It’s Not Only About Aesthetics
As an architect-turned-developer, I made one of the most difficult transitions in the profession of creating buildings. My architectural education and my years of practicing architecture on my own put a necessary focus on design. Why else does someone become an architect? That said, I also thought that I was paying close attention to the programmatic and functional needs of my clients, most of whom were condominium developers. However, when I became my own client as a real estate developer and marketer of multifamily condominiums, I learned a raft of lessons from the marketplace, lessons never taught in school and almost always learned the hard way.
Basically, I learned that I was in the business of selling condominiums, not designing or building them.
One of the first developers in this area who understood that lesson was The Green Company of Newton, MA. In the 1980’s, they developed relatively simple residential condominiums but they had the foresight to realize the concept of “curb appeal.” I was impressed by their use of landscaping (e.g. trellises, plantings, stone walls, etc.) to create an image of “home” in a world of barren, cookie-cutter housing tracts where the landscaping was left to the future owner. It’s a lesson that I never forgot and kudos to The Green Company who led the way to a greater understanding that landscaping was a valuable marketing tool, not just a budget line item if you could afford it at the end of the job. Kudos as well to Matarrazo, a New Hampshire-based landscape architecture firm that, at least to my knowledge, was the first to understand that they were in the marketing business when they worked for a developer like The Green Company.
When I think of designing to sell, I have to give credit to Jon Gollinger (as much as it pains me). For anyone involved with Boston real estate, Jon is a legend in terms of “going with the flow” – which is appropriate for a former EST trainer for those of you old enough to remember EST. He’s been a condominium marketer when the condominium market was hot and he’s been a condominium auctioneer when the condominium market was cold. And he’s done both with style and great success. Along with Sue Hawkes, Jon has been a friend of mine for many years and, through osmosis, a teacher. While Jon “is sometimes wrong, but never in doubt,” he’s a walking set of real estate aphorisms and very quotable. He’s also a very astute analyzer of architectural plans and he taught me one phrase that I’ve taken to heart in all of my development work: “The Master Bedroom closet should be one-third the size of the Master Bedroom.” OK, it’s not Sophocles, but it’s a good rule of thumb for an architect working for a condominium developer and it will spare his/her client from learning that lesson the hard way, from the marketplace.
Now comes the most basic of all design rules, but the one that is still the most broken. Amazingly so, I might add, since the word’s been out on this one for quite some time. “Empty-nesters,” as some of you may have noticed, are among the oldest folks in the population and yet, I’ve seen many, many developments designed specifically for this particular target market that have the Master Bedroom on the second floor, a level away from the living areas of the unit. Since most of there units are devoid of elevators, it means that this market, as they age, are relegated to climbing stairs. Unfortunately for the developer, the “empty-nester” knows that aging doesn’t make one more agile and, consequently, they eschew these types of “empty-nester” units in droves. Even if the Master Bedroom closet is larger than the Master Bedroom (see above), it won’t help the developer recover from this fatal mistake. And, because the units aimed at “Empty-nesters” are often larger then units for “first-time” or “move-up” buyers, the price levels tend to eliminate their flexibility relative to switching gears to attract either of those younger target markets.
I could go on, for there are numerous examples of an architectural faux pas that decimated the well-intentioned dreams of a condominium developer. I’ve seen units where the living areas were almost impossible to furnish (that was the knock on the much-heralded Macallen Building in Boston, an interesting architectural tour de force that is hailed as “the first green condominium building” in Boston. I’ve also seen condominium buildings that were designed facing the wrong way, needlessly emphasizing the minor views and subordinating the best views in Boston (I won’t cite this particular example since the developer is a good friend of mine and I want to remain friends). Suffice it to say that some of the best architecture has resulted in some of the poorest performers in the marketplace…and, if you’re in the business of selling condominiums, that’s the only place where it matters.
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photo courtesy: wag314