One year ago, Building Small: A Toolkit for Real Estate Entrepreneurs, Civic Leaders, and Great Communities was published by ULI. Four years in the making, the publication was welcomed by a wide cross section of the industry for its candid and approachable championing of small-scale incremental development.

Capturing an increasingly important movement in cities, suburbs, and small towns around the United States, the book represents a new approach to real estate development, based on how we used to build. It elevates the question of how to create a more humane, equitable and inspired built environment.

As author Jim Heid explains, “Building Small asks one simple question of those in our profession, ‘Are you doing this to build commodity or to build community?’”

One of the goals of the publication was to create a call to action for real estate entrepreneurs to work at a local level where they can make a meaningful difference.   Michael Lander, a longtime ULI member and infill developer from Minneapolis, calls this “small by design.”  Says Lander, “For decades people thought developers doing small projects were just doing it until they learned the ropes.  Then they could go on to do ‘big’ projects.  But no.  My career and my projects have been small by design, because thatʻs where I want to, and have, practiced for 40 years.”

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Built from the real lessons heard over eight years of Small-Scale Development Forums, organized by Heid in collaboration with ULI, Building Small contains a wealth of experience drawn from around the country. It was these lessons—both of great success and positive neighborhood transformation—as well as the long pain and suffering of small project creation, that catalyzed the book.  Heid explains: “It seems like no matter where we went—big city, suburban corridor, rural community.  Red state, blue state.  The message was always the same: Small is what communities want, but regulations and capital markets make it harder than it should be.  So I wrote the book to try and change that trajectory—explain the potential of small, while helping illuminate the challenges.  I was really hoping the industry could come together and do what was needed to grow this option.”

Theo Mackey, an urban designer and planner in New York captured this imperative well in his recent book review for City Journal:  “Given the important role that small projects like these have always played in the growth and reinvention of cities, local officials must be reminded to focus on how their policies affect this key but neglected part of the urban land market. Building Small serves this purpose, in addition to providing a process map for the potential developers (and other proponents) of small, high-quality developments. Heid has articulated both the policy and business cases for a modern iteration of the type of incremental growth that has shaped urban forms for millennia. Instead of chasing a singular, gleaming vision, communities that wish to experience both sustainable and attractive growth should encourage a variety of developers to produce abundant small gems.”

So with 12 months behind us, what has been the response to Building Small?

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Heid.  “The book was released amidst the pandemic, and frankly I worried that given the predicted death of small businesses—which are inextricably linked to small development—the book would go out with a whimper.  Instead people raved about how timely and prescient it is.  Not a day goes by without someone saying, THIS is what we have needed for a long time.”

One of the most interesting aspects about Building Small is people seem to find their own definition and manifestation of “Small” through the book, depending on their personal passion:

  • Missing middle housing
  • Tiny houses
  • Accessory dwelling units
  • The case for locally owned businesses
  • A gateway for emerging developers of color, who want to rebuild their neighborhoods
  • Business owners who want to own the real estate they use
  • Urbanists who want to create finer grained blocks, and big developers who are looking for an edge to differentiate their project

The book covers a lot of territory, resonating with a wide audience looking to solve a range of issues in the built environment.

(Jim Heid/ULI)

This broad applicability, and the different attitude about real estate development that Building Small champions, is connected around the single idea of building community and better places.  This concept was the focus of an episode of the Everything Coworking podcast hosted by thought leader Jamie Russo, following her participation in the 16th Small Scale Developer Forum as a panelist on the future of coworking. Says Russo, “I think the ethos of Small and coworking really overlap around the passion for making a difference in people’s lives at a local level, through the built environment and through building community.”

Another defining feature highlighted during the 16th Forum was the incredible need for community participation and communication in the growth and evolution of the project.  Because small-scale projects are so embedded in the community—and in many ways reflects a communityʻs hopes and dreams – the bar for input and communication is higher.  That and the fact that the developer is the face of the project,  no slick public relations firms or expensive zoning attorneys.  Small requires a workmanlike approach to dialogue and community input—alway led by one of the principals.

This means developers need to be “all in,” something that is not for the faint of heart.  Molly McCabe, a small developer in Montana and former chair of ULIʻs Responsible Property Investing Product Council, echoed this sentiment, saying “After reading Building Small, you’ll know if you are cut out to develop Small.   Development is hard no matter what.  Small takes vision, grit, perseverance, creativity.  You’ve got to be scrappy and willing to pivot. You have to be committed to your community in deeply personal ways that a large-scale developer, investor or financier is not, nor can realistically be.   If it’s for you, you’re going to lean in and say, oh, yes, I’m in!  I’m all in!  If not, you’ll find yourself wishing for a lot more predictability, more convincing returns, a more easily understood capital stack.   There’s no ‘right or wrong’ here, no ‘better than’, it’s simply a matter of preference.  But, there is no doubt, by the end of this book, you’ll know which camp you stand in.”

Heid says the book is a more robust due to the long time it took to write, partially because he was developing two of his own projects at the same time.   Says Heid, “If I had finished the manuscript on time, it would have been a very different book.  Those extra two years of lost sleep sweating out my project financing, dealing with approvals and construction, taught me nuances that you just canʻt learn in graduate school.  It is these ʻwhat they donʻt teach you in real estate schoolʻ lessons that I tried to capture in every chapter of the book.”   This candid explanation of the DNA required to succeed, as well as the book’s highly graphic and accessible design by John Hall Design, has made the book appealing to Universities as a new kind of textbook.  But not just for those getting real estate degrees.  Donald K. Carter, FAIA FAICP, LEED AP, Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture, says, “The toolkit and the case studies will be valuable to both rookie and veteran small developers. Building Small is an excellent text for real estate and architecture programs” As such the book is getting adoption in places such as North Carolina State University School of Design, University of Miami’s Design + Urbanism program and University of California, Berkeley, to name a few.

At the same time, the book has been well received by professional training programs for real estate entrepreneurs. Richmond Housing Services, a housing non-profit based in California, bought 40 copies to give participants in their Emerging Real Estate Developers program.  Nikki Beasely, CEO of Richmond Housing Services, explained her decision to use the book as the core of their curriculum, “Building Small hits all the key points about the value add of infill small sites in neighborhoods.  I had to incorporate the book into our organization’s curriculum focused on BIPOC new developers—to remind them their projects matter and that small site development has a place in the affordable housing conversation.”

ULI District Councils in St. Louis, Kansas City and Indiana have all started to use Building Small as a textbook for ULIʻs Real Estate Diversity Initiative (REDI) because the book’s approach, inspired stories and practical lessons talk specifically to the kind of young emerging developers REDI is targeting.

Other innovative ways the book is reaching its audience is through District Council programming and independent bookstores.  Heid has been invited to keynote several District Council events, bringing the book and the message of Small to communities around the country.  In several cities, ULI Young Leader or NEXT cohorts have organized book clubs to read chapters in advance and discuss experiences and lessons, often via zoom with the author.  And most recently a presentation on the book was featured on the TEDx circuit, reaching a whole different audience.

Following the pandemic and its impact on communities, how we work, and small businesses, the world continues to ask for new approaches and new solutions for how and what we build.  With publication of Building Small, ULI continues to demonstrate its leadership to the built environment, and better ways to build communities.

Building Small is available for purchase from the ULI Bookstore or Amazon. The 17th Small Scale Forum is scheduled for May 22-24 in San Antonio is now open for registration.  

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