Peter Hendee Brown, AIA, has worked in several facets of the built environment as an architect and city planner. Now an urban development consultant in Minneapolis who also teaches at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Brown has written two books: America's Waterfront Revival: Port Authorities and Urban Development (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) and How Real Estate Developers Think: Design, Profits, and Community (Ibid., 2015). His latest book discusses how public perception of real estate developers has changed over time, and why the contemporary perceptions need to change. ARCHITECT caught up with Brown to learn more about the stereotypes assigned to developers and why architects should care.
ARCHITECT: How did your background in architecture
influence your career in real estate?
PHB: I started out in architecture and then went into city government, where I helped the city of Philadelphia design and build. Then I went to grad school a couple times, and then entered real estate development. Now I do public and private urban redevelopment consulting for private property owners and for the city of Minneapolis. I help developers, architects, and clients understand each other. I wrote this book because I have a viewpoint on how to do good buildings from the interests of multiple parties.
got you interested in working on the built environment in the first place?
As a kid, I was a model builder and a painter. A friend pointed out a summer program for high school students who thought they might want to be architects. We did it at Cornell University for a summer and I was hooked. I thought, "This is great: I can be creative, draw stuff, build models, and call it a career."
are the stereotypes and public perceptions of developers? How does this book seek to change those views?
I'm trying to debunk three common myths: Developers are only in it for the money; developers don’t understand or care what good design is; and they don’t care much about community because they’re only in it for the money. I try to humanize developers by letting them talk about what they do and why, as well as how they think about what they do. At the same time, I provide a historical context for development. Show me a historic district and I’ll show you a 200-year-old real estate development. For example, I tell the story of Beacon Hill [a neighborhood in Boston], which was a big bunch of land that some folks bought, flattened, regraded, and started building houses on it.
Today, the word "developer" often has a derogatory connotation. We used to call developers our town founders and place their statues in our town squares. I try to put developers into the context of making products we need and want. We grow up in homes, shop in stores, and work in office buildings that have been envisioned by developers. They do a great job of envisioning what we might want next as people’s tastes change. Everybody’s got their own view of what development is, but the developer has to knit together all those views and then succeed by producing something he or she can sell for more than what it cost to build.
How do planners evaluate design compared to how architects evaluate it?
Planners care about public use, location, and sighting. Architects care about forms and materials, detail, and style. On top of that, city officials want something that can grow the tax base and banks want to invest in something that’s sure to be successful, so they don't want something anything too exotic. The users or buyers, who have to live or work in the building, often have their own ideas of what good design is.The developer is the conductor of all that, bringing together something that works for everyone, and not just for one interest group.
can architects and developers collaborate to create buildings that are
architecturally interesting but also economically viable?
One developer I know defines a good architect as someone who is sensitive to design time and cost on the front end before the deal is real. Developers want an architect to design something that'll stand out in the clutter of the marketplace. You can't do 10 big design moves on every building. You have to figure out the one or two important design moves [to make the building] stand out. Then, get all the nuts and bolts right, and do a really good job on the details.
Architects have a vision for a building; Developers have a vision for a larger service, a product, or experience of which the building is one part.
Aqua Tower by Jeanne Gang, FAIA, is on the book’s cover and discussed extensively throughout several chapters. How does that building marry good design and economics?
When you look past the building's curved articulated slab edge, there is a simple basic rectangular box, high-rise tower that is efficiently designed so it makes for good units. It’s a spectacular but actually simple building. The most interesting thing about the Aqua Tower is that it’s hard to repeat that design [move] a bunch of different ways. It’s a one-time success story in that way.
can architects do to make clients and the general public understand and appreciate what they do?
Architects should try their hardest to understand what their client is trying to achieve in their objective and vision. Similarly, when architects are presenting their projects in public, they benefit from explaining in clear language what they're doing and why their project achieves greater goals—how it’s helping the city complete an undeveloped area, raising the tax base, creating jobs, or helping to move development in a certain direction.
trends will drive real estate development and architectural
design in the future?
The Baby Boomer and Millennial generations are moving to cities. That’s going to make architects better at multi-family housing and at working with neighborhoods, developers, and cities. It could also drive the growth of micro-apartments and smaller units with more amenities as well as a whole different way of thinking about cars and parking.
Big cities are getting more expensive. Urban growth in smaller and mid-size cities is going to take off in the next 20 to 30 years. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, Portland, Ore., was known as the “Graveyard of the West.” There are going to be up-and-coming cities that could be Des Moines, Iowa, or Omaha, Neb. I don't know what they'll be, but they could be smaller cities that start to grow and support creative communities.
I see a fear of growth and development in the view of the neighborhood association. Population growth has been ongoing for 400 years. Old buildings wear out and need to be replaced, and people want different things with new buildings. Growth, development, and density are all coming. We can't stick our heads in the sand, pull up the drawbridge, and try to oppose everything. Developers do want to learn from the community because they want to improve their product as much as they can before they build it.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.