FINANCIAL STRATEGIES: Get Smart

Alec J. Pacella

Growing up in a small town in western Pennsylvania meant that I wasn’t necessarily on the cutting edge of technology. Any new electronics took months if not years to trickle down and even then would usually mean a trip to bigger cities such as Youngstown or Pittsburgh to track down. A great example is the LED watch. It was initially developed in 1971 and became widely available by the mid-1970s. But it wasn’t until Darrell Knight showed up sporting one on his wrist right after Christmas break of 1978 that I actually saw one, live and in person.

The use of technology in real estate seems to follow a similar path, with innovations taking months, if not years, to be integrated into the industry. This month, we are going to discuss some ways, specifically in the area of smart buildings, that technology has finally begun to make a big impact.

Air quality

While certain sectors, such as medical and clean manufacturing, have been driving advances in clean air filtration and monitoring, the advent of COVID- 19 has placed a spotlight on this topic. The result is a whole ecosystem of products and strategies known as IAQ, or indoor air quality. The most common IAQ technologies revolve around higher-efficiency filters. Humidification and dehumidification systems have also become much more advanced, helping to control dust and mold while maintaining comfort. More advanced systems assist with heat and energy recovery ventilators to offset the increasingly “air- tight” nature of modern construction, as well as UV purifiers to neutralize airborne bacteria and viruses.

Voice-and touch-activated tech

Again, this type of technology received a huge boost in the wake of COVID-19. If you have ever used systems such as Alexa, Siri or Google, you are already well aware of the power and convenience voice-activation can offer. And while touch-activated technologies have been around for decades, the overwhelming popularity of smartphones and apps are leading to more advanced applications. In the commercial real estate sector, it’s no surprise that the hotel sector has taken the lead implementing this type of technology, ranging from speaking to control lights, temperature and entertainment to accessing the room and ordering room service from your smartphone. And don’t look now but many larger commercial property owners are beginning to integrate these same technologies, offering them to their tenants as a standard building amenity.

Smart parking

This may seem like something reserved for only big cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

In the commercial real estate sector, it’s no surprise that the hotel sector has taken the lead implementing [voice activation] technology, ranging from speaking to control lights, temperature and entertainment to accessing the room and ordering room service from your smartphone.

And these cities certainly began adopting technologies years ago, with the advent of apps such as SpotHero and ParkWhiz, which allow parking operators to maxi- mize their occupancy through digital notification, reservation and even sub- leasing processes. But if you’ve ever parked in the decks at Hopkins airport, you’ve probably seen another, even sim- pler example that uses a small green or red light above each space, allowing potential parkers to quickly differentiate vacant spots from occupied spots

Energy efficient systems

This can fall into two categories:

1) systems that optimize energy via continual monitoring and 2) clean or renewable energy features. The former is the real heavyweight when it comes to smart building design and is mainly based on the autonomic cycle of data analysis tasks (ACODAT) concept. Basically, the HVAC systems have a central processor that continually monitors usage, time of day, outside air temperature, building occupancy and a host of other factors to not only be reactive in running the HVAC system at peak efficiency but also be predictive by learning patterns over days, weeks and months. The latter includes a host of advances in technologies such as heat pumps and geothermal systems as well as solar- and wind-enabled sources.

The most common acknowledgement of building technology is a certification known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), through the U.S. Green Building Council. A similar certification is known as the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology (BREEAM) rating. Both of these involve achieving points related to set standards that address carbon, energy, water, waste, transportation, materials, health and indoor environmental quality. There are many examples of LEED-certified buildings in Northeast Ohio, including the Maltz Performing Arts Center at Case Western Reserve University, UH Avon Health Center and the Children’s Museum of Cleveland, among hundreds of others.

And there have been many noteworthy projects worldwide, including the following high-achieving facilities.

Oakland City Center (Oakland, CA)

Developed by Siemens, the build- ing contains a variety of dynamic and artificial intelligence to power its operation. A noteworthy feature is an advanced air volume system that can put the entire building into “green mode,” which is a setting that uses aggregated historical data to optimize humidity, air pressure and temperature. It also has a decontamination mode that raises the temperature to acceler- ate the decay of airborne virus particles.

Cisco Systems Canada HQ (Toronto)

This was the first building in Toronto to be rated as a LEED Core and Shell Platinum building. It links up Cisco’s business operations and helps to power Cisco’s Internet of Everything (IoE) while also streamlining all building data into a single network.

Mitie (London)

Arguably the most striking example of the IoE in smart buildings, the Mitie building uses automated alarms, remote systems management, machine learn- ing and data analytics to achieve a 95% accuracy rate for predictive main- tenance calls and a 3% improvement of energy usage by clients.

By the time we hit high school, Darrell Knight’s simple, push-button, red-hued LED watch had been eclipsed by a series of LCD watches that integrated features like alarms (with music, no less), stop watches and the ability to track multiple time zones. And while today’s smart buildings have shown great advances over the last two decades, the pace of technology promises to have an even greater impact on this sector.

Article from September 2022 Properties Magazine

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Industrial CRE’s “strong fundamentals” mean resilience

A recent report – released in late May 2022 – shows the industrial commercial real estate (CRE) boom is far from over, even when the “headwinds” are accounted for.

The May 2022 Matrix Industrial Report, from Yardi Matrix, says that although the “economy hit a rough patch in the first quarter due to inflationary pressures and rising energy prices, […] demand for industrial space continues to be robust”.

The continued presence of market fundamentals like increased consumer spending and job growth are adding to the sense of resilience seen from the sector, which has made huge strides since the dawn of Covid-19 kicked online shopping and fulfilment into particularly high gear.  

Drag factors

CRE in general and the industrial CRE sector in particular do face a range of economic pressures as we look to the second half of the year. Slower economic growth in the first quarter, supply chain issues, and “persistent inflationary pressures” are not insignificant depressive factors, but the drivers of demand are not going anywhere either.

Boost factors

The boost factors, on the other hand, include “healthy consumer spending”, and “the need to bring the nation’s stock up to snuff to support modern logistics”.

Additionally, occupancy across most US metros remains high and “rents are growing well above historical levels around the country,” according to the report. Rental averages across the US have increased by 440 basis points year-on-year.

Industrial building supply chain

The report calls the new supply chain for industrial building “extraordinarily robust”, but, as Commercial Property Executive reporting on the report highlights, “[a]lthough the under-construction pipeline is ballooning, experts see the industrial market as severely undersupplied”.

This assessment, from Prologis, draws from several different data sources including the Purchasing Managers Index, retail sales data, and job growth statistics, to posit that the US has “16 months of available industrial inventory”.

Reportedly, over 640 million square feet of industrial space was under construction nationwide at the end of April. Including planned projects takes the pipeline to 650 million square feet.

Global trend

Far from being a US-only trend, demand for industrial is high among most developed economies – or almost anywhere with a strong consumer base demanding more and quicker online shopping and delivery.

As this Financial Times article shows, that’s the case even where Amazon space acquisition is slowing: “There has been record demand for UK warehouses in the past two years,” they write, “with take-up north of 50 [million] square feet compared with a pre-pandemic average of 32 [million square feet]”.

Social: Are you operating in a well-supplied industrial CRE market, or are people scrambling to find space? Tell us where in the world you are, and what the “pulse of industrial” is in your region?

US foreclosures: records and rebalancing

Foreclosures in the US were up in the first quarter of 2022 – setting what the data provider calls a “post pandemic high”. The data provider in this case is Attom, who specialize in real estate and property data – including tax, mortgage, deed, risk and other information for “over 155 million properties” country-wide.

It must be noted however that this level of foreclosure activity is still considerably better than the highs seen in 2020, before government intervention (more below).

A tale of two months

Attom’s Q1 2022 U.S. Foreclosure Market Report – released in April 2022 – shows a total of 78 271 properties filed for foreclosure in the first quarter of 2022. This is, they write, “up 39% from the previous quarter and up 132% from a year ago”.

Additionally, in March 2022 alone, the data indicates over 33 000 US property foreclosure filings – an increase of 29% from the prior month, and 181% compared to March 2021.

A mere month later, however, in the month-to-month reporting from the same provider (April 2022, released in mid-May), showed “a total of 30,674 properties with foreclosure filings — default notices, scheduled auctions or bank repossessions”. This was down 8% from March, but up 160% from April 2021.

Questioning the headline

As covered before on this blog, it is important to assess data and market reports like this one as pieces of a larger picture – viewed in context of time and other indexes. It is also worth noting that there is typically a delay between economic “crunch”, consumers feeling the pressure, and market movements showing the effects of said pressure.

The above caveats notwithstanding, the trend line this report highlights is concerning for investors who watch the residential market, and commercial brokers whose specialty/sectors are affected by residential, such as multi-family.

Specifically, the data point that March 2022 was “the 11th consecutive month with a year-over-year increase in U.S. foreclosure activity”, is not a positive direction for this metric.

Post-moratorium balancingWriting about the Q1 2022 “record”, a spokesperson for Attom explained that this foreclosure activity is “gradually return[ing] to normal levels since the expiration of the government’s moratorium” and the CFPB’s enhanced mortgage servicing guidelines”.

What economic and commercial property data do you keep a close eye on? 

Can a mortgage be issued for virtual land? Apparently, it can in the metaverse

In a recent NAI article, we looked at the advent of the metaverse[SR1]  and what this new tech might mean for commercial real estate (CRE). Though we concluded that the answer to how the metaverse might impact the real world remains uncertain, since then, there have been some interesting virtual developments.

In particular, tech company TerraZero has started issuing “mortgages” for virtual real estate, and there’s very real money changing hands for entirely virtual properties.

A slice of (online) paradise?

To be clear, the “mortgages” in this case are funded entirely by TerraZero itself, rather than an external financial institution, but employ a system of down payment and instalments, much like the real thing. The first one was issued for a piece of land on a platform called Decentraland, where users can own, and sell, virtual assets. And as strange as this all sounds from a real estate perspective, there have recently been several big players setting up shop in the virtual world.

Perhaps the biggest, from a credibility point of view, is global financial leaders JPMorgan who recently launched a “virtual bank”, though at the moment it’s only being used for marketing purposes. In tandem with the purchase, JPMorgan issued a report, where they discuss their expectations for the metaverse’s development, saying:

“The success of building and scaling in the metaverse is dependent on having a robust and flexible financial ecosystem that will allow users to seamlessly connect between the physical and virtual worlds.”

They added that, in just the last six months of 2021, the average price for a virtual plot of land jumped from $6,000 to $12,000.

Hedging bets

Despite this apparent endorsement from one of the world’s leading financiers, there are still plenty of metaverse critics urging caution. One of the main points raised is that, unlike physical real estate, metaverse purchases can’t satisfy both property value fundamentals: namely scarcity and location.

Or as Louis Rosenberg, CEO of Unanimous AI and a veteran Augmented Reality (AR) developer, puts it:

“We don’t even know which platforms are [going to] be popular, let alone which locations… so it’s like somebody buying a piece of land anywhere in America and hoping that it becomes San Francisco or New York.”

For many companies though, hedging bets is taking the form of securing their own piece of the virtual pie. The Wall Street Journal reports that accounting firms PricewaterhouseCoopers and Prager Metis have also recently snapped up virtual sites, with the latter spending $35,000 on its purchase of a virtual HQ.

Is the metaverse here to stay?

Though it’s still early days, and impossible to say how the virtual property trend might play out, the recent developments in the space suggest it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on. At the very least, the metaverse poses an interesting proposition, and one a lot of people seem to be willing to speculate on.

SOCIAL: Do you think there’s a future for metaverse property? And if so, how do you see it unfolding?


Flood and extreme weather, coming for commercial property too

According to The Washington Post – drawing from the studies presented at the world’s largest climate science conference in December 2021 – extreme weather events as a result of climate change are here to stay, and will get worse. The word from researchers is brace yourselves for a “new era of climate disasters”.

The new normal forecasts

Just last month, Malaysia experienced torrential rain and flooding, Australians were told to prepare for extreme heatwave conditions, and South Africa experienced golf-ball-sized hail in the middle of summer.

Extreme weather has already had huge ramifications for residential property – planning, building, and critically insuring – and the global commercial property sector must grapple with the same set of issues.

Residential and commercial

In the US, a new report from nonprofit, First Street Foundation and engineering firm, Arup suggests that an estimated “730 000 retail, office and multi-unit residential properties face an annualized risk of flood damage”. The risk assessment they used did incorporate fundamentals like sea-level rise, but – the researchers told CNBC – “focused more on flash floods, also known as pluvial flooding”.

According to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, there were 22 separate “billion-dollar weather-related climate disasters” in the United States in 2020.  

Financial and investing implications

First Street Foundation previously worked with Realtor.com to enable flood scoring for all US-based residential properties, and tools like this and other research models are increasingly going to be a part of the real estate developer’s toolbox.

Harvard finance lecturer John Macomber – writing in the Harvard Business Review – says that “climate risk has become financial risk”, and he argues that owners and developers have five options open to them for risk mitigation or “in investing in resilience” as he calls it. These are “reinforce, rebuild, rebound, restrict, and retreat”.

The challenge, he concludes, is “to look ahead, not behind, and to make these choices with intent”.