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“It's been in the DNA of the company from the beginning. That idea of doing extraordinary buildings has, and is, and will be what the practice does” — Robert Macdougall
With rental prices increasing year on year, we’re noticing that renters are looking not only for a nice place to live, but for modern amenities to help justify the steep prices that they’re paying to live in major markets and downtown cores. One of the ways Westbank Living approaches this market is with smart buildings. Joining us to discuss this and the other ways that Westbank installs modern amenities in its real estate developments, is Robert Macdougall, Senior Vice President at Westbank Living. He sheds light on some of the exciting developments that the company is working on in the purpose-built market in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Seattle, Tokyo, and San Jose, and explains what inspired Westbank to embrace architecture and create hubs in these areas. Tune in today to find out more about the benefits of utilizing smart features, Robert’s advice to anyone exploring them, and some of the services and partnerships the company is implementing to generate additional income.
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Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
RM: “You can't layer on technology that's impactful later, you really got to get it into the building. So that was something that I learned early on and that's what we're working on.”
[00:00:11] ANNOUNCER: Hello, and welcome to Sync or Swim, a weekly podcast, brought to you by Rentsync, where we take a deep dive into the PropTech, multifamily and the rental housing industry. In each episode, we uncover the technologies and strategies used to help overcome operational challenges and increase the value of your multi-family investments. Let’s get into our conversation today.
[00:00:35] MH: Welcome back to Sync or Swim. Happy New Year, everyone. I'm your host, Matt Hildebrand, marketing manager here at Rentsync. We're taking off 2023 with a great guest joining us today, Rob Mcdougall, Senior Vice President of Westbank Living. Westbank is a leading luxury residential and mixed-use real estate development company here in Canada.
All right, Rob. Thank you for joining me today.
[00:00:59] RM: Thanks for inviting me to participate.
[00:01:01] MH: So before we really dive in, I'm hoping you can tell the listeners a little bit about your background and what brought you to Westbank.
[00:01:08] RM: Sure. I've been in the industry for just about 20 years now since I moved to Vancouver back in about 2003 from Halifax after university. I've been consulting at Westbank for about 10 years in a variety of roles. Started off helping out with marketing, and digital, and my role has evolved over the years to now supporting smart buildings and really any, any service layers that involve digital.
[00:01:38] MH: That's awesome. Touching on one thing there, smart buildings. We'll get into that a little bit later. It's an exciting topic. But first, though, one of the main reasons we wanted to have you on today, there's quite a bit of buzz about some of the newer projects that are coming up Seattle, Toronto. Hoping you can tell us a bit about those developments and what makes them such exciting projects for the purpose-built market.
[00:02:00] RM: Sure. I guess to start, Westbank has been around for a long time, founded in Vancouver, but we practice in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Seattle, Tokyo, and most recently, San Jose. We started out doing condo and did some office. But about 10 years ago, made this decision intentionally to start to shift some focus into rental and purpose-built rental. The first project that we brought into market was a brand-new build, the first one in the west end in Vancouver for almost 30 years called the Lauren, at least up in 2014. Since then, the pipeline has grown to about 20,000 units and we've got almost 3,000 online today with a ton of inventory coming on every year.
So yeah, Mirvish Village in Toronto is a big one that's finally coming to market in 2023. That's 891 apartments. It's 100% purpose-built rental. It's anchored with a market there's a lot of art, culture, music, food involved in the site. We really want it to be a cultural hub in that neighborhood in in Toronto. Then, I know you recon some other cities and some other stuff we're doing in. In Seattle, we've got two large projects in downtown. One is called Museum House. It's a partnership with Frye Museum. It's got architecturally very beautiful, a sky bridge connecting the two towers.
Then another project that's got a lot of press for us is 1200 Stewart. The press that we've gotten is about the Boeing 747 that we've integrated into a podium of the building, which is pretty cool. In San Jose, got a lot of press for what we're calling the Westbank Campus. That's a lot of office and purpose-built rental in Downtown, San Jose to try to, I guess, really create an exciting city and exciting downtown in San Jose. One of those rental buildings is Orchard, so we're working with a lot of great architects in that projects, Kengo Kuma, Studio Gang, long-time collaborator, James Chang, as well as Bjarke Ingels, another Ingles long-time collaborator that we have a project in Toronto with. Lots of exciting work. Obviously, all of the architecture, the buildings are very beautiful. But we're also thinking beyond just the built environment is starting to think about the amenities and the things that we put into the base of the building to really animate everyday life for our residents.
[00:04:40] MH: That's awesome. You touched on a few things there. These buildings are very beautifully from an architecture standpoint. What kind of brought Westbank to these decisions to really embrace architecture, and kind of make these buildings stand out a little bit more, and gain some of that press and really create a hub in these downtown cores?
[00:05:01] RM: It's been sort of the basis of the practice from the very beginning, which long preceded me participating with Westbank. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to work with them. I've been working in the industry for about 10 years, and worked on a bunch of different stuff for a lot of the top developers in Vancouver. Obviously, Westbank had always been doing things that were just a different level of design. I know we talked about how I started with Westbank, but a funny story is that, when I moved to Vancouver while I was looking for a job that was in my field of study, I actually come from a family that worked in construction. So obviously, I would just take a job in construction right away just to get to working.
One of the first buildings I worked on, as a sub doing concrete forming for Ledcor, it was Shaw Tower, which is where Westbank's headquarters is. I knew who Westbank was before I really knew that I was going to be working in the development industry in Vancouver. I kind of followed their practice and Woodward's was obviously an iconic project that they did. So really, it's been, I guess, in the DNA of the company from the beginning. That just idea of doing extraordinary buildings has and is, and will be what the practice does.
[00:06:25] MH: Yeah, like you said, their core, the DNA there. Mirvish Village is getting quite some buzz. A lot of people are talking about in the area. Very excited to see that when it's fully finished there. Switching gears a little bit there. You talked about some smart buildings and things like that. When we spoke earlier, you mentioned that you've had the opportunity to head down to Las Vegas and attend the National Multifamily Housing Council's OPTECH conference. OPTECH is going to be a big topic in 2023. Was there anything that you kind of learned there that you would take away, and you're maybe looking to implement or explore for 2023 and beyond?
[00:07:03] RM: Yeah, for sure. I'm really glad I went. It was my first time heading down. As I said, like we at Westbank had been doing condos and intentionally shifted some of our resources to rental because of the need for rental housing. In Canada, we've been building a lot more condos because that's where the opportunity has been. In the US, it's a bit different. They're almost inversely building apartments, and the presale condo is not a big, big thing, but for a couple markets. For me to go down there and kind of participate in roundtables with CEOs and people who are, I guess, operating at a much larger scale, with big portfolios and the kind of emphasis placing on technology and efficiency and things like that was – I wouldn't say eye opening, but definitely encouraging as to where we are today with our systems and processes and where we want to get to. And just, I guess, being exposed to the thinking and some of the ideas was really exciting.
As far as I guess, big topics of conversation and things like that, business intelligence was a big one. Infrastructure was another big one. Hardware and stuff wasn't as big, I think this year from what I was told as it's been in the past, but the business intelligence and the infrastructure were two topics of discussion that I think everyone spent quite a bit of time, and there was a lot of dialogue around.
[00:08:36] MH: Yeah, that's a big one for sure, infrastructure. That's a pretty good segue into our next question. Something you spoke about or touched on a little bit earlier was the idea of smart buildings. When we say smart buildings, we're not just talking about nest cameras. We're talking here about a core infrastructure. Can you touch on the benefits of implementing smart features, maybe how Westbank has been looking at this trend? And maybe if you could offer some advice to any developers that are just kind of exploring some of these features now?
[00:09:07] RM: Sure, this one has been, I guess, a bit of a love hate for me over the last couple of years. I started looking at it, probably about three years ago now, where a lot of companies are reaching out to us, pitching us different, different things. We knew we had to kind of move into the space. We understand the business drivers of it, whether that be operating efficiencies, or tenant experience or whatnot. But we had to kind of figure out, well, what makes sense for us in terms of what kind of product offering we're trying to bring to market and the experience we want to deliver. And financially, how does that work within our business model? So yeah, definitely been a challenging environment to navigate. There's lots of new things and it's been evolving very quickly.
But what I landed on pretty early on after a bit of trial and error was that, a big thing that we need to do is to dig into the guts of the building, not look at adopting sort of an app or something at an operational level, but we need to get into the infrastructure and start to reengineer how we're designing our buildings. Again, I speak from personal experience just with our projects having come from say, a development processes geared toward condos, to a development processes geared towards to rental buildings. Engaging with our operations and property management teams earlier, getting them involved in the discussion about what we're going to deploy in the building and trying to get out of schematic design level, some of these things, either budgeted for, planned for, put inspect, et cetera. Having a strategy and getting that going at the outset is really important.
You can't layer on technology that's impactful later. You really got to get it into the building. So that was something that I learned early on and that's what we've been working on. Taking things out of mechanical electrical scopes, dealing with them from the perspective of like a master systems integration, mapping those to whatever software products you're going to deploy with the building for the service layer. That's been a core part of my role for the last three years.
Adjacent to that was also the communication services, so the telecommunications that we put into the building. The two are kind of hand in glove, and the kind of network you need to operate and stand up different systems is important. So that's something that we've also been doing working with the likes of Telus, and Rogers, and our consultants to ensure that we have the right kind of network. In our case, we've opted for the managed Wi-Fi route, and putting that into our buildings, and making the business case for that, and standing up our systems on those networks to kind of give ourselves a, I guess, a converged network, as opposed to consumer services and base building services. That's been our approach.
I think, after much trial and error and sort of head scratching, we've kind of figured out that infrastructure, and now we're kind of moving to a place where we've got an ecosystem of products and service providers, and now we're looking at advancing our tenant experience from or on top of that infrastructure.
[00:12:30] MH: There's probably something you said to about scalability and how that's a big issue too. I'm sure you're looking at doing some due diligence in that aspect as well.
[00:12:39] RM: For sure, it was, again, because I had a technical background, it was easy to understand that I wouldn't be able to integrate or manage integrations for 30 or 40 different products, like we'd have to kind of pick some horses and ride with those. That was sort of understood very early on, but it was also reinforced.
I was listening to someone and forgive me for not knowing his name. But he was hired, I think, in a role with Oxford as like a CTO or something. He had said how they had a portfolio of buildings, all with a variety of different systems, and managing and maintaining those systems was going to increase in costs over time, such that it would be a real drag on their portfolio. They were being proactive in looking at that, because the operating efficiency that you get from having standards, and being able to manage your buildings that way was critical. I definitely took that advice to heart and applied it in my work.
[00:13:41] ANNOUNCER: Like what you hear so far, make sure you never miss an episode by clicking the subscribe button now. This podcast is made possible by listeners like you. Thank you for your support. Now, let's get back to the show.
[00:13:55] MH: So switching gears just a little bit there. We touched on smart buildings. Now, immediately the markets were really noticing that the competition is heating up. Rental demand is down, fluctuates during the winter season. With rental prices, increasing year over year, we’re noticing renters are now looking for not just a nice place to live, but they're looking for those modern amenities to really help justify the steep prices that they're now paying to live in these major markets and these downtown cores. How would you say West Bank approaches this? And really, how do you decide on you what needs to be modernized to really help increase the value of the asset?
[00:14:36] RM: This is a difficult question, for sure. I don't know that we have all the answers to it. But touching on what we discussed earlier, certainly, just the quality of the building, the timelessness of the architecture and how it's going to stand out in the skyline is important and desirability. We obviously try to build in the right location, which helps – and again, I'm dancing around the amenity question. But from our perspective, from the outside and there's a quality that we're trying to achieve.
We've aspirationally have thought of the portfolio as like, Westbank Living should be seen as a lifestyle, and it should be kind of a three or four-star hotel experience. We're really leaning on our experience in hospitality with the restaurants we own, and the hotels we own, and trying to curate our amenities in such a way that they live a little bit like a hospitality experience. The way we design our lobbies to all our gyms are designed and managed by our boutique fitness concepts house. You'll get a gym that – while it's in an apartment building, it's at the level of a gym that you have a membership to. It's just taking that approach, and we've sort of applied that in our first generation of projects. We're still looking at refining that and figuring out how to invest in amenities in a way that supports the value of the asset and supports the rents that we're seeking and delivers the best experience to our residents.
[00:16:12] MH: That's awesome. Lifestyle is a big topic right now, for the purpose-built industry, really building a brand, creating a lifestyle. Another significant trends kind of look out for in 2023. I think this is a good segue is, what other income can be extracted from these properties? I've touched on Westbank's, even just looking at Mirvish, the retail, the restaurants, everything like that. How do you approach this idea? What type of feature, services and even partnerships would you really take a hard look at implementing 2023 and beyond?
[00:16:48] RM: Yeah. I think, for us, it kind of goes back to, again, talking about our DNA and what we kind of describe as being a bit of a culture company and wanting to, as you said, kind of curate a lifestyle for people that are going to be renting from us, or dining at one of our restaurants or getting coffee at one of our cafes. It really comes down to these complimentary lifestyle services or businesses that enhance the real estate offering. What we'd like to see, and what we're working towards is ways to connect the Westbank world in to a kind of a single interface.
I mentioned we were at – we've kind of figured out our infrastructure layer, and we've got the early machinations of our service layer. But definitely, the future for us is to develop that relationship with our tenants and connect them to the businesses that we operate. And hopefully, that relationship flourishes and it leads to people spending a bit more money with us, whether that's getting a membership to one of our fitness concepts, or being a regular diner, at the kitchen table groups restaurants, those types of things.
That's really how we're seeing our property, we see the opportunity for us to have rents be a major source of income with this portfolio. But also, with other income, we'd like to see the ability to connect these different businesses with our tenant and hopefully generate other income the same way that you look at seniors housing, and they have rental space, but they also have health care services. We'd like to see our properties deliver lifestyle services that are commensurate with that model.
[00:18:43] MH: Yeah, really adding value to the tenant, embedding into the rents a little bit more, really just a win-win for everybody. That's awesome. Thank you so much for sharing a lot about what Westbank does. A lot of the projects are very exciting. I implore our listeners to go check out Westbank, check out mirvishvillage.com and all their other projects. They're visually very stunning. I think it's going to be very exciting for the areas when they're move in ready. Rod, thank you so much. Like I said, check out Westbank Living, and if there's anything else you want to let the listeners know, I'll just kind of open the floor to you.
[00:19:20] RM: Thanks, man. I was going to do a shameless plug for Rentsync actually, how you guys –
[00:19:26] MH: All ears.
[00:19:28] RM: We've been a client for quite a while and it's a fantastic service. It definitely fits within our tech stack. I know we didn't get too deep into like our leasing process and what we're doing there to try to streamline operations, but the services that Rentsync’s provided us fit in nicely with our leasing operations and we've been we've really enjoyed the partnership with your team.
[00:19:50] MH: We really appreciate that. Look forward to working with you in the future and hopefully we can have you back on again sometime.
[00:19:56] RM: Great. Thanks again, Matt.
[00:19:58] MH: No problem. That's it for today, everybody. Have a great day.
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