ventures

    Tod McGrath – MIT


    Jumping across Cambridge, I elected to take a course at MIT. The course literally negotiates through six of the most common real estate contracts over the semester. Teams meet with actual legal counsel, and debates are juried by industry leaders with years of knowledge.

    Field Studies in Real Estate Planning and Urban Design

    Richard Peiser


    The relevance of the field study course is insurmountable. This semester’s field study is in Dallas Texas, on 4.7 million square feet of industrial property formerly owned by the US Navy. Now vacant, the site is ripe for revitalization and repositioning. As this course is still in process, it will be the topic of future blog posts.

    Program Overview

    In short, the MDesS Real Estate program is a flexible, dynamic, and highly entrepreneurial ecosystem of real estate resources, directed toward innovation in the intersection of our built environment and the capital markets which fund its growth.  

    • 1 Comment

    • zhiweizhou

      This review is very helpful! As a B.Arch graduate who just began working in real estate field, I have thought a lot about the value that design can contribute to the financial success of the whole project and I felt architectural design and real estate are still too separate that many conflicts would happen in business.  Something is needed as lubricant in between.

      Mar 10, 17 6:10 pm  · 

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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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