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Haxted Thinking is a monthly newsletter for anyone interested in how buildings and spaces are designed, made and used.

Edition No. 6: February 2021

“To create, one must first question everything” 
Eileen Gray
 

Creativity and Property

After 30 odd years in property development I’ve started to notice something more and more. It’s this. Creative people often struggle with property. And property people often struggle with creativity. What’s more creative people often seem to struggle with property people. And property people often seem to struggle with creative people. I don’t think that’s a good thing so I’m increasingly focused on the tremendous benefits in combining the two tribes. The primary purpose behind Haxted from the outset was to try and find a synthesis between the two. Maximum creativity fused with maximum discipline. Because real estate desperately needs creativity. And creativity flourishes in spaces that are well designed and made. And that requires hard-nosed discipline.
 
So over the next few newsletters I’m going to focus on creativity in particular, and how we can harness it to make much more exciting and stimulating places.
 
At a time when our most important spaces have been placed under greater strain than ever before, I’m clear that we need to design and build these spaces with more care and attention. They need to be adaptable, flexible and resilient. And that means dialling in maximum creativity. From an early age I’ve always wanted to fuse creativity and building spaces. I’ve never quite understood why property professionals so often see that urge for creativity as something to be suspicious of. But I’ve been giving it a lot of thought recently and I’ve come to a few conclusions as to why they do.
 
The first is that there is always so much at stake in property decisions. Particularly financially. In a commercial context there is an old embedded idea that property investment decisions that involve multi millions of pounds need to be founded on hard core criteria like gross margin, return on capital employed and internal rate of return, and nothing else. Review any real estate fund manager’s prospectus and it won’t be long before you find the reference to the fund’s absolute commitment to generating ’superior returns.’ Soon after there’ll be mention of ‘risk under control’ and ‘attractive dividends.’ Of course this is understandable but it’s also short-sighted to see the success of development as purely a function of how the numbers work on a spreadsheet. I’ll come back to that shortly.
 
The second thing is that property people love things to be measurable and fixed. Whether it’s a programme, a cost plan, a revenue stream or anything else, there’s an overwhelming desire for certainty.
 
The third involves complexity. Every property development project, whether it's a personal housing project, or a commercial property development, is like building a start-up business. Each one involves having a clear vision, building a team of many different talents, and then raising considerable amounts of money. And that’s just to get to the start line. After that dynamic leadership skills are imperative to keep things on track. There’s just bundles of left brain and right brain stuff all going on at the same time. To do it really well requires that leadership to find a balance in the dance between strength and subtlety. Construction folk that have been messed around on promises made can be brutally straightforward in their approach I can tell you. Quite rightly so. The tools to manage that are very different from the tools needed to keep a designer happy when his or her creative output needs to be dismissed as not good enough.
 
Taken together these three reasons alone (and there are many more) start to explain why bringing unbridled creativity to the process of developing new buildings is so often met with scepticism. Because creativity is messy. It involves an iterative process which means uncertainty, and most importantly of all, it requires looking in unusual places for inspired ideas and answers. On the face of it it’s just safer and easier to dial down the messiness, reduce the number of iterations and to focus, laser like, solely on the financial outcome. It’s dangerous to look in strange places. That’s where monsters live! But that approach just won’t do anymore. If this pandemic has shown us anything it’s that we need to be more imaginative than ever. Our most important spaces have had to work really hard. Really hard. Now we need to start making spaces that really work to our best advantage.
 
And here’s the thing. I’m not advocating for the need to bring maximum creativity just in the design process. To be honest it’s kind of obviously a good idea to use an architect and engineers who have strong creative credentials for the project in hand. No I’m advocating for bringing as much creativity as possible at every step of the process. So over the next few months I’m going to consider this from a number of different perspectives. I’m convinced that if we learn to infuse the process of making space with as much creativity as we can muster two things happen. Firstly the spaces we make are imbued with far more quality, are more liveable, and are more responsive to our needs. And secondly, it means that what we add to the stock of space in the built environment is just better in terms of performance, functionality and beauty.  So at a commercial level that makes them stand out in a world of mediocrity. And experience has shown me (contrary to the finance team’s fears that doubling down on creativity leads to heightened risk to the bottom line) that because of this these spaces actually lead to more resilient profits.
 
So first off let’s have a quick look at the three components of creativity. This analysis is drawn from the work of Professor Teresa Amabile from Harvard Business School. She’s been a leader in this field for decades and is a world renowned expert on creativity at work in particular. Her work reveals that the three components of creativity are:
  1. Expertise: technical, procedural and intellectual knowledge. Everything we know, no matter where it came from;
  2. Creative thinking skills: are we able to find new perspectives on problems? How flexibly and imaginatively do we approach problems? Do our solutions upend the status quo, are we willing to persevere through lean spells?
  3. Motivation: not all motivation is created equal. There is intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The science shows that ‘intrinsic motivation’ is far more important. An inner passion to solve problems leads to far more creative solutions than does extrinsic motivation from rewards like money.
Expertise and creative thinking are by nature personal and individually controlled. Improving one’s expertise and creative thinking skills is possible of course, but it tends to be slow and costly. Motivation on the other hand, determines what we actually do. And it can be influenced by others more readily. So it can be stimulated and supported by leaders and managers. But if extrinsic motivation like money is not guaranteed to improve creativity, what can be done?
 
Amabile’s work confirms that there are 6 levers we can pull to maximise intrinsic motivation. They are:
  1.  Challenge: match people to the right assignment so that they are stretched but not overwhelmed;
  2. Freedom: define the goal clearly, don’t change it arbitrarily and allow flexibility in terms of the process to get there;
  3. Resources: provide adequate time, money and, just as importantly, physical space;
  4. Design of work groups: mutually supportive teams with a diverse range of perspectives, backgrounds and opinions are more creative. In addition a shared excitement over achieving the goal, and a willingness to share setbacks and provide intra team support, are significant;
  5. Supervisory encouragement: to sustain intrinsic motivation supervisors need to actively encourage the creative environment and to keep open minds despite uncertainty. Avoid negativity bias, lengthy bureaucratic evaluation and punishment of mistakes all of which can kill creativity;
  6. Organisational support: senior management support is critical. People need to be assigned correctly, support systems need to be in place, and creative efforts need to be recognised and rewarded appropriately (not simply financially). In-fighting, too much politics and gossip all hinder creativity.
What all of this suggests to me is that we absolutely must be pulling these 6 levers as effectively as possible. Putting together a team to make good space is not really that different to building any kind of successful team. Perceptive and imaginative leadership which focuses clearly on the diverse talents and individuality of each member, will deliver superior outcomes. On both the creativity front. And the discipline front. And when both are delivered in sync with each other that’s when the most robust financial outcomes are delivered. Hence my earlier point about resilient profits.
 
I’d really like to start a conversation about these ideas. If anyone has a point of view they’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you. I’m as keen to hear divergent opinions as I am stories where some of these ideas may have served you well. 
 
Making Space Work
Back in Lockdown 1, I started working on some core ideas I had about making spaces that maximise creativity and wellbeing. Like most ideas they needed a fertile environment to germinate in. In part the pandemic provided that as our spaces were subjected to greater and greater stresses. But the push to turn them into something tangible came from my good friend David Hieatt, co-founder of Hiut Denim and the Do Lectures. So together with the wonderful team at the Do Lectures I’ve just finished producing an online course which dives deeper into my philosophy for making homes and workspaces more effectively. There’s more information here.
One last thing
The significant impact of major health crises on cities is not new. In the mid 19th century, London suffered from recurring epidemics of cholera. In 1848–49 an epidemic killed 14,137 Londoners. And in 1853-54, 10,738 Londoners were killed by the disease, which at that time was believed to be caused by foul air. During the hot summer of 1858 things got so bad that what was christened the 'Great Stink of London', prompted parliament to act, finally. As chief engineer to London's metropolitan board of works Joseph Bazalgette was commissioned to begin work on a network of underground sewers that revolutionised London. By 1866 most of London was connected to the sewer network devised by Bazalgette. It had a significant impact on London's appearance. And, thanks to the efficiency of his superbly designed and built system, on the health of its inhabitants. It pretty much ended cholera problems in London and remains functional to this day. Joseph Bazalgette died on this day – 15th March, 1891. His legacy may well go largely unnoticed. But it just goes to show that extraordinary creativity often hides in unheralded places.
Who is Haxted? 
Haxted is a real estate development company passionate about creating beautiful homes and workspaces at a fair price. Our business is grounded in the visceral belief that well-designed and crafted buildings can massively enhance the quality of peoples’ lives. Haxted came into existence during the 2008 global financial crisis, a time of great turmoil.  Our thinking was that property needed less business-as-usual and more imagination. Less stuff and more soul. A little less conversation, a whole lot more action. It felt like the tectonic plates of how to do development were shifting. We needed to be nimble and ready to change shape at short notice. 
http://www.haxted.com.

The next few years are going to test us all. The decisions that we make about the buildings we choose to live and work in have never been more important. At Haxted we are fuelled by curiosity and the art of the possible. If you’d like to see what we’re up to, or discuss doing something together please email me at cnavato@haxted.com. I’ll generally respond within 24 hours.






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Haxted · Unit 2 Charnwood Edge Business Park · Cossington , Leicestershire LE7 4UZ · United Kingdom