Education of future real estate developers and fund managers has evolved over the past 20 years, with much greater emphasis on and training in physical planning and design. With the establishment of real estate development programs at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Southern California (USC), Columbia University, and other institutions of higher education, real estate coursework has moved beyond the real estate finance, investment, market analysis, and appraisal found in most business schools and now includes courses in site planning, design, and construction management. Courses in political approvals, environmental planning, public/private partnerships, negotiation, and ethics round out the curricula at graduate schools such as Harvard, USC, Columbia, MIT, and others.

A primary challenge for faculty has been how to teach design to real estate students. Traditional architecture education is taught through studio classes in which students go through a series of design exercises. Instruction is very personal, and a major part of it is one-on-one critiques called “desk crits” between student and instructor.

The goal of teaching design to real estate students is not to make them architects, but to make them knowledgeable clients and to give them a sense of what makes good design. The best developers not only have very good taste, but also excel in matching market demand with superbly designed real estate product. They understand which design features add value and which ones do not. Moreover, they are sensitive to how innovative a design can be without going too far, both in terms of market acceptance and building cost. A well-deserved criticism of developers by architects is that they tend to go for the lowest common denominator in design—preferring that which has been done before and avoiding anything that may be new and innovative. Of course, this broad generalization does not apply to the best developers, who know how to balance experience with innovation. Well aware that innovation in design and construction techniques may pose additional risk, they nonetheless have confidence in their own abilities to translate the innovation into real estate value.

There is a long tradition of using real-world problems in real estate education. Indeed, virtually all case studies, such as those used at Harvard Business School (HBS), are written about real-world problems. Similarly, design studios in architecture and planning have often been structured around current design problems with clients who look to the output of such studios for ideas and imagery that inform the ultimate design.

The tradition, however, is much shorter in real estate education, primarily because most real estate programs are based in business schools. Real estate programs based in planning and design schools such as those at Harvard and USC have courses that teach design to real estate students. Michael Buckley, previously director of the real estate development program in the School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, says the goals of classes at Columbia—to teach students how to read drawings, to present visual images of buildings and site plans to train students’ eyes to think about architecture and design so they can recognize how things relate to one another, and to understand the representation process—involve how things are drawn, and how they can lie to you. He points out that design studios are extremely time-consuming and involve much more hand-holding than is the case in architecture school. “Architecture students get negative critiques. Here, teams are trying to solve a problem. The goal is more to reach a consensus among team members.”

The most difficult part of structuring classes built around real-world problems is finding problems where the students can make a difference. Sponsors of such classes are typically either private developers or local government agencies. Often, projects are sponsored by a combination of both private and public sector parties. Indeed, studios and field studies may provide a catalyst for both sides to work together. Public agencies may use the studio or field study course to engage private party stakeholders. Private developers and owners may use the class process to bring in public sector stakeholders and get them interested and involved in their sites.

Working on real-world sites poses some unique challenges. One of the major difficulties is selecting the ideal site: one that is in the right stage for student involvement. This is usually early in the development process, before professional designers and consultants have produced solutions that have been shown to neighborhood groups and government officials. While studios can be used to provide new ideas for contentious development situations, they usually are more constructive when the sponsor is at the point of considering different alternatives for developing or redeveloping an area.

Sponsors are rightfully concerned that the studio exercise not stir up unnecessary controversy. It can usually be avoided if stakeholders—notably, government officials and neighborhood groups—have not already formed strong opinions about a site or a particular development plan. Working on projects in earlier stages of development also works better pedagogically because students are able to explore a broader range of options.

As part of their due diligence for a site, the students talk with the stakeholders, including local developers, government officials, nonprofit organizations, and neighborhood groups. They also talk with local brokers to understand the market for different uses. And they analyze the site with respect to environmental, traffic, and infrastructure needs. One of the course objectives is for the students to go through the same process that a developer would go through in assembling his or her plans for developing the site.

The field study course at Harvard in its current format was created in 2004 as a combination of traditional studio teaching at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) and the case study method carried out at HBS. Over the past seven years, this course has selected development sites across the globe, with each project focusing on unique urban contexts and different physical scales of the chosen location.

The scope of the field studies is similar to those of the ULI/Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition. Students typically work in teams of three or four. They have complementary backgrounds that combine design, planning, market analysis, and financial skills. Through weekly critiques, students create evolving development strategies and design solutions that respond to different issues relating to the market, regulatory context, site constraints, and goals. They must consider social infrastructure (such as affordable housing) and public spaces as well as how to implement their projects. Their design solutions are backed by financial and market analyses. At several points during the term, outside jurors critique the solutions according to how well they fit into the existing community, feasibility of implementation, financial success, urban design quality, and other considerations.

Field study projects range from exploration for an alternative urbanism in Newry, Northern Ireland, to the creation of a high-end retail destination in Zuidas, Amsterdam; from revitalization efforts for the Shoreditch District in London, to the reimagination and envisioning for the Back Bay area in south Mumbai, just to name a few.

Shoreditch, London

The 2010 field study site was in Shoreditch, a dynamic district on the edge of the financial City of London yet creatively engaged with the entrepreneurial city of Westminster. The London field study project was paired with a studio course taught by a separate instructor. While the studio focused on providing opportunities for design speculations and solutions, the field study explored how design ingenuity could be nurtured by real estate market operation and development forces and how public and private sectors could work together to foster the revitalization of Shoreditch.

As in other field study courses, students spent one week in London, talking to relevant professionals and stakeholders, and visited the site as well as other comparative development projects that bear the merits of design and development. Six field study students were divided into two groups. Each student’s focal site was undefined at the beginning of the semester; only after the site visit, and based on their individual or group interests, were specific sites chosen for investigation and proposition.

The focus of the field study led the students to explore the interrelationship between design and real estate value and provided them a context in metropolitan London to conceptualize urban models with a deep empirical background for successful block-level developments in London including Broadgate, Kings Cross, and Stratford City/the Olympic Village. One group of students in the process of proposing their solutions took on the different perspectives and roles as private sector and public sector and explored the economic impacts on each front. All the proposals evaluated where the opportunity for real estate renewal exists in Shoreditch and where the best course may be recycling and overlaying onto the preexisting urban fabric.

Back Bay, Mumbai

Sponsored by the Real Estate Academic Initiative at Harvard, the Mumbai field study in 2011 was offered in conjunction with an urban planning and design studio and invited students from wider Harvard communities, the HBS, and the Kennedy School to join. Midcareer professionals—Loeb Fellows from the GSD—also participated in the site visit and offered advice regarding students’ final development solutions.

The field study course focused on two sites: Nariman Point, where the goal was to leverage the real estate value inherent in the location and the current programs of the National Centre for the Performing Arts; and the Back Bay area between Nariman Point and Cuffe Parade, a unique site in the heart of Mumbai’s south harbor. The core of the Back Bay site was occupied by an old fishing village, surrounded by slums. The area is thus contested by longtime fishing villagers, neighboring slum dwellers, and government, commercial, and business interests. Proposals for any urban redevelopment of the site were required to provide housing on site or off site for current inhabitants. The pedagogy of the field study emphasized providing students with a better understanding of the tension among site, opportunity, and market, helping them learn critical development processes through which they were encouraged to rethink and reinvent architectural models and types.

As in the Shoreditch project, after the site area was identified and assigned, students had flexibility in defining the specific project site based on their own undertaking. The design solutions and development strategies for the Back Bay project reflected students’ varied academic interests and diverse backgrounds. One solution focused on the restructuring of a public real estate fund as a channel for addressing slum clearance and public benefits. Another solution involved a large-scale land reclamation with central planning efforts embodying modernist design principles. And another was aimed at preserving the vibrant urban fabric of the fishing village through building restoration and spatial reconstruction, with minimal social and architectural intervention in the area.

The central aim of the field study course—and similar courses—is to provide students with an understanding of the dynamics and complexities that define contemporary urban physical environments. Such courses emphasize integration of project design and development that responds to realistic market demand, political realities, regulatory concerns, financial considerations, capital markets, and other constraints.

The process teaches students to think broadly and to consider all aspects that contribute to value, both private and public. In the end, it is design that determines costs, prospects for approval, market acceptance, and financial profitability. Design is one of the three core skills that real estate developers must have, along with financial skills and ability to interpret the urban context (market, political, and legal framework). Field study–type instruction is the best method we have found to teach not only design, but also the integration of design skills with the other real estate skills that are essential for success.