Image provided by Kim Komando, Americas Digital Goddess
It’s the Christmas of 2005, my brothers and I had been relatively “good” that year and we had unanimously begged Santa (my father) for what we believed to be the latest and greatest gadget of the mid 2000’s. After surviving the formalities of Christmas breakfast we gathered at the base of the Christmas tree. Targeting wrapped boxes that prior reconnaissance had indicated the proper attributes to we quickly identified and unwrapped the prized jewel; a gift from Santa to my brothers and I. It was about the size of a clunky laptop, came in a carrying case the size of a small briefcase, and was more expensive (without considering inflation) than a modern day MacBook air. If you haven’t figured it out already (from the image above) we had just unwrapped one of the first models of a portable DVD player. “This is the pinnacle of technology” I remember thinking to myself. Alas, over a decade later, our once prized gadget sits in the basement occupying a moving box filled to the brim with other previously prized gadgets that were doomed to a similar fate: obsolescence.
In the reading from The Carbon Efficient City we were given a piece of wisdom from Buckminster Fuller, “You never change anything by fighting the existing. To change something build a new model and make the existing obsolete”. In many ways I completely agree with this concept. I believe that true innovation can stem from developing flexible frameworks that leave room for volte-face renovation, innovation, and adaptation. However, I am concerned about the difficulties associated with adopting and incorporating this ideology in the real estate development industry.
Cutting edge technology has a tendency to out-date itself at a pace that is not necessarily in parity with the real estate investment horizon. When designing and building spaces that include the latest and greatest environmental innovation, obsolescence is a considerable risk factor that is often overlooked. Just last week, I sat through a lecture focused on the LEED certification process. One of the primary concerns our professor shared with us was that a whole swath of buildings that were previously given the prestigious titles of LEED Platinum and LEED Gold are now at risk of losing their current LEED status as a five-year re-evaluation period approaches. For a developer that chose to incorporate the environmental considerations necessary to earn a LEED Platinum title five years ago, this is a very punishing admonishment. From the LEED certification perspective, these buildings, simply put, have become obsolete. It seems to me as if the innovators of five years ago triggered a wave of innovation that has doomed their contributions to the same fate as my portable DVD Player. I have been left asking myself: why would a developer go through the rigorous and frequently expensive process of building a LEED Platinum building, filling it with commercial tenants that demand LEED Platinum certified space, with the knowledge that new environmental building innovation will leave their product obsolete within a five-year window? In this framework the innovators of today are building their graves for tomorrow.
Obsolescence is not an insurmountable problem. This is simply one more factor that needs to be considered when designing a functional framework moving forward. Such a framework should leave no excuses for stagnation. It should incorporate creative and flexible methods for rewarding the visionaries of today without punishing them in the near future. Accepting the certainty of obsolescence that stems from innovation is key to designing this framework. If aligning the interests of innovators (developers) with stakeholders (everyone) is the goal a functional framework, it must consider the timing lag between investment horizon and technological obsolescence. This framework must provide solutions that marry financial interests with innovation. Without incorporating solutions to this problem we will be left occupying spaces in the future that incorporate environmental innovation that is in parity with the clunker gadgets sitting in my basement.