gb&d: Where did LocalConstruct come from? How did you get your start?
LocalConstruct: We started the business in the library at UCLA–Anderson. When we graduated from school, we moved to Casey’s dining room, which was our office for a year and a half. Casey’s wife was very happy when we moved out, along with the copy machine.
gb&d: What was your first development, and what was that experience like?
LC: The very first development was a small condo retrofit that we renovated on our own. Mike comes from a construction background, so we painted it and remodeled. That was the last one we did the work on. Ever since, we’ve managed all the design and bid processes internally and contracted the work out. We had a grand vision at the time—we had the idea of buying a large portfolio of distressed properties in the economic downturn and adding a layer of green retrofit in submarkets around Southern California. But we had a hard time selling the idea to people and ended up scaling back our original plans. We raised enough money to buy about 10 properties initially and focused more on up-and-coming, urban submarkets in LA. As we started to get some traction and demonstrate that our idea was reasonably sound, we were able to find new investors to finance an expansion into larger, multifamily projects and new construction.
gb&d: Why did you decide on sustainable design and infill as your niche development market?
LC: Mike and I were in grad school during the economic and housing crisis that occurred from 2008 to 2009. We both were studying real estate and had an interest in sustainability and green design and building. We recognized opportunity during that period to buy distressed housing in core, infill markets in urban areas like LA, where we were living at the time. People were reevaluating their decisions to live further from work and the cities.
Our vision from the very beginning was to build a business for the long haul. We always had a vision to become city-builders and agreed very early to do things differently. Real estate can be a very staid industry; there hasn’t been a lot of innovation with the exception of building materials and construction technology. We wanted to be developers who further the conversation on infill urban-housing. Starting at the smallest place we could start, we wanted to be a force in housing and how we build and rebuild our cities in the western United States.
gb&d: And what is it you’d like to say in that conversation?
LC: A lot of the focus on green building to date has been on technical aspects of individual projects: How well-insulated is the building envelope? What kind of solar panels are used? Expensive products drive technology in our buildings. While we do get involved in those specifics, we think the more important questions lie on the macro side of sustainable development. More important than technicalities is where we house our populations and whether we build housing close to jobs. Do we build where people are dependent on automobiles or where they can walk to amenities and take public transportation? It’s our philosophy to ask those questions first, rather than to be focused just on the technology within a given building. Our challenge is to create sustainable housing that competes at market value with standard homes and apartments.
Building at economic parity with traditional methodologies is critical in the evolution of sustainable development, so we think a lot about the triple bottom line. We try to use the economic bottom line in service of the environmental bottom line, and both of those serve the aesthetic and functional bottom line. That’s where we begin to make a broad change in development instead of just building showpieces.
gb&d: Taking all those things into account, what influences do you bring to your projects? Art? Architecture?
LC: We are mainly interested in design that is contextual and complements its surroundings. For that reason, we tend to gravitate toward markets with historical context and often seek out areas that have a strong relationship to nature. Even in urban areas, such as LA, we have been able to work in nature-rich neighborhoods like Echo Park, Frogtown along the LA River, and Atwater Village. LA’s history of modernist architecture is a great inspiration to us, and many of the best examples of Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others are right in our backyard.
gb&d: Although you’re branching out in Idaho, what makes California the primary market for your work?
LC: California is still one of the most rapidly growing and diverse economies in the world, which puts constant pressure on our housing stock. From the standpoint of technical sustainability, California is the national leader. Our green code here requires all retrofits to achieve the equivalent of LEED Silver status, which is way ahead of the other states. And our business focus responds to the increased demand in the urban centers, which is a reverse of the flight to the suburbs in the ’50s and ’60s. LA has a huge, antiquated infrastructure, and we have to try to reimagine it to accommodate increasing urbanization. Other cities in the West like Portland and Austin have been very successful in developing new infrastructure that properly houses people based on current needs. The question for our peers and us is how we transform LA and its infrastructure to recapture a friendlier urban dynamic.
gb&d: How do you see your work as part of a broader movement?
LC: In the last five years or so, there’s been a lot of consumer desire for authenticity. Our hope is that a desire for authenticity in the way we build our communities will impact the demand for high-density, infill housing. We hope that younger generations will revert to a level of civic and community participation that has escaped us over the past several decades in the US. One of the great things about being a developer is that if you’re careful and thoughtful in what you do, you can influence communities for the better.