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Shigeru Ban at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

I was lucky enough to recently attend the presentation of the Pritzker Prize in Architecture at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This year’s winner was Shigeru Ban, who is probably best known for his work in disaster relief using cheap materials like cardboard tubes. His do-it-yourself refugee shelters have been used in Japan, Turkey, and Rawanda. Check out his cardboard cathedral built after the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.

R2 Companies—The Way We Work is Changing

I’ve always been interested in real estate and architecture. My original major was Civil Engineering, but after taking the introductory course and discovering that I’d have to learn way more about concrete than I ever wanted to know, I switched to Electrical Engineering. Ever since then, though, I’ve been trying to find ways to be involved—bought a rental during the boom (bad idea), built out our offices, and was super involved in building our house, which was a ton of fun.

Early in 2011, I was going back and forth between companies and wishing everyone could be in the same space. I was working with Matt Garrison and Marc Muinzer on Energy.Me already, and they had an extensive knowledge and great track record in real estate, so we started to look at buying a building for our companies and projects. We ended up settling on a building in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood and moved everyone into the space—it was open plan with 18-feet ceilings, bright, and well designed. (It took some work, though, including the extraction of a giant fish tank supported by steel beams.)

With the success of our first property, we began to look at similar buildings. We’ve been lucky on timing, but there is a logic to our strategy. Our belief was—and is—that there is limited supply of loft office buildings, particularly open spaces with high ceilings and good windows. Often, you can buy these buildings at far below replacement costs—no one is going to build a brick and timber loft building today; it’s way too expensive. Thus, you’re buying with a margin of safety in a market with limited supply. Also, from a timing standpoint, by 2011 the banks had finally written down the values on these assets to a point they were ready to transact—most of what we bought was from banks or through bankruptcies.

I believe the spaces you live and work in have a significant effect on you mentally. Big, open, bright spaces make you happy and feel more creative, versus a dingy, dark office that makes you want to leave. There is no better problem to solve than your own, and this is probably the easiest way to find an opportunity—be a user and design for yourself. I knew what kind of office we wanted and figured if we want it, other people do as well. We’re nearly fully occupied everywhere we own and can’t find much else to buy, which is the best indicator. Our portfolio has grown to more than 600,000 square feet of mostly loft office, and we’ve assembled an awesome team including leasing, property management, construction management, and acquisitions.

Recently, there has been a shift in how we work, moving from isolated private offices or high-walled cubes to open spaces with more room to collaborate. More and more, the office is where you collaborate, and home or a coffee shop is where you get heads-down work done. There’s also a major trend from the suburbs to the city with some high-profile companies moving back to the city—we think this trend will continue. It feels like every week, someone launches a new co-working space or incubator, which admittedly makes me a little nervous. However, the trends are strong towards the city, towards our neighborhoods (mostly River North and the West Loop), and towards open, more collaborative spaces.

To me, Chicago’s West Loop feels like NYC’s Chelsea did ten years ago, and if it becomes anything close to that in the coming years, it will be a premier neighborhood. And if by some miracle the highway actually becomes a park, the neighborhood will be all the more desirable. From here, we think you’ll see these types of assets become more of an institutional-level asset class as the credit quality of the tenant mix slowly improves.

As for our office—finally—after three moves in the last couple of years, we’ve settled into a great new building (at least semi-permanently) at 1130 W. Monroe. The 35,000-square-feet concrete loft building used to be a manufacturing facility and has a 45-feet-tall atrium that is stunning. We’ve moved our companies there, filling the third floor, and have some exciting new companies moving onto the second floor within the next few months. Over the next year, we’ll build out the rest of the building into a large co-working space filled with companies whose work we admire and whose people we are excited to work with.

If you’re interested in an innovative, entrepreneurial, creative environment and are in the West Loop, hit us up, and we’ll give you a tour.

How to Solve Complicated Problems — The Art of Deconstruction

The thing about the flag structure is I didn’t have to invent composition.  —Jasper Johns

Imagine that you have a string of 100 interchangeable lights: they have a plug on each end, and you can plug each individual light into any other light. Each time you plug in a light that is off to another light that is off, there is a 50/50 chance it turns on. Your job is to turn off the entire strip.

It’s a problem with 100 variables with two outcomes each. The chance of finding the answer is thus:

2 ^ 100 = 1.267 x 10^30 choices (that’s 1.267 with 30 zeros after it)

Now what if you could break the problem down into 10 sets of 10, and you knew that each set of 10 could be plugged into each other without a problem. You’d have 10 sets of problems each with two variables:

10 x 2 ^ 10 = 10 x 1,024 = 10,240 choices (reduced from an outcome set with 30 zeros)

Maybe we can go one more step; maybe we can actually break it down to 20 sets of 5, or we can break each set of 10 in half. We’d end up with 20 sets of 5 two-variable problems:

20 x 2 ^ 5 = 20 x 32 = 640 choices (reduced from 10,240)

In narrowing the problem into congruent sets, we’ve reduced the possible outcomes from a hopeless number with 30 zeros to a manageable set of 640 choices. This example is from Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander, an architecture book that defined the language and approach of much of architecture and design since the 1960s. Alexander sets out a process by which we first understand the requirements (the program), we chunk the requirements into sets that are solvable and congruent, and then we work through each set, eliminating the “misfits,” in search of “fit,” which is the unification of form and function. It’s through this process that seemingly complex design problems, like building a house, are solved.

In my art, I deconstruct, and then I reconstruct.   —Chuck Close

The trick is knowing how to deconstruct the problem and how to form the sets — and also knowing that the sets are congruent with each other when you assemble them. When you stand back from a Chuck Close painting and realize all those little squares perfectly form a face, you see that the real design trick — the art — is in the deconstruction.

I don’t work with inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work.  —Chuck Close

This process is very different from the idea of starting with a blank slate, that art and design are somehow completely intuitive and spontaneous. The reality is that design is a process, and it’s the deconstruction of that process that allows us to take perceivably inconceivable problems and reduce them to a manageable problem set. That’s not to say that it’s easy, of course. Deconstructing complex problems is hard and often requires synthesizing knowledge on a variety of subjects. But it is certainly manageable and demystifies that which is often perceived as pure genius or ineffable art, and thus unattainable by most of us. And this ability — the ability to synthesize and deconstruct — is more important than ever in an increasingly specialized yet more complex world.

Further Reading

Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher Alexander, 1964
Chuck Close: Work, by Christopher Finch, 2010