I recently had the exciting opportunity to attend the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) 2017 Fall Meeting in Los Angeles. If you’re unfamiliar, ULI is an organization that brings together thought leaders from every sector of the real estate industry to share ideas, best practices and lessons learned from projects across the world. I’ve been able to attend numerous ULI events during my career and they never fail to inspire.

This year’s event in LA brought together more than 6,000 people to address topics ranging from creating spaces for equity to rethinking how we approach urban housing projects and even keynotes from Frank Gehry and Magic Johnson. There was a lot to take in and learn, and I’ve tried to summarize four key sessions and ideas that stood out to me from the conference.

Housing Innovation: Function Over Form

For those who follow housing development trends, it can often seem like a mildly superficial discussion with style, finish and amenities always dominating the discussion. Fortunately, this session at ULI 2017 focused on function over form, presenting a series of innovative housing projects relative to The MAYA – most-advanced-yet-acceptable – principle. Of the many projects the panel scored, four that resonated most with me included

  • Black Apple Communities, Bentonville, AR – This project features small, detached houses with generous communal space and minimal parking. It’s located near the Crystal Bridges museum and within biking distance to a walkable main street – all adding up to make it an attractive concept for other edge neighborhoods.

Joe Wittkop Photography

  • 28 Grand, Detroit, MI – With its prime location, design and amenities, 28 Grand proves high-end micro apartments are a viable model in markets well beyond New York. This project also demonstrates an unmet market that seemed to be on everyone’s mind at this year’s ULI event: cool, urban rental units.
  • CLEO at Playa Vista, CA – In real estate (and life), when you are not talking about Millennials you are probably talking about Boomers. How do you encourage this generation to leave single-family homes and live in more communal housing. This project is tackling that challenge, and to understand its intelligence, you need to study its plans. Each of CLEO’s level is an individual “flat,” compressing a 3-bedroom house onto a single story with covered parking and elevator access.
  • Common Baltic, Brooklyn, NY – Three words: Brooklyn, co-living, cool. The step between a dorm room and your own apartment is an increasingly intimidating prospect – particularly in the most attractive housing markets. This hybrid model creates efficiency through density of units, while also providing for greater community…as long as your roommate does their dishes.

Photo: Common Baltic

Materials Scientists are the New Architects

This session introduced me to Matt Johnson’s company Bare Conductive, a company that offers an exciting peek toward the future of our built environments. A paint company with just one color (black) to choose from at first glance, Bare Conductive is actually a material science and technology company uniquely combining the material innovation of a company like 3M with the consumer accessibility of Apple’s App Store. The company is driving us toward a future where many of our basic building elements are embedded – at the material level – with the capacity to be ultra-precise and widely distributed. For example, imagine being able to touch any piece of a wall to turn on the lights or a floor that tracks and reacts to your every footfall. These possible breakthrough products give new meaning to the term “building skin.”

Even more interesting, Bare Collective’s business model is rooted in an open-source philosophy that actively encourages industrial clients, artists, designers, artisans and crafters to give their technology a whirl – yes, you can even find them on Etsy.

Photo: Bare Conductive

Richard Florida’s Faith in the City is Being Tested

Renowned urbanist and author Richard Florida will always be a rock star at any urban-focused conference. His influential work “The Rise of the Creative Class” mesmerized policy and urban wonks at the beginning of the millennium with a largely optimistic post-industrial city that creates tremendous societal value not through factories and steel mills, but through creative innovation.

Florida memorably describes this cosmopolitan power of cities to create wealth through the 3Ts: talent, tolerance and technology. But, the recent global social and political backlash to economic inequality – taking place in almost every major developed country – has caused Florida to look more critically at the “winter-takes-all” urbanism of this new economy. His new book introduces a system where few people in a handful of cities have unequal access to wealth. While Florida offers some potential solutions for this challenge, his book’s value as a data-based diagnostic assessment makes it a must-read for designers, politicians and everyday citizens. Hearing him share his thoughts in person was informative and thought-provoking.

The Coolest Places to Work Maybe Telephone Booths and Treehouses

Here’s all you need to know to be excited about the future of the workplace – you are probably not getting an office, but – on the bright side – you might get a telephone booth or even a treehouse. Not surprisingly, the topic of the “future of the workplace” is too complex for one single post (I’ll dedicate a full post to this in the near future) but, it is worth noting the trend toward “free address” office spaces coming to every market.

That doesn’t mean our future workplaces will be 100% totally open, frenetic, collaborative and undifferentiated. On the contrary, this panel all seemed to agree with Generation Z and their very real preference for privacy over transparency and scheduled collaboration over constant team interaction. So while people may not have private offices in the future, they may have increased opportunities to find privacy, connect with nature and move between different scales of spaces. This desire for more niche spaces within the workplace drives the high demands at WeWork for their “telephone booth” spaces, and also explains IBM’s recent addition of treehouses at their Redmond campus.

Truthfully, there were a dozen more interesting ideas I found at ULI’s 2017 fall conference (I’ll probably write another post or two about the event before 2017 becomes 2018). Year in and year out, it proves to be a barometer for the real estate industry and a cutting-edge glimpse at how our built environment evolves.