Design Thinking Meets Real Estate

Design Thinking Meets Real Estate

What if the focus on taking fewer calculated risks in real estate has inherently made us less exciting, and perhaps even less grounded in our histories and identities?

The “fuzzy front end of design thinking” is an area that many designers are familiar with. It is often referred to as the hardest area to garner funding and the first to see it cut in large agency projects. It is hard to quantify the impact of thinking. Harder still when there isn’t anything to see, yet. But the things we can’t see are often the most important when it comes to a successful design process.


No place is this more true today than commercial real estate, an industry where almost all the emphasis is on the thing: build itas cheaply, as efficiently, aye maybe even as beautifully as possible. But what about building for usability? Orbuilding for flexibility? Or building for evolution?

It’s a rare occasion today that a real estate developer is thinking about what a building will be in 50 years when he builds it. The more typical real estate developer is thinking about how to maximize rents and increase profit margins from construction as quickly as possible.  Almost by its very nature, real estate tries to be predictable. As a recent report by Harvard’s Journal of Real Estate states:

“In real estate, ‘innovation’ can be precarious…To many, the prospect of ‘innovation’ invites undue peril. Why subject the already risk-prone process of building or operating real estate to additional uncertainty?”

Our Stories Matter

But what if the focus on taking fewer calculated risks in real estate has inherently made us less exciting, and perhaps even less grounded in our histories and identities? Daniel Libeskind, renowned New York architect, puts it well when he says “Architecture is the biggest unwritten document of history.” Our buildings tell our story. And they are the places in which we live our story, in all its greatness and boldness or in all of its mediocrity and cowardice. Our buildings can be places that lift us up, because they are artful and inspirational, or they can be places that bring us low, because they are predictable or static or dull.

Modern buildings are rarely created to stand the test of time. Instead of building structures that will last for centuries, architects now focus on creating buildings that will last up to 100 years. To many, it now seems archaic to think that a building might outlive one’s children, that it might survive wars and fires and social upheavals. A building should be disposable, we say, perhaps not unlike a modern garment: a thing that lasts only for a moment and then is cast off when its out of style or no longer matches our shape and accessories. But great buildings are not like garments. They stand the test of time, and they serve as relics of history and culture and community that outlive the best of us and translate our experiences to future generations. And I would argue that great buildings can almost always be repurposed for new uses, uses that could not have even been conceived when these buildings were originally constructed.

New Opportunities Come with A Rise in Temporal Space

The current trend in architecture is to envision spaces that will last for 5-10 years, and will need a facelift or bulldoze soon thereafter. Our public and private spaces have become increasingly temporary, and accordingly our budgets for both have shrunk. It is difficult to justify a design budget for beautiful stonework in a company office, for example, if the company founders have no plans to stick around past IPO. Accordingly, our spaces feel increasingly disposable, as do the objects we place in them, such as furniture, accessories, and artwork.

This trend toward disposability is not all bad. In fact I would argue that the solution may not be to aim for longevity. The remedy, I posit, may be to design for modularity and adaptability, historicity and innovation, not just current function. To prime the appetites of developers for risk and experimentation, the cure might just be to help them reimagine the transactional nature of a built environment.

This kind of thinking about real estate will take great courage. It was also take great thoughtfulness. Further, it will take caretakers who are willing to wait long enough to “get the question right” before rushing to the master plan. It will necessitate innovation, and failure. It will necessitate getting up, dusting ourselves off and trying again. Those who play in this kind of real estate design and development will sometimes get it wrong, but they will also sometimes get it right, really right. And all those who enter the buildings of those who persist in this sort of courageous work will see and feel the difference.

Fuzzy front end thinking, i.e. design thinking, is just the kind of thinking that real estate needs. It’s just the kind of thinking that typical real estate budgets have been designed to squelch. Conversely, design thinkers have a lot to learn from real estate developers, those who feel the push of the bottom line and work tirelessly to raise capital to turn designs into artifacts and squeeze just a little more out of a dollar. These developers live on the other side of the fuzzy front end, they live in the action; they can teach designers to hone their craft for action and design for implementation. Real estate developers and design thinkers don’t meet too often in the public square, and rarely do business together. But perhaps they should?

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