« The property development industry is tackling a whole new paradigm »
The property development industry has not been spared by the pandemic crisis. Besides the slow-down in operations, offices are empty and homes have become de facto work places. New uses and expectations have emerged. For Guillaume Carlier, CSR manager at Bouygues Bâtiment France Europe, the current crisis exposes underlying trends. Property development must acknowledge and assist these trends and thus show proof of its environmental and societal responsibility.
Guillaume Carlier, CSR manager at Bouygues Bâtiment France Europe
With the massive development of WFH (working from home), has the market for office buildings hit a roadblock?
Office space is by no means a dead market, but it is certainly facing a severe challenge in this crisis. WFH has barged its way into companies and redefined the role of the office, namely a place for collaboration. It follows that office spaces will become meeting points, living places with high social added value. Reasoning will no longer be based on square metres per employee but on the type and profile of each space as befits the relevant stage of a project, with the accent very much on ambience, services, and wellness. Conviviality, creativity, and design thinking will become performance levers. The office is therefore getting a call to pursue and accelerate its transformation. It will become a key marker of a company’s values, its ethos, its relation with employees.
What about housing? What changes are being induced by this crisis?
The crisis puts housing in the front line of our attention. As we spend more and more time at home, new needs arise: more space, more intimacy, more nature, more outdoors, but also more social links. Housing must address the diversification of uses. Inhabiting includes working, taking care of oneself, doing physical exercise, consuming, growing food, recycling, producing energy, or engaging in home study. This means building operators can no longer separate a home from its environment.
Traditional property development usually goes like this: I buy land, I build, I generate the highest capital gain. But this model is no longer sustainable or desirable. Street blocks need to be our base unit for planning communal areas, outdoor activities, or shared energy or mobility services. Alongside this, new objectives must shape the conceptual design of collective buildings: modularity, versatility, future adaptability. For example, we could imagine a “spare room” pooled between several families, or adaptable area layouts. Interiors will also look to optimize spaces, with rearrangeable, multi-function furniture, walls integrating sliding facilities—the possibilities are endless, and developers’ R&D departments are on the case in all these areas.
At Bouygues Bâtiment France Europe, we have worked on a variety of reversible fixture concepts. In “Office Switch Home”, for example, the cheap, quick conversion of an office into a home is designed right in thanks to a novel technical platform.
In your view, has this crisis given rise to other major changes or turnabouts?
This crisis has set property development on a new course. The equation is complex and there are many unknowns, but one thing is certain, the return to “normal” life will be different, with a longing for social ties, high concern for environmental issues, sweeping changes in behaviour. For developers, this represents a major change in the approach to working, designing, and constructing. It's a new economic model that needs inventing, new relations with the local authorities as well as the future acquirers of our buildings. All this provides strong motivation.
I think it's important to emphasise that this crisis has almost certainly put the brakes on the super hi-tech “smart” city concept. What will be its sustainability in the future world I've described above? Is hyperconnectivity an end in itself? I don't think so. Digital is useful if it has a rational purpose that meets real needs. It must remain at the service of a town where it helps above all create a good place to live collectively.
This pandemic coincides with increasingly serious climate change issues. Notwithstanding, the 2020 French environmental regulations have been delayed a year. Doesn't this send a "bad" signal to the property development industry?
The 2020 environmental regulations mark a major development in energy and carbon considerations and need to be very ambitious. They involve major changes in the mobilization of skills, production processes, materials, etc. Small businesses and individual contractors are at the heart of construction in France, and the coming changes are going to weigh heavily on them. Some resistance is therefore understandable. Our role, as property development and construction majors, is to pave the way, strengthen cooperation, innovate to light a path through regulations and market adaptation. This extra breathing space before enforcement of the 2020 regulations will allow time for improvements, notably regarding summer comfort, which becomes a real priority in the context of climate upheaval. The issue is one of building a town that is pleasant to live in, healthy, resource-thrifty, inclusive, and resilient. The whole property value chain therefore has a key part to play in confronting these challenges.