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Rethinking real estate

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Global property research expert Yolande Barnes explains how her industry experience will inform the work of The Bartlett’s newest institute.

Rethinking real estate

Chair Yolande Barnes giving her keynote speech at the launch of The Bartlett Real Estate Institute at Here East, Stratford, in October 2018.

Credit: Sean Pollock

“I suppose the first thing to say is that, I don’t feel like I’ve left the industry – and it’s probably quite important that I haven’t,” says Yolande Barnes, Chair of The Bartlett Real Estate Institute (BREI), the faculty’s newest department. “My role is to form the bridge between industry and academia.”

What Barnes did leave to take on the role, was her previous position as Head of Global Research at property company Savills. The new institute’s plan, she says, is to rethink real estate in a fundamental and global way.

To do this, in addition to traditional research and teaching, it is offering tailor-made executive education, consultancy to real-world projects, and space for real-estate practitioners and academics to come together and tackle the wicked problems of the 21st century. So it’s hardly a step away from the frontline for Barnes, who claims she’s “out to change the world” – at least the world of real estate.

We’ve got lots of ideas, and the important thing is that we provide a base for new things to emerge.

Professor Yolande Barnes

Barnes compares this approach to American institutions such as MIT, rather than other UK universities. She came to believe it was crucial after working for years across the entire spectrum of global real estate, unlike most in the sector who are confined to particular disciplines, typologies or locations.

This experience made it apparent to her that the primary barrier to the property industry’s future success was its tendency to work in silos – something BREI aims to break down by bringing together practitioners from across the sector and academic expertise from across The Bartlett.

Such an approach will be essential if the property industry is to take on the challenges of the 21st century, claims Barnes. For example, in May last year, the institute was awarded a grant to embark on research into solutions to the challenges posed by rapidly ageing populations. The project will span the UK and Japan, but the same dilemma is faced by much of the developed world.

“That has all sorts of knock-on effects; it changes the nature of finance, as well as demand for buildings,” Barnes points out. “The fact that institutions worldwide are searching for income streams to pay for pensions makes a huge difference to the funding and investment environment.”

Putting methodology into practice

Barnes’ experience at the highest levels of the sector means that she has a thorough grounding in what theory and research like this can mean in practice. For example, a paper she published recently with the Urban Land Institute looked at housing affordability measurements in European cities, proposing a methodology for comparing housing markets in different cities on a like-for-like basis.

As she explains: “It’s special because we measured affordability for a whole range of different income groups and different household types, so it gives a very nuanced picture of exactly what the problems are and where they lie rather than just using a crude house-price-to-income ratio.”

Such projects give a sense of the direction the institute will take, but its future is still unknown. “It’s wonderful that we don’t know exactly how how it’s all going to turn out,” Barnes says. “We’ve got lots of ideas, and the important thing is that we provide a base for new things to emerge.”

Emerging research themes

The new institute is organising its activity for the next three to five years around eight interlinked themes – “the last thing we want to do is create new silos,” insists Barnes. The themes include the already-mentioned ‘Housing Affordability’, as well as ‘Health and Wellbeing’ and ‘Learning Environments’, both themes in which the institute already offers short courses and, from September 2019, will also be offering MScs.

The other five themes are:

In the 21st century, it will be difficult to say where real estate stops and infrastructure starts – they both contribute to the shape of the built environment.

Professor Yolande Barnes

Digital Disruption

The use of new technologies pervades every aspect of life today and, in real estate, managing assets using 20th-century technology is very different than doing so using 21st-century technology. Barnes says that, “offers the opportunity to manage large tracts of land and buildings for income in a completely different way than they have been in the past, which in turn has an impact on what is built. For example, blockchain technology might change the way properties can be traded in future.”

Beyond Placemaking

The demand for real estate is changing with the millennial generation and with the demise of the out-of-town retail or business park. “Occupiers want ‘real city’ in all its complexity, and new forms of development and planning are needed to provide this,” says Barnes.

Community Inclusion

“One area we’re looking at is going beyond merely consulting with communities to understanding what people really want and need – working with them, rather than doing things to them,” says Barnes.

Real Estate Resilience

Here Barnes says the institute is looking at real estate and the environment “in its broadest sense”, so how you make the life of individual buildings longer, make them resilient to the changes that might happen and make them more environmentally friendly, as well as future proofing cities in different ways.

Infrastructure Interface

“In the 21st century, it will be difficult to say where real estate stops and infrastructure starts – they both contribute to the shape of the built environment,” says Barnes. “We want each to learn from the other. For example, infrastructure funding could be relevant to large-scale real estate development, looking, for example, at the relationship between infrastructure development and uplift in real estate and land values.”

The Real Estate Institute is a new global institute rethinking the traditional view of real estate. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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