Zillow, Hello Alfred and eight other companies that are transforming our built environment, from 3D-printed homes to the experiential next-generation mall.
During 2019, the intersection of real estate with the innovation economy suffered a bit of a bruise with the events that took place around the We Company and WeWork, but despite that, there are many compelling companies that generate interest in making the world around us more habitable. Sustainability emerged as a big thread across this year’s list, with climate-resilient 3D-printed houses, urban air quality sensors, car-free cities, cemeteries that are real woods, and even parking lots turned into farms all of which merit inclusion.
For 3D-printing houses to change housing development economics.
Icon uses a massive 3D-printer, called the Vulcan II, to print full houses out of concrete in place, changing the economics and time scale of housing development, especially in rural areas where it can be difficult and time-consuming to bring in material. In 2019, the company rolled out the first homes, in rural Mexico’s low-income neighborhood, where the government is partnering with Icon and its non-profit partner New Story to offer citizens new housing. The printing itself takes 24 hours, and is then placed by local staff. Domestically, an effort to print homes for homeless people in Austin is also under way.
In January 2019, Zillow, the leading online real-estate website, began selling homes individually instead of aggregating existing sales, and it is doing a lot of business this way. When people list their home on Zillow, they are simply being made an offer by the company. The program operated in 23 markets, including Los Angeles, by year-end. The company sold more homes in the fourth quarter of 2019 than it had acquired during that time. The firm has also started providing home loans and financing. All these new bets have more than doubled revenue from 2018, to $2.7 billion, although profitability suffered as Zillow sought to fend off rivals in the increasingly crowded real-estate tech space.
3. SITELAB URBAN STUDIO
Removing car culture from new developments.
This urban design agency is partnering with Google to eradicate car culture from its latest projects. Google is focusing on constructing housing and expanding office space at several locations in the Bay Area, and Sitelab is working to make these new developments to alleviate the traffic issues in the city by developing them to be walkable communities. The new project will include 6.5 million square feet of office space in San Jose, between 3,000 and 5,000 new homes, and 500,000 square feet of retail, cultural, music, education, hotels, and other active uses, along with 15 acres of parks, plazas, and green spaces.
Mapping the air quality block by block in cities so that it can be improved.
Aclima lets residents see a block-by-block map of the air quality of their city, so that cities can address their dirty air more specifically. As air pollution research progresses it becomes obvious that cleaner air is a huge boon to public health. Aclima now partners with a consortium of California air districts representing more than 10 million residents, helping regulators and communities create strategies for pollution cleanup. The firm’s software is also available to healthcare, real estate, financial services, insurance, and urban planning organizations to help them better understand the pollution profile of a city.
To create a market in renter-occupied, single-family homes as investments.
Roofstock is a marketplace for the sale of single-family homes occupied by renters. Now people who are looking to invest in real estate can find and buy an investment property online quickly, even one far from their house. Roofstock provides inspection services and links the property management to new owners. The company is rapidly increasing, with $1.8 billion invested since 2016 across the marketplace and a ten-time seller growth and a two-time buyer growth between July 2018 and 2019. In January, it raised another $50 million in support.
6. HELLO ALFRED
For powering its residential assistant concierge program to 20 cities nationally
The residential assistant program grew this year with the launch of its Powered By Alfred program, tripling the number of units it is available in and expanding to 20 cities. The service allows members to outsource tasks (receiving a package, booking a dog walker) to a Hello Alfred employee in buildings where Powered By Alfred is available — and all the employees work there full-time. Its expansion was driven by deals with large real-estate firms to offer the service in their buildings: in 2019, a deal with Greystar added 450,000 units.
For converting parking lots into underground farms.
The Australian property and construction company Mirvac spent 2019 launching many ways to make better use of its large portfolio of residential and commercial buildings, including supplying its residential customers with solar power and batteries, and developing coworking spaces in its retail projects to help people shop in person rather than online. But the conversion of some of its parking lots to underground urban farms was their most fascinating creation. As the city culture moves away from the car, parking lots are becoming redundant, so the company has partnered with agritech startup Farmwall to construct green spaces under its buildings, which now provide local produce to some residents.
Proxy has created a privacy-centric identity signal to ease the navigation of daily life so that people can interact with devices in the real world from building doors to automobiles to connected devices. The aim of the company is to replace key cards, employee keys, and passwords with its software called the Proxy Signal, which emits its unique identifier from the smartphone of a user. The product launched in March 2019 and it has been adopted by companies such as Uber, Cloudflare, and Accenture to build entry instead of key fobs and IDs. In its first few months of use, tens of thousands of signals have been activated, and two-thirds of users take advantage of Proxy daily.
9. BETTER PLACE FORESTS
Better Place Forests has as its mission to protect forests by presenting them as a sustainable alternative to cemeteries, which take up a lot of real estate in urban and suburban areas, to re-imagine the cemetery as a memorial wood. Better Place opened its first memorial site last June in Point Arena, California, a coastal redwood forest for people who want to be cremated after their death. Families or individuals who buy a tree can still honor with a marker their deceased loved one. The organization is dedicated to sustainable forest management, seeking to reduce fire risk. It also deals for One Tree Planted, a charity that grows trees in its forests for every tree Better Place sells. Better Place Forests later in 2019 opened its second forest in Santa Cruz, California, and announced plans to expand into the Pacific Northwest and Colorado region.
Area15 seeks to bring the experience economy from one-off stores or sites into an immersive, holistic single location for the debut of an experiential next-gen mall in the Las Vegas desert. Located off the Strip in Las Vegas, Area15 will be anchored by a new Meow Wolf exhibit (scheduled to open in the fall of 2020) from the Santa Fe-based art collective; a revolving collection of Burning Man-style art pieces; and a “spine” running through the center of the room that will be programmed in part by users (for example, firing off a confetti cannon). Unlike other attractions in Las Vegas, Area15 plans to be child friendly — at least during the daytime. The space also attracts an array of other compelling experiences, from a Nomadic mixed-reality arcade to an Emporium arcade bar, making Area15 (a play on the desert’s secret government base, Area 51) a magnet for the best of the all-in-one experience economy.