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Sep 15 17

Self-Storage: A Resilient Investment With Legs?

by John Brydon-Harris

Locked self storage unit.
The idea of a recession-proof investment opportunity is persuasive. Nevertheless, with any investment there is an inherent risk. One area of real estate investment that shows potential for resilience in the face of economic uncertainty is self-storage facilities.

Lower maintenance and staffing costs, greater resiliency to higher vacancy levels, as well as the movement toward more compact living arrangements have all created an increased need for storage space. The result to date: New customer-friendly models and solid opportunities for continuing growth.

The niche appeals to both small and large-scale investors (including REITs), as both can benefit from the lower maintenance and staffing costs in the self-storage industry compared to those of multi-unit properties.

And the self-storage business has legs; according to a recent article in Maclean’s: “Self-storage is booming in Canada. Americans enjoy more self-storage space per capita than anybody-nine sq. feet-whereas Canadians lag at two. In that great discrepancy, the domestic industry senses room for growth.”

Across the country, much of the growth is driven by homegrown companies. In the GTA, for example, 30 plus new sites (some two million sq. feet) of new storage are now under development by Canadian companies.

On-demand delivery

Industry innovators appeal particularly to busy millennial clients with a storage model that includes pick up and delivery options. As well as affordable rates, many new facilities have incorporated value added services. Ottawa-based Dymon Group’s Etobicoke facility, now under construction, will feature a dedicated wine storage space and sommelier. Dymon trucks will also deliver and return seasonal items such as bikes or skis. Expected to include 500,000 sq. ft. (46451.5 sq. m), the development will be housed in a re-purposed warehouse.

It’s likely this continuing innovation will drive the growth of self-storage companies to create more choice and a greater sense of value for customers.

Potential barriers

In the meantime, many cities have yet to catch the wave. While U.S.-based MakeSpace now has storage facilities in four locations, others have found barriers to expansion. In many cases it’s proven more cost effective to retrofit an existing warehouse or industrial plant into a self-storage facility; it can be difficult to get approval for new construction in some locations, as local governments generally prefer to see increased construction of housing or other commercial/ industrial ventures that are more likely to create additional long-term employment opportunities.

Meanwhile regulations and incentives vary, and investors would be wise to thoroughly research the self-storage industry and the location under consideration. Concerning? Perhaps. But the eventual rewards may make it a worthwhile investment.

Jul 11 17

Adaptive Reuse: A “Major Force” in the Market

by John Brydon-Harris

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Merriam-Webster defines adaptive reuse as “the renovation and reuse of pre-existing structures (such as warehouses) for new purposes.”

And while this is hardly a new idea, a lot has changed since 1967. In that year, the Jefferson Market Library, formerly the Jefferson Market Courthouse, was opened by the New York Public Library system as a branch, becoming one of the first such conversions.

Still in operation, the “old Jeff” led the way for many other adaptive reuse projects across North America – from the conversions of factories and warehouses into lofts to the redevelopment of an indoor mall into “micro-units” and an unused rail line into a park.

As an article in the Observer notes, “The Jefferson Market Library ultimately set the stage for more creative and unexpected adaptive reuse projects, and adaptive reuse would emerge as a major force in the modern real estate market.”

As a concept, adaptive reuse achieves two key purposes: maintaining the façade of historic buildings while totally revolutionizing their function, and responding to the need for more (and different) types of housing in industrial urban areas. Notes a recent post in Forbes, “As cities evolved, centrally located buildings that once served a non-residential purpose (e.g., mills, factories, warehouses) are now placed in areas that present attractive residential opportunities.”

Comments Alex Herrera, a director at the New York Landmarks Conservancy, “Adaptive reuse is here to stay. Now, any architect worth his salt has a few of these projects.”

New technology enabled adaptive reuse projects. And, as Herrera points out, so did European immigrants skilled in restoring old buildings, who began arriving in North America in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, challenges abound in rejigging old buildings to conform to current health and safety standards.

There are usually unanticipated costs that appear in all stages of a project, and some buildings – churches in particular – can be hard to convert. In some cases, developers must clean up brownfield lands before construction can begin.

Once facing demolition, many heritage buildings across the country have been re-created to serve a new purpose.

As the Gardiner Green Ribbon group, supporters of a recreational park over Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, suggests, “Adaptive reuse is significantly more sustainable than creating new structures … and keeps unnecessary waste out of landfills.”

Case in point: The Evergreen Brickworks is an abandoned former industrial site composed of several brick-making factories.

It was envisioned as a community centre in the early 1990s, and over the years, the polluted soil has been remediated, shells of former buildings have been renovated and new structures have been added.

As a “green” centre, it now hosts workshops and events, and has become a popular attraction to Toronto residents and tourists alike.

Mar 7 17

Will Purpose-Built Rentals Disrupt the Market?

by John Brydon-Harris

RentalAptBldgThere’s a growing commercial real estate trend that is quietly, but surely, creating ripples in the market, and it’s time we paid it some attention: purpose-built rentals are back and they’re growing in popularity.

Thanks to an ideal set of “growing conditions,” including a lack of affordable inventory for would-be buyers, changing attitudes about long-term or permanent renting, and low borrowing rates for buyers and developers, there’s a new wave in construction of purpose-built rental buildings, defined by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation as “privately initiated, purpose-built rental structures of three units or more.”

The resurgence of purpose-built rentals

Purpose-built rental buildings are, of course, far from a new idea, but new builds have all but disappeared in recent years. According to a recent article onhuffingtonpost.ca, the all-time-high interest rates of the early 1990s saw construction of new purpose-built rental buildings slow to a trickle, as they became too expensive to build. In recent years, especially in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, the focus has been on building high-rise condo towers comprising all for-purchase units or a mix of for-purchase and for-rent residences; it’s been rare to see new builds of rental-only units.

But that’s changing. According to a recent report from Urbanation, a Toronto real estate market research group, close to 12,000 purpose-built rental units are under construction, nearing completion, or proposed for construction in the Greater Toronto Area. As senior vice president Shaun Hildebrand comments, “The development industry realizes the demand for rental has longevity – this is not a fad.”

The trend has significant benefits for both renters and developers. For renters, a professionally managed rental building may mean a better quality of life. Superintendents and building managers are likely to abide by regulations and pay attention to maintenance of units and outdoor spaces. These buildings may also have sought-after amenities like laundry rooms, party spaces, underground parking, and even pools and gyms.

For building owners and operators, rental units can be the gift that keeps on giving. Instead of a onetime sale of a brand-new condo unit, rental units bring in a steady cash flow for the lifetime of the building’s use as a rental residence. And the rental price can legally be raised according to schedule, ensuring profit.

The downsides

There are drawbacks, too. As evidenced by the number of older buildings that have seen their demographics shift, vacancy rates rise, and quality decline, purpose-built rentals can quickly lose their luster in the shadow of new rental buildings or condominium towers. They require significant upkeep and cosmetic work to keep them as attractive options for renters.

It’s too early to determine just how much the trend will grow, and if or how it will produce significant shifts in the housing market. But for now, as affordability and inventory of homes decline, and investors look for smart places to put their money, purpose-built rental buildings remain a trend to watch.

Feb 3 17

Finding Home Sweet Home for Your Business Family

by John Brydon-Harris

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Considering it’s where so many people spend the bulk of their days, an office environment is just as important as a home. Shopping around for a new space to house your company should be treated with the same consideration as looking for a new house. Location is a factor, as is size. What amenities does it have? Does it need much work? Will the family (of staff) feel happy within its walls?

A good office space makes employees feel comfortable, healthy, and well-equipped to do their jobs. It’s inviting for clients and guests. It communicates your brand. It has room for growth.

Finding the right office space for your business and team is a challenge, albeit a fun one. In the market for a new work home? Here are eleven tips to help you find the perfect office.

  • Take your current employees into account. Is the space in a relatively convenient location for the greatest possible number of staff members?
  • Get the full scope of expenses. Leases often come with janitorial fees, maintenance costs, and a variety of other expenses.
  • Evaluate the property manager, as you’ll often be asking them for favours and attention. Ask current tenants for reviews.
  • What kind of traffic will you need? Companies dependent on walk-in business need to be in a highly visible, bustling area. If you’re taking meetings and attracting out-of-town clients, parking is probably important.
  • Know how you’ll be charged. Will rent be based on square footage or a flat rate? Will you pay utilities yourself, or are they wrapped up in your monthly fee?
  • Consider the exterior and the lobby. The building should feel fairly welcoming to your staff and clients; however, if the lobby is the only sore point of your potential new office, it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
  • Is there room to grow? If not, will room be accessible if and when you need it?
  • Think about how the space will facilitate the health and happiness of your staff. Abundant natural light is essential, as are accessible bathroom facilities and sufficient space for personal belongings and work areas.
  • Location is also important to the culture of your workplace. A dearth of nearby restaurants and coffee shops, a lack of retail and green space, and a high rate of poverty and crime will drag your staff down.
  • Inquire about the building’s systems, including heating and cooling, plumbing, and wireless internet. Again, ask current tenants for their feedback. They’ll be able to tell you if the internet always seems to be lagging or if the building gets unbearably hot in the summer.
  • Make sure you’ll have the freedom to make the space your own. If you’ll be barred from any painting or installations, how will you transform the office into a place that feels like it belongs to your company? Know the rules ahead of time so you don’t risk disappointment, fines, or ejection.
Jan 23 17

3D Printing… The Next New Thing in Home Construction?

by John Brydon-Harris

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So, it’s 2017. The end of the second decade of the twenty-first century is in sight. And you bet things can and will change.

Some see the future as exciting, with unlimited opportunities. That would be David Allison, who consults on commercial real estate (CRE) across the U.S. and Canada.

Others, says Allison in a three-part article in RENX’s Commercial Real Estate News, prefer to bury their heads in the sand, “and hope it all goes away.” Not a good plan, because creative disruption is now impacting CRE and most other industries. And a new year is a great time to embrace the change.

A lot of it is about the millennials, who “are coming at us like a train with no brakes.” And about technology, primarily 3D printing. And, in the final analysis, it’s about how these two disrupters will work together to potentially upset the CRE industry’s apple cart.

3D printing is already radically altered the auto industry (among many others), making it easy and cheap for small start-ups to become involved in manufacturing vehicles.

And it’s impacting the construction industry: Allison reports on a Chinese company that, in 2015, printed out ten houses in twenty-four hours. With the rapidly growing global population, 3D printing is looking good as a source of new housing to satisfy the demand from the world’s billions of citizens.

Says Allison, “This 3D printing stuff – most people think it’s sort of fun and cute and wacky. But really, it’s the next industrial revolution.” And its next target may well be the industry that will market and sell these new homes, offices, and retail spaces.

Dec 6 16

Good Urban Design Can Make Us Healthier

by John Brydon-Harris

Good urban design and greenspaces impact our health, and healthy office spaces make healthy people.

For some time, scientists have studied the impact of our physical environment on health. Now researchers are almost at the stage when they can quantify these facts. And developers and property owners are listening.

In a recent CBC interview, neuroscientist and design consultant Colin Ellard noted, “You can draw a fairly direct set of lines between urban design and the state of our health. If municipalities want to hear the argument in dollars and cents, we’re getting close to that.”

Green spacesEllard adds, “There are all kinds of ways in which the geometry, the appearance of the surfaces of our surroundings, influence how we feel and how we act, how we decide about things, how we think, how we pay attention.”

As well, design can affect our actual physiology. According to a study in Nature, “…greenspaces can be psychologically and physiologically restorative by promoting mental health … reducing blood pressure and stress as well as promoting physical activity.”

A University of Chicago team of researchers recently studied the impact of trees on health perceptions in Toronto. The results: participants who lived in well-treed neighbourhoods reported lower incidence of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

And, according to Ellard, interior spaces can have the same impact on health as our streetscapes.

Office designers and builders are beginning to act. The current is away from the cubicle model so popular in previous decades: “What you’re trying to do in an office design is find a way to satisfy a large number of needs and a large number of different kind of work roles, typically. So you want to build an environment in such a way that it encourages people to have face-to-face interactions,” Ellard says.

However, it remains a challenge to ensure workers have privacy as well as opportunities for interacting. One company may have found, if not the answer, then an answer. Spotify has designed its office spaces with employees’ health and privacy needs in mind.

In an interview, Satish Kanwar, Shopify’s director of product, says, “We recognized there are people who are predominantly introverts and others who are extroverts…. So we wanted to create a very flexible environment that was both extremely private and extremely open.”

One of the innovations was the “sofa box” – effectively a room on wheels. Soft boxes can be pushed together for meetings or stand apart in splendid isolation. Thanks to a see-through wall, a sofa box is simultaneously open and private.

Ellard notes that office design should be trying to achieve “the water cooler effect,” and design a space where people who may not see or talk to each other in their usual course of work will “bump into each other.” He says: “We don’t have water coolers really anymore, but we can have a proxy for that in the design of space.”

As science focuses on quantifying the benefits of healthful urban design, the industry may see an opportunity in doing the same.

Nov 3 16

Sky-High Dreams Hinge on Wood Construction

by John Brydon-Harris

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Developers see it as a way to achieve higher-density housing at lower cost. It may qualify for green building certification. And it uses prefabricated major building parts, saving on labour costs and cutting construction time virtually in half.


What is this miracle material?

It’s wood, modified by twenty-first-century technology and now taking center stage in a race to build the tallest wooden skyscraper in the world.

North America previously lagged behind Europe, where mass timber construction began to replace concrete block construction in single-family homes around 1990. But we’re up and running now.

The prize is not just bragging rights; tall wooden buildings may be the first major development in high-rise construction since steel and glass, and everyone wants a part of it.

In British Columbia, Canada, an eighteen-story wood construction student residence was completed in August 2016 and is due to open in mid-2017. Brock Common will be one of the world’s tallest buildings made mostly of wood, according to the University of British Columbia.

But perhaps not for long. A thirty-five-story wood building is planned in Paris. And in London, the Barbican Center addition is expected to top off at eighty stories.

While North American building codes still limit wood construction to a maximum of six stories, that’s changing. Respected Chicago architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP produced a report as long ago as 2013 that included construction techniques for building a forty-two-story wood building. And this year, the US Department of Agriculture and the lumber industry awarded prizes to two groups planning wooden skyscrapers: one, a ten-story condo to be built in Chelsea in Manhattan; the other, a twelve-story complex in Portland, Oregon.

Technological change 

The continuing development of cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels made this sky-high dream possible. The technique involves gluing and pressing the wood together in alternate directions to increase its strength and stability. Unlike regular wood, CLT panels can’t twist and don’t shrink. While fireproofing remains a concern, a technique of charring the wood’s surface is said to make it fire-resistant by protecting the structure underneath.

Vancouver architect Michael Green, who has already constructed tall wood buildings around the world, knows its strength. As he told CBC News: “These buildings have to perform to the same standards as steel and concrete, and we know they can.”

Because major building parts are prefabricated, installation is simplified, saving on labour costs and cutting construction time to half that of a regular project. The panels are also tighter fitting and therefore more energy efficient. And the use of trees means engineered wood products boast a lower carbon footprint; projects likely will qualify for green certification.

As Valerie Johnson, part owner of D.R. Johnson Wood Innovations in Oregon, recently told Bloomberg News: “We see a horizon that’s very promising out there.” 

Small wonder. The company, one of very few in North America to be certified by the Engineered Wood Association to make CLT, has just expanded its laminating plant to accommodate CLT production.

Oct 3 16

Brexit and Canada’s CRE Market: What May Lie Ahead

by John Brydon-Harris

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After the UK voted to leave the European Union this past summer, an endless slew of questions arose about how the decision would affect employment, the economy, travel, and culture – not only in Europe, but also around the world.

In the past few months, questions in Canada have focused on real estate; experts wonder whether the referendum decision will drive up Canadian Real Estate (CRE) prices. Why? The continuing state of uncertainty has investors from Britain, other European countries, and Asia looking to channel their investments to the more certain North American markets.

Pierre Pequegnat, a Canadian mortgage expert and university professor, published the following, post-referendum: “As Brexit and economic concerns have heightened short and long-term uncertainty, investors are now more likely to maintain above average interest in North American markets relative to Asia, the EU, the UK and the emerging market.”

However, in an article in Canadian Property Management, Chris Langstaff, senior vice president of research and strategy with LaSalle Investment Management, disagreed.

“Canada has long been viewed as a safe haven by foreign investors, but, at the same time, many are aware of the strong depth of institutional ownership here that tends to dominate and hold the best assets for the long term,” Langstaff said. “If the shine has worn off the UK for the time being, it could make other markets around the world more appealing, but I’m not sure that will drive a lot more capital towards Canada.”

Seems the only certainty about the effects of Brexit is its uncertainty.

Sep 12 16

Great Signage Can Set Your Property Apart

by John Brydon-Harris

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Property owners and investors are always on the lookout for opportunities to stem the cash outflow that comes with maintaining a property. Unfortunately for them, signage often ends up on the chopping block (or ignored when it’s time for renovations).

But signage plays a vital role, and not just for reasons of safety or code requirements.

Attractive, useful signage increases your property’s curb appeal and user experience. Both are value-adds for tenants eager to impress existing and prospective customers and employees. And increased value enables you to ask higher prices for your property.

Good signage also brands a property, enabling prospective tenants to easily identify your company’s role in the marketplace (as well as potentially increasing its value).

The following are a few guidelines to follow before investing in expensive signage.

Talk to professionals

The easiest way to assess your signage situation is to consult a professional architectural signage company. These professionals can do a walkthrough of your property (or review blueprints, if it’s still under construction) and provide you with a list of required and recommended signs. They can also offer guidance on the materials and designs most appropriate for your building and your budget. 

Remember that code is just the beginning

While code requirements are a great starting point (they let you know what signage you absolutely need), always consider your property’s end users such as tenants, visitors, even vendors. While new codes may not apply to older buildings, applicable signs will improve users’ experience. 

Never assume the previous owner kept your property up to date on signage requirements, and check to see if there are any new ordinances you should follow. Also note that many inspectors tack on their own requirements, even if they’re not code-required.

Think in the long term

Signage isn’t forever, but it can last a long time, so plan (and design) accordingly. Remember that trendy designs and materials can date a building. Opt for streamlined designs and materials, and avoid noisy colour combinations. Well-chosen signage should last through multiple carpet and paint updates.

Go with quality

Signage, especially exterior signage, will quickly show signs of wear if you choose low-quality materials. While interior signage doesn’t need to stand up to the elements, you want it to stand up to time. Save yourself time and money by investing in quality materials for all signage.

Quality design is equally important. The more complicated your signage (think moving parts, electricity, and fancy materials that aren’t durable), the more likely it is that you’ll need to order repairs and replacement parts.

Ask yourself whether you would get lost

If you’ve ever been lost, you know signage can make the difference between instant relief and frustration. Don’t let your property frustrate tenants and visitors. Take a look at it through visitors’ eyes.

Assess whether your current signage is properly sized and visible. Also, does it accurately represent your company? Does it provide the clear directions necessary in case of emergency? If not, it’s time to rethink your signage and increase the value of your property.

 

Jul 17 16

Great Parking Is Key to the Success of a CRE Investment

by John Brydon-Harris

When it comes to commercial properties, it’s easy to overlook an important component of your investment: parking.

The parking facility/lot is the gateway to your property. More important, it houses expensive vehicles belonging to your tenants, their employees, and their customers. So it’s safe to say that parking is one of the most important areas that you need to secure and maintain. These are four things to consider when assessing a potential (or existing) investment in terms of its parking:

Safety: The best way to eliminate parking lot drama? Don’t set the stage for it. Make sure your parking area is well lit and easily monitored. Alarm systems, gates, and private guards add value to existing and potential tenants (and can also lower your insurance premium).

Well kept: A dilapidated parking area can create a poor perception of your building. Don’t ignore eyesores such as potholes, poorly marked spaces, and missing signage. They’re easy fixes…and they can make a tremendous difference to how your property is perceived.

Upgraded: Covered or reserved parking and valet service aren’t just convenient, they’re valuable add-ons that existing and potential tenants can tout to their customers and employees. Upgraded parking services may also mean you can charge more for your property.

Fully utilized: Do you anticipate a lot of downtime or empty spaces in your parking area? Consider making it earn its keep by renting lot space to mobile businesses like food trucks and auto detailers. Just be sure to check local ordinances for any restrictions.

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