Two years after his death, the name Steve Jobs still draws a crowd. At a panel at the 2013 ULI Fall Meeting in Chicago, panelists and audience participants were asked what innovations Apple Computer’s founder and CEO would have undertaken had he been a residential developer.
“There has been very little true innovation over the last 50 years” in how homes are designed and built, said moderator Beth Callender of Greenhaus, a marketing and branding ad agency in San Diego. She encouraged the audience to shout out what changes Jobs might have championed, having revolutionized the music industry with the iPod, computing with the iPad, and smartphones with the iPhone.
“Disposable houses” were mentioned, while another audience member talked about taking building regulations out of the hands of local politicians and allowing them to be written on a more coherent regional or statewide basis.
“Our industry has largely been stuck” in the middle of the bell curve, said Brett Herrington, president of Kukui’ula Development. His company is building a 1,000-acre master-planned community on the southern coast of Kauai in Hawaii. “The biggest thing that’s happened is that housing has gotten bigger at about the same inflation-adjusted price per square foot.”
Herrington said Jobs might tinker with how space is used, and design a product that salespeople would be proud to show and demonstrate for would-be buyers. “There’s a huge opportunity for the brightest minds in the business to come together and dare each other to do something different,” he said.
Builder-developer Randall Lewis agreed, maintaining that the housing sector “doesn’t do a good job building brand loyalty.” Jobs knew his customers better than they knew themselves, Lewis said, suggesting that, as a builder, Jobs would “enhance the customer experience.”
Houses “should be more than just shelter,” said Lewis, who believes Jobs would have made his houses smarter than the competition’s. He would have offered “more great-looking houses at more price points” to attract the greatest number of buyers.
Morad Fareed, cofounder of Delos Living, a New York–based real estate development company that is pioneering a new standard for healthy buildings, suggested a “natural merger” of housing and wellness. Builders should integrate medicine into their products to help prevent disease, improve energy levels, and lengthen occupants’ life spans, he said.
“Why stop at building just houses?” asked Fareed, whose firm has married science and architecture, reshaping how homes are built to place well-being and personal sustainability at the heart of design and construction decisions.
Herrington, who spent some years at Disney’s award-winning Celebration development in Orlando, said Jobs would have insisted on more intelligent design and more efficient use of space—walls that can pivot out of the way, rooms that can be moved based on the season.
“It’s not about putting more gizmos in houses,” he said, maintaining that “by and large, residential architecture is very sad.” Jobs’s houses, he said, “wouldn’t look like tacky little places. It would be about groupings, living spaces in the context of the way people live. There wouldn’t be rooms; it would be flexible space, private and shared. ”
When asked what innovations seemed inevitable, Lewis suggested that energy would become more important. Energy is “not going to cost less,” he said. “It’s no longer about what we are doing to our climate; it’s about what our climate is doing to us.”
Lewis sees the end of telephone landlines, and possibly even the demise of the television set. TV sets “are no longer the center of entertainment” they used to be, he said, suggesting that even flat-screen sets “are on the edge of completely disappearing” because people are relying more and more on laptops and handheld devices.
Herrington said what was once old could become new again—smaller communities with more corelike areas, reuniting housing and employment. “Whether it’s some great revelation or just natural forces,” he offered, “builders will find more ways to bring things back together again the way they used to be.”