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The pandemic has disrupted many aspects of commercial real estate (CRE), but as consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada put it in its outlook report Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2021, “While the pandemic is creating an environment of caution, real estate companies that adapt their investment and development strategies to stay ahead of changes in where people want to be and how they use space will be best positioned to succeed.” Here are some future-forward ideas from innovators in selected areas of CRE in Canada.

Innovation and diversity in CRE

Farrah Khimji, founder and CEO, Toronto-based Futura Funds
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Farrah KhimjiThomas Bollmann/The Globe and Mail

With the pandemic emptying office buildings, and uncertainty around what return-to-work and office space will look like post-COVID-19, companies with buildings that include premium services, such as touchless smart elevators and real-time analytics on indoor health factors, could be the ones that entice tenants back, Ms. Khimji says.

At the same time, she adds, the people starting proptech companies are more diverse than those traditionally in the top positions in CRE, so the disruption of the pandemic may open up space for diversity in the industry.

Ms. Khimji found a way to bring those two notions together – innovation and diversity – by founding Futura Funds, an investment platform for women and others in proptech to bring innovative ideas to the commercial real estate industry. Ms. Khimji is also the president of the Toronto chapter of CREW, an association that supports women in CRE globally.

With experience in senior finance roles for a number of companies, including Oxford Properties and Forgestone Capital, Ms. Khimji had decided to go out on her own.

She is also in the early stages of launching an innovation hub in the CRE space. And in partnership with her sister Saleema Khimji, the founder of Struqta Global, they are developing a standard for occupant health for buildings, measuring such qualities as indoor air, noise, light and temperature. The primary goal of this standard and the underlying technology is to understand how these measures affect occupant health, well-being and productivity while also providing real-time feedback to occupants on the wellness qualities of a building.

“I envision a future where we have wearables interacting with a building,” she says.

Rethinking malls

Ben Gilbank, director of development, Vancouver-based QuadReal Property Group
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Daniel Ha/Handout

“It is well known that retail has been changing over the past five to 10 years,” Mr. Gilbank says. “With COVID, that trend has gone warp speed.” QuadReal is the real estate arm of BCI, the British Columbia Investment Management Corp. that manages public pension funds. As such, it takes a long-term view of investments.

“A lot of malls we have today were designed in the postwar, car-centric era,” he says, when retail was separate from where people lived or worked.

Now there is a growing preference for urbanization, or walkable, transit-oriented communities in former car-centric areas.

At their core, malls are not only centres of commerce but meeting places, Mr. Gilbank says. This is why QuadReal is among the developers looking at the potential of experience and mixed use when building or redeveloping malls. For instance, the company’s portfolio includes Cloverdale Mall in Etobicoke, a western suburb of Toronto. It’s a typical 1950s suburban covered mall with extensive parking around it, tucked between highways.

After consultation with the community, QuadReal submitted a comprehensive plan for redevelopment to the city this summer. It envisions the multiphased project as a mix of residential buildings with externally accessed retail at grade and parks and a covered town square, as well as indoor space for community programming, such as fashion shows, food festivals and movies in the park.

As consultancy Deloitte states it in a recent report, the mall of the future needs to be “a multi-purpose environment that offers extensive leisure activities as well as other services, like office, residential and cultural amenities.”

Universal design

Lorene Casiez, accessibility and wellness lead at Human Space, a division of Toronto-based BDP Quadrangle, where she is an associate
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“The principles of universal design are thinking about a broad range of people across the life spectrum,” Ms. Casiez says.

This means thinking inclusively about the built space right from the get-go, rather than adding a ramp or two as an afterthought. And one of the advantages of universal design is that it can benefit everyone in unexpected ways.

For example, during a pandemic, it is advantageous to have power doors and other types of touchless surfaces, beyond its advantages for people who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. And with an aging population, the necessity for universal design only increases.

Ms. Casiez worked with the retail team at Wellwise, the home health care stores of Shoppers Drug Mart Corp. (a subsidiary of Loblaw Cos. Ltd.), on issues such as graphics with stronger colour contrast for people with low vision, as well as making the space more physically accessible.

She is currently working on projects with courthouses and hospitals, incorporating ideas such as rectilinear floor plans, to help people with low vision or cognition to orient themselves more easily, or furniture with rounded edges to prevent injury in people with low or no vision.

While some design considerations are large, such as building accessible entrances, other components can be small, such as thinking about how to design point-of-sale terminals that work for people with low or no vision.

Beyond physical abilities, there are other aspects of inclusion to consider, such as the all-gender washrooms put into the Yorkdale mall in Toronto.

Ms. Casiez envisions a future when she no longer has a job. “Now, no one questions why there are safety and fire codes in place, whereas some people still question why we should have barrier-free spaces.”

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