Productive Industries & Farms: Malls as Maker Spaces

A picture of a mall with vacant retail spaces. The text 'The Development of Productive Industries & Farms' is overlaid. This references one of the tenents in NAR's Code of Ethics preamble.

People around the country are working to revitalize malls. What moves do you see in your community?

This piece and thoughts around it were inspired by my hometown of Muscatine, Iowa. It’s a town of 20,000 that’s relied on manufacturing labor for decades. It also has a mall that was a fixture of my formative years and was my town square. It’s where you went to see and be seen. Movies, music and books, a connection to the outside world. My internet before the internet. The problem today, however, is malls like the one I grew up with are experiencing hard times. As an example, Muscatine Mall, had 30+ stores in its heyday. Today, that’s been reduced exponentially. I asked my dad to document it and below are photos from a Saturday a couple weeks back.

Main hallway of a mall. A majority of the stores are vacant

The main hallway for the mall. We used to do many laps around this space on Friday and Saturday nights, waiting for movies to start or friends to arrive. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

A vacant glass storefront in a mall.

You’ll see some natural light in these pictures and that’s one of the attractive features of this space. It provided a connection to the outside world in this built space. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

A row of vacant stores in a hallway of a mall.

These stores were national chains and brands. Some of the stores in the mall today are local merchants. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

Glass-walled store that is empty.

This was the first video store in town. I remember going here to rent films. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

A former flagship store at a mall that is vacant

This was an anchor store for the mall since its opening. It closed several years back. (Photo courtesy: Tom Curry)

Honestly, it is tough to see a place I used to frequent look so underutilized. Understand, I’m not critiquing the owners of the mall. They are interested in seeing this space succeed. It’s not their faults. Retail is taking a hit and small markets like Muscatine are suffering. The New York Times recently had a feature on a man who’s documenting the demise of malls. So what to do with the space?

A recent article of On Common Ground from our Smart Growth group at NAR points out various efforts around the US to repurpose malls. It’s a great piece. From community colleges to transitional housing, there are some really innovative efforts taking shape. But I’ve had an idea that I am certain someone is attempting and I just haven’t heard about it. What if malls became maker spaces?

What is a Maker Space?

By now, you may know that CRT is building our own environmental quality sensor for members to use as closing gifts. We were able to get this project started at our offices in Chicago. We have a 3D printer, equipment for soldering and building sensor boards. But then, we started to hit the limits of our equipment and space. Rather than asking our Budget Committee for hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment we may only use a few times, we decided to look for a space we could work on this type of thing in. We were lucky to find a space called mHUB.

mHUB is 63,000 square feet, and over two million dollars worth of light manufacturing equipment. It’s a non-profit that was launched out of public and private partnerships with the City of Chicago through an organization called World Business Chicago and an awesome 8,000 square foot maker space called Catalyze Chicago. They joined forces with a number of businesses and created an amazing space.

In mHUB, we have access to a Woodworking Shop, a Metals shop, a 3D print lab, electronics lab, laser cutting machines and several other types of equipment. Things as simple as hammers, screwdrivers and wrenches. Not only that, we have access to the mindshare of mHUB members. Engineers, industrial designers, software developers, and hobbyists with an amazing idea. It’s a village of great innovation.

We pay a monthly membership and it allows us to access any of that equipment. It also gives us access to others working on projects that could overlap with our work or who could help inform what we’re doing and learn from them. We can prototype rapidly without incurring the traditional costs of manufacturing. mHUB consists of groups, like NAR, people who are trying out a new idea with no previous manufacturing experience, industrial engineers, artists and large companies, like GE.

Now imagine if cities like my hometown Muscatine, could use this to revitalize its industry and help workers who may be out of work, or people with an idea without a lot of capital, find a new way to make a living. It makes sense to me when I think about towns like Muscatine because of the workers’ skill sets.

Malls as Maker Spaces

In taking our experiences at mHUB, I see hope for the malls like the one in Muscatine. They can become communities of industry and innovation. Here are some potential uses for the space:

  • The former shoe store becoming a woodworking shop
  • The bookstore a 3D print lab
  • The music store a tool library
  • The cinemaplex of 4 theaters a space to hold presentations and meetups
  • Job training could happen in the larger anchor stores and could be sponsored by the local companies
  • The food court becomes a place to restaurants in the city to have pop ups or a cheap kiosk to sell lunch to the workers at the space
  • Another storefront could become a server room and a local ‘cloud’ created for participants in the space
  • Yet another space becomes a place to grow food

It could become a place to attract new business, a place to let the local business and manufacturing companies sponsor, and let the makers sell their wares.

My statement above about growing food is not a crazy one. Recently, a company called Plenty received a $200 million dollar investment from Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame, and other investors. Plenty creates systems for growing food indoors. Imagine if the food court became the place to grow food. Fresh food could be harvested and sold in an indoor farmers market.

So rather than going to the mall to buy manufactured goods, they become places to manufacture.

Revitalizing spaces in Muscatine is not a new idea, or for other communities for that matter. I’m very aware of the impact malls had on downtowns. In fact, in Muscatine, our downtown was decimated by the mall. But today, there are efforts to revitalize. One building in particular now has a great coffee shop and other specialty shops and is a destination for community members. Muscatine is not unique for this. Groups like Recast City are helping local governments think about how to do this type of thing.

The Challenges of this Idea (To Be Continued)

This is a long piece, so I’ll end with the presentation of the premise and say that I see challenges. I’m also looking for your ideas around what the challenges would be. Here is what I see as some immediate challenges:

  • Cost
  • Community buy-in
  • Business buy-in
  • Building Infrastructure
  • Zoning
  • Space utilization
    • Does it all need to be filled at once?
    • Does it all need to be a maker space?
  • Covering ongoing costs
  • Who owns it?

So, what do you think? Does it sound feasible? Definitely submit ideas and thoughts in the comments below. Thanks!

The Building of Functioning Cities: A Smart Cities Series

There is a blurry cityscape in the background with the phrase 'The Building of Functioning Cities' overlaid. This is a line from preamble of the REALTOR Code of Ethics. We believe this statement reflects the potential impact of smart cities on our industry.

Smart cities will impact the way we live and work in the very near future. Real estate stands to benefit from the data produced in these cities with improved services for clients.

In the labs, I often point out to visitors that we’ve based our work on the preamble to the Code of Ethics. I’ve included it below with the relevant bits highlighted:

Under all is the land. Upon its wise utilization and widely allocated ownership depend the survival and growth of free institutions and of our civilization. REALTORS® should recognize that the interests of the nation and its citizens require the highest and best use of the land and the widest distribution of land ownership. They require the creation of adequate housing, the building of functioning cities, the development of productive industries and farms, and the preservation of a healthful environment.

At CRT Labs, we use this to focus our mission. It’s not only key to your work, but also, to the potential that the Internet of Things, renewable energy, and community gardening have to impact your industry. In order to support the ‘building of functioning cities’ tenant, we’ve spoken to several smart city projects throughout the US. We believe that data from the smart city will go a long way to shaping how you do business in the future. It will change the way you interact with your customers and help you in supporting their buying choices. We are just at the very beginning of this and there’s still a way to go before this is mainstream, but what’s already happening is exciting.

What are smart cities?

Simply put, smart cities are cities that use existing data and connected sensors to:

  • Capture data and performance metrics to improve city services
  • Monitor city performance
  • Inform the general public

Cities great and small are employing smart city techniques all over the world. Singapore is one of the big leaders in this space, as is Barcelona. Here in the US, cities large and small have active programs. From Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky as examples. For this series, I want to use what’s in my own back yard. Chicago has garnered a lot of attention of late for its Array of Things initiative and the use of its open data portal to engage the citizens.

Why do they matter?

Here’s why it matters to you: there are massive amounts of data that will be coming off these devices that will show how specific areas of a city are performing. As examples, you’ll be able to see things like:

  • Pedestrian and vehicle patterns and counts aggregated by time of day
  • Utilization patterns for parks and community buildings
  • Temperature variation at your work and at your home on a block by block basis
  • Air quality outside your door and any destination you need to travel to
  • Average sunlight exposure at any location
  • Standing water after a rainstorm

A number of those things above are key to how you’re home or property performs. Understanding microclimates will help buildings use less energy because they can adjust based on time of day or season. We can also understand busy residential and commercial areas are and use that as part of our marketing material or a widget on a website. When are the peak hours at the community pool or park? Data for a community could also inform when you hold open houses. How many people are in a neighborhood during a given day?

This is just the surface. I’m going to use this series to interview people here in Chicago who are involved in the smart cities initiatives and highlight where there are opportunities for real estate. If you have a story about smart city activity in your area, I encourage you to share it.

Related Articles from CRT Labs:

A Technophobe’s Smart Home

I’m relatively new to smart home tech – I don’t have a computer science/engineering background, and I don’t feel warm fuzzies talking about the latest and greatest computers, cell phones, or other devices. In fact, when it comes to the internet of the things, I would go as far as to call myself a technophobe – wary of what these technologies can do for me. So when I started at CRT Labs, I had some trepidations over smart home tech and its place in my own home, but over time, I’ve found a place where my life intersections with these technologies. Understanding your personal drawbacks on technology can help you to implement a smart home you’re proud of, and can help you get over some of the “bumps” in adopting a smart home system.

It’s only scary at first…

My biggest personal drawback on adopting technologies is that I don’t like feeling that undergoing such a large change could ultimately be rendered obsolete by one simple upgrade in technology. Luckily, smart home technology companies, on the whole, seem to understand that most items in your home are designed to last quite a long time (like thermostats and light bulbs) and are making their own products with that longer lifecycle in mind. So unlike your phone, which usually only has a two-year lifespan, you’d expect your thermostat to last around 35-years. Now, a Nest thermostat might not last for 35 years, but Nest will want you to be able to use their devices for several years. There will of course be exceptions to this rule – especially as companies jockey to become the “standard” in this space – but on the whole, these companies do want to stay competitive with their non-smart counterparts with their longer lifespans.

Armed with research done by my colleagues here in the labs, I started thinking about what types of things I could do within my own apartment. I live in a 900-unit complex, where my only windows are floor-to-ceiling and give me a southern exposure. This means my apartment gets very warm and has very little natural airflow. The first piece of “smart home” equipment I bought was a Netatmo Weather Station, so I could monitor the weather outside to see how it affected the temperature and CO2 levels inside. And because I was monitoring my indoor CO2, I was able to begin to correlate higher CO2 levels with certain activities – while I knew that running my oven would vent off CO2, I was able to see just how much it would rise, and now know to open one of those windows while cooking in order to offset some of that gas.

Next up, I wanted to solve my indoor lighting issue. As I mentioned, I only have one set of windows in my entire apartment – meaning that the bedroom doesn’t get any natural light. I also do not have any ceiling-mounted lights (I live in a converted fruit market with an industrial loft feel). So some form of smart lightbulb system made sense to me. I decided to go with the Philips Hue system after good reviews from my coworkers. I bought Hue bulbs for the lamps in my hallway, living room, and bedroom, and supplemented those with Belkin WeMo products for lamps with unusual bulbs. I also put a WeMo insight switch on the string lights around my porch outdoors. Not only are these devices all easily controlled with Hue dimmer switches or the Logitech Pop Switch I purchased, they also can all be controlled by voice through Google Home. The lights outside go on at sunset and off at 10pm, a program that I easily put together in the WeMo app; and the lights in the bedroom can turn on as the sun rises in order to help us wake more naturally.

After solving my lighting problems through smart devices, I felt a bit more confident in my technological skills, and have rounded out my apartment with a few more products. First up was the triple-threat of products from Nest: the Nest Thermostat, Protect, and Cam. The Nest thermostat is one of the labs favorite thermostats, and I’ll admit that installing it felt a little daunting, but Nest’s customer support helped me out by putting together a personalized wiring guide after I emailed them a photograph of my old thermostat’s wires. I was able to then watch a video about install, and got the whole project done in under 30 minutes – and promptly celebrated my dominance over technology. The Nest Protect is a smoke detector and CO monitor in one, and came in very handy a couple weeks after install – not only did it alert my phone when my bacon started smoking in the oven, it allowed me to silence the alarm (the Protect is about 10 feet in the air, so it would require a ladder to get to usually), and it also kicked on the whole house fan through the Thermostat in order to help vent the smoke out. The Protect also alerted my NestCam to take video, which allowed us to archive a very funny video of me running around the apartment to try and salvage a few strips of bacon.

Finally, I decided to pick up a SmartThings hub, which allows for the devices in my home to talk to each other and easily set up automations – within the SmartThings app, I quickly set up my hallway lights to “turn on” when I get home (using the location services of my iPhone and setting up a “geofence” around my apartment to trigger the automation). This is a huge lifesaver for me at night, so I don’t have to fumble around in the dark to find the light switch when I come inside (its not in the most convenient location in the hallway).

I’m not fully sold on a Tony Stark-style smart home system like J.A.R.V.I.S, where TVs come out of walls and start playing the news and your favorite beverage is waiting for you in the morning. And there are certainly privacy concerns when you decide to live so much of your life digitally, even when the technology lives squarely within your home. But by identifying my challenges and deciding to focus on using smart home technology to improve my quality of life, I was able to find a great middle ground between my technophobe heart and the part of my brain that wanted to understand CRT Labs’ goals on a personal level. By looking at  how you’re currently living in your own home, you can also start looking at how technology could improve your day-to-day life, and here in the labs we’d be happy to answer any questions you might have about how to begin adopting technology yourself. Feel free to comment below, and stay tuned for more articles on this topic as we explore all sorts of different ways we’re using smart home technology in our own lives.

What Will Be Your Homeownership Score?- IoT as a Metric

A bottom of a log exposed to show tree rings with a pixelated version overlayed to give the sense of a digital tree ring

What if data from how you lived in a home were like rings in a tree?

This past fall, I was on a panel at the RESO Conference in Nashville where we were discussing the impact of technology on the future and what it would mean for real estate. There was a lot of discussion around the internet of things, privacy and security and this led me to talk about how this data could be used in the near future.

I’d been thinking about something in particular with respect to the internet of things and data privacy for a bit. There is a lot of good that the data from these things can teach us. There are also a lot of challenges around this data too. For example:

  • Who owns the data?
  • What do the terms of service allow the device manufacturer to do with your data?
  • How do you make sure your data are deleted from these devices?

These are just a few of the questions, but they’re not the one that I’ve been wondering about. The one that keeps me thinking is ‘Will smart home data become the new currency of homeownership?’ Will metrics like average CO2, air quality and humidity inform whether or not you get approved for a new home? Will nicks and dings in walls be recorded by our smart devices and add to our ‘homeownership score’?

About the time I started thinking deeply about this concept, Chris, our Lead Lab Engineer, mentioned there was an episode of the show Black Mirror called ‘Nosedive’ that hit upon some of these themes. In it, the young woman lives in a world where anyone can rate you and that rating is used for access to exclusive things in the world. In order for her to climb up the socio-economic ladder, she needs to have a score of 4.5 out of 5. I won’t spoil the episode for you, but I will say that some of the scenarios I was thinking about appeared in this episode. Overall, we are all messy in how we live our lives, but under this type of intense scrutiny, it becomes less of an honest picture of who we are as we try to meet a standard. Believe me, I don’t like the thought of it, but I see the potential for it to affect a transaction. Data is a great influencer in real estate and IoT might amplify that impact.

Data and Real Estate

Data has long been the currency of real estate. Listings are THE main ingredient to the work our members do. Having fresh data is an advantage to their business. As the internet has matured, these data sets have transformed. Rather than just data about the house, we now have data around the house and the community. Is it walkable? What is the average price around the house? What type of businesses are in the neighborhood? Are there schools nearby? What’s my drive time to work? What will it actually cost me a month to own this home? This is all data your buyers and sellers have access to already.

What about the data the industry has on buyers and sellers? There are data packages you can buy on consumer behavior and use for analysis, and some brokerages are undoubtedly using them. We can know what magazines people subscribe to, what their buying habits are and all sorts of other stuff. There are companies out there now that provide leads based on a level of certainty that a homeowner might be ready to sell.

But what the internet of things offers is a richer data set that could be used in the same way a FICO score is used. It could give us a sense of how a home has been lived in and taken care of.

The Internet of Things and Incentivizing Private Data Access

The value of the internet of things is it allows us the convenience of control but also gives us insight into how we live. Think of personal fitness trackers. They provide data on how many steps we take on any given day as well as for other physical activities. This information allows us to make better decisions about how we live. Insurance companies and corporate health programs are taking notice and incorporating these devices into their costs. They are providing discounts to policy holders for access to some of the data on the wearables. People are willing to part with this data because there’s an added benefit to them for it.

So, wearables are already seeing programs introduced to incentivize good behavior. What about smart home technology? Are there incentivized programs for data access? The answer is yes. There are examples in the utility industry and insurance industry. A common example I use when speaking is that of thermostats. Utilities are incentivizing access to thermostats for the ability to adjust them to manage load on the grid. In Chicago, for example, our utility will give us a $100 rebate if we install a smart thermostat from either Nest or Ecobee. The gas company will give us an additional $50. The programs you enroll in allow access and control of the thermostats for the express purpose of keeping load down. The hidden benefit for the consumer is reduced energy costs as well.

Insurance companies are working on home insurance and smart home devices. Liberty Mutual will give you a Nest Protect ($99 smoke/CO detector) and up to 5% off of premiums if you enroll in their home insurance. There are also insurance companies funding multi-function sensors and offering discounts on burglary insurance with smart cameras being incentivized as part of these programs.

What Could Private Data Access Look Like in Real Estate?

Seeing how insurance and utilities are incentivizing this data access, what does it mean for real estate? How soon will it be until a brokerage offers rebates to homeowners who give them access to their smart home data? What could they use this data for?

One of the scenarios that I hate thinking about but see it coming is incentivizing access to this data as a qualifier for a loan. So, let’s say you’ve been living in a home for 7 years and you’ve decided you want to move. In order to qualify for a loan to move into this new home, you need to give the bank access to data on a few things:

  • How quickly do you change air filters in the home?
  • What was the average CO2 in the home?
  • What type of VOCs are in the home? How quickly were they mitigated?
  • What was the average humidity level in the home?
  • What does HVAC maintenance look like?

You get the idea. Things that don’t matter to us now are questions that could drive how we qualify. Why would humidity matter? If your humidity levels get too high, you will foster mold and bacteria growth in the home. Does this mean your an irresponsible homeowner? Not in my view…but to someone looking at this from a security of investment perspective, it could.

What if this led to variable monthly mortgage payments based on how well you keep the house up? Imagine if data from your air quality sensors would inform how much you pay. What if constant higher humidity levels affected your rates and cost you more? What if you could receive a ‘good owner’s’ discount based on the condition of the HVAC in your house (after an algorithm that looks at airflow, energy usage and regular maintenance determined you were a ‘good owner”)?

Again, I’m not a fan of data being used in this way, but I see a path to it. What do you think? Would you like to have this data used in this way? Would it help you? Would it hinder you? Leave your comments below.