Real Estate by Design

City skyline with construction of skyscrapers in the foreground

Photograph by david P. Hilass/iStock

Real estate, as the saying goes, is about location, location, location. But it is also about timing. By one estimate, nearly one-sixth of U.S. commercial office space was vacant this past summer: a greater share than after the financial crisis and Great Recession of 2008-2009—despite an economy so robust that the Federal Reserve Board has been struggling to cool things down. Post-pandemic, of course, millions of former office denizens have continued to toil from home, causing collateral damage to downtown restaurants and bars, dry cleaners, entertainment venues: the whole array of retail spaces. A recent Class B (older) office-building sale in downtown Boston netted $45 million: nearly $10 million less than in 2013 (and, ominously for future tax revenues, $24 million less than the city’s assessed value for the property).

Is the master in real estate (MRE) degree program debuting at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) this semester an opportunistic investment at the darkest point, just before a hoped-for dawn? Not at all. As Williams professor of urban planning and design Jerold S. Kayden, the MRE’s founding director, explained before classes convened, the school began three years ago to review its “real estate and the built environment” concentration within a larger master’s program. In conversations among its faculty, across Harvard (particularly at the business and law schools, which have each offered a few pertinent courses), and with industry professionals, he found the need for a course of study that embraced two “foundational pillars.”

The first is teaching students “how to acquire or sharpen traditional real estate skills”: finance and development, market analysis, and so on. The second is helping them learn how to develop “well-designed real estate that advances beneficial spatial, social, and environmental outcomes.” Given that the school’s mission is “shaping the built environment,” as Kayden put it, GSD necessarily involves real estate but has not addressed the field comprehensively before. Now, as the world “is demanding” that real-estate fulfill multiple objectives, a comprehensive school—with departments of architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and design, and programs in design studies and design engineering—cannot stand aside from the tangible, rapidly changing outcomes of those disciplines. Nor does it make sense to sell short its collective expertise on challenges ranging from social housing to resiliency to climate change.

Lest anyone doubt the relevance of those disciplines to development, Kayden noted, the European Union already requires corporate reporting on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is considering more disclosure of climate change risks, local governments increasingly insist that market-rate housing projects include affordable units (not to mention meeting tougher climate standards), and so on. For every property developer, owner, or operator, he said, the more complex standards and requirements are “a real thing, and [they are] changing the real estate industry in fundamental ways.” Given that real estate is the largest financial asset class in the world, and, as a sector, a major source of greenhouse gases, he said, new disciplines and approaches are both essential and inevitable. Accordingly, GSD had to offer a framework that goes beyond design to cover finance, law, politics, and more—everything the practitioners of the future will need to know “to actually make real estate happen.”

The one-year program mixes required and elective courses from August through May, followed by a two-month practicum embedded in a for-profit, nonprofit, or public organization working on actual development projects, and concluding with a paper and presentations on that immersion. The fall curriculum covers finance, development, and management; urban economics and market analysis; design; and real estate, society, and the environment. A January session focuses intensively on construction and project management and new technologies, and leads into spring-term advanced work on finance and development; public and private sector challenges; conceiving and managing a development project; and real estate law. Alongside the practicum, students have units on negotiation, and entrepreneurship and ethics.

It’s a lot to cover, with a clear focus on practice. In the design class, for example, Kayden said students consider “what do real estate actors need to know about design” to make projects work: the nitty-gritty details about where to site loading docks, lobbies, elevators, and a building’s mechanical core—but also how to “have the most productive relationship with designers,” and to increase the value of a project (in all senses) through good design.

Elective courses broaden the palette. “It Takes a Village,” taught by Carl J. Rodrigues, chief executive of Harvard Allston Land Company (which oversees the University’s commercial campus development), examines the community groups, elected officials, and public actors who shape and approve projects; it draws on his experiences in economic and real estate development in New York City—perhaps the most complex market in the country. “Race and Real Estate,” taught by assistant professor of urban design Dana McKinney White, addresses what Kayden called “the rotten record real estate has had, not just in the United States.” Teaching faculty also include lecturers appointed from across the industry who will bring their expertise to bear on subjects such as affordable housing, finance, and international development.

So far, the menu has proved appealing. Some 260 people applied, Kayden reported, and 35 from among the small cohort of those accepted have enrolled—diverse in backgrounds and prior career experiences, and averaging 30 years in age. They are about evenly mixed between United States and international citizens, and were attracted both by the curriculum and the caliber of the practicum partners, who range from BRIDGE Housing and Winn Development (affordable housing developers) and Hines and Portman Holdings (real estate investment, development, and management) to Suffolk (contractor/development) and TEMES Group (tourism and destination real estate in Greece)—among others.

Now that the MRE is live, Kayden said the students, faculty, and he himself are “excited about the idea, excited about the program.” Both timing and location, within the Graduate School of Design, seem just right.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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