MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Filtering by Tag: Real estate

The power and potential of platforms and pathways in workspace design

The leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “get” the experiences of working. They will be organizations who understand that the emerging metric of performance, leadership and success is the growth in people’s potential driven by the effectiveness of the environments providing the experiences people seek and through which their organizations thrive.

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New ways of working | Apple store, Tokyo | image by -nathan on flickr.com

Everything about work has changed, but nothing of the workplace has.

Work looks different, now.

Major forces in technology, the economy, society and culture have combined in such a way that  even the near future will be dramatically different from what we’ve experienced over the past several decades.

A casual recitation of the trends we’ve seen in new ways of working – mobility, agility, globalization, collaboration, crowd-sourcing, innovation imperatives, networked organizations, creative class, work anywhere, etc. – reveals the early components of massive and accelerating change.

And the lexicon of the current and emerging future – work swarms, hyperconnectivity, augmented reality, gaming, simulations, spontaneous work, the collective, etc. – is language that does not yet have counterparts in the world where the design of the workspace takes place.

We are very surprised by the slow pace of change in the planning and design of places for working. We believe that beyond our ability to see and comprehend what the future of work looks like, there are significant forces that constrain our ability to get to where we need to be.

The failure of the discipline of design to match the pace of the emergence of new ways of working will certainly mean frustration and, more importantly, restraint on the ability of organizations to capitalize on the promise of the future.

We think that new institutions and new approaches are necessary to resolve this issue.

The existing paradigms of the workplace are very strong and limit the ability to achieve rapid change.

At the core of this dilemma is the heavily embedded practice of looking to the future from the past. We have spoken before of our resistance to the terms and the articulations of workplace “trends” because we believe that the change taking place in society is so substantial that the future can no longer be extrapolated from the experience of the past or the components of the lagging present.

There has been and, until the Great Recession, continued to be significant investment in the physical infrastructure supporting the way that work used to be done. The office building in best practice, for example, is a form based on past organizational designs and management practices that uses components, modules and metrics to reinforce a conformity to hierarchy, entitlement, and a cellular array of assigned workspaces. Over time, these have generated a well-developed and applied template of core design and placement, floorplate size and dimension, and floor-to-floor heights that shape the organization of work, and even influences the size and displacement of organizations. Form does not follow function anymore; rather function fits form.

Those components, what we call the lexicon of workplace form, also represent a mature economy that has been well developed by furniture and equipment manufacturers, ceiling and wall component manufacturers, and the technologies of energy and communications distribution. This has also bred a generation of workplace design specialists, increasingly constrained by time and fees, who have developed an aura of market and practice area expertise that reinforces the incremental extrapolation and application of "best practice" templates rather than real workspace innovation.

And the embedded resistance to change in the corporation suppresses the mandate for change

Even while accepting the logic for new ways of working, management education and practice has been unable to adapt to and keep up with the extraordinary speed of change in the way that work is actually being performed.

In recent years, even the growing awareness of generational differences has generated merely stylistic differentiation in the accommodation of different ways of working without understanding the substantial emergence of entirely new forms of organization and execution.

The "trend" to make the workplace more "social" by introducing a Starbucks style into the lunch room is but one example of the misunderstanding of the emerging social nature of work, communication, networks and innovation.

The existing institutions are powerless

While the corporation correctly senses that the current form of the workplace is worthless, it has not yet formed an understanding of what form of workplace has value. Workplace design consultants have illustrated that whether through layoffs or through mobility programs or through otherwise unrecognized shifts in how and where work is done, you can walk through the corporate offices these days and not see anybody there.

As the economy continues to press on corporate performance, most companies cannot shed real estate fast enough. The relentless purge is based, at least in part, on the traditional alignment of the corporate real estate function with the finance organization. Human resources, marketing, R&D and the value-generating portions of the organization have not yet assembled the point-of-view, position and power to influence the real estate momentum.

And, of course, the supply side of real estate, for a long time afraid of change, has led the design and delivery of the corporate workplace based on "exit strategies" – the generalization, commonization and commoditization of corporate offices to assure rapid turnover of occupancies even as the demand for a high level of customization and agility begins to emerge.

New institutions are necessary

The sense that the conventional designers and providers of the spaces and places where work is done can not adapt to provide a new model has led some from outside of the domain of "best" practice to attempt to innovate and create.

The Kauffman Foundation, for example, deeply concerned about the pace, volume and success of the entrepreneurial endeavors that power job creation and economic growth, have developed the Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation. They have commissioned a prototype space to act as a "test-bed" for the development and application of new modes of organizational design and development under the belief that space matters to people's performance.

Similarly, Jeff DeGraf at the University of Michigan, has generate the Innovatrium concept. In his work with major corporations, he has found that great strides can be made with executives in an off-site, non-corporate context, but the pace and success of change is lost when they return to the conventional corporate space. The Innovatrium is a prototype to find a physical mode to implant in the corporate office to assure greater success in innovation initiatives.

These are early, small scale models, and there is a lot still missing.

So...I am looking for a developer

Our specifications are still in development and, in any case, we want this to be a mutual and multidisciplinary endeavor. Our model will evolve from design and development, from research and insight, from analysis and innovation, from prototypes and testing, and from new “metrics” around the experience of working.

We’ll return to this subject periodically. In the meantime, here is a very brief review of only some of the things we are thinking about.

The new model will use a new language of workspace design, a new lexicon of form. Since the leading edge of new ways of working is evolving so fast, and since older ways of working are moving so slowly, event the current language of work and design is losing value fast. “Collaboration,” for example, already has the weight of workforce skepticism, and everybody knows that the little table out in the open is not the supporting device. The new language must not carry any burden from inadequate responses from the past.

The new model is one of service, not control. Corporate real estate and facility management have provided things. The metrics of their performance and the limits on their resources have meant that the efficiency of the management of things and the minimization of the cost and amount of things have been their focus. “Standards” and “mobility” are a couple of the ways this is done, and “performance” became a financial, not an achievement, metric. The new model will instead understand and appreciate the importance of the way that people will get things done, and will provide the most effective resources for accomplishing the purposes of the organization.

The new model will be a sustainable model. Stocks and flows may be the underlying concept for the provision of space, not assignment and entitlement. This is at the core of our thinking. Corporate ownership and the long-term implications of real estate investment have combined to generate an inflexible and over-supplied model of space for work. We think a third party approach with a different model of supply is worthy of development and promotion.

The new model will seek talent centers, not cost centers. People will find and deliver success through their expertise and mastery in combination with a context-specific network of other experts and masters. These people will have the choice of being where they want to be, and that choice is increasingly an urban choice, in globally-connected, resource-rich centers. Workspace will come to be comprehended as a community, not a finite workplace.

The new model will focus on the experience of working. We believe that the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “own” the experience of working. The measures and pleasures of performance will be determined by the people who fulfill the purpose of the organization, and not by the organization. Top talent will move to where they can be most effective, where the constraints on achievement have been removed, and where the available resources activate, augment and amplify their contributions and achievements.

Contact us if you’d like to explore with us how to develop the workspaces of the future.

[Image by -nathan on flickr.com]

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A new value equation for organizational real estate

Emerging opportunities in organizational real estate and workplace programs – and how to capture their value

I have become considerably optimistic about the future of our practice from the evidence of disruption that had been latently present and now is increasing activating our economy. What had been a slowly emerging awareness of the need for doing things in new ways is now attaining greater momentum through the recognition that a fundamental shift has taken place, and that new strategies and designs are essential to successfully get in the flow of new achievement.

I sketched a diagram, an emergent equation of sorts, that begins to express some of the shift and its potential in a couple of domains of interest for me.

It tries to express that the content of the institutions and organizations of the recent past, which had still been bound up in closed and constrained systems, is breaking out and finding new value through more open and innovative systems. The impacts of this change of state include the collapsing value of the services and infrastructures that sustained the older systems in the first decade of the millennium, and the emergent power and potential residing in the transitional white space between the recent now and the yet-unformed next.

Some familiar recitations

Corporations, as individually competitive entities, were essentially closed systems where not being number one or two meant death. They were administrated by hierarchies enclosed in towers expressive of stature, status, and power. The value in these towers was attained through internal controls like efficiency of utilization, and external influences like financial instruments.

These real estate values were achieved through a set of services, equipment and standards managed separately from the core purposes of the organization, and yet influenced the shape of buildings and cities. People sat in policy-defined cubes. Furniture manufacturers fabricated responsive and dimensionally-confined systems. And architects and designers influenced site selection and lease negotiations based on "test fits" measuring the efficiency of the ratio of space enclosed in cubes versus the amount of space left over. Developers achieved "investment grade" ratings on their buildings by, among other things, reducing the inches of building constructed between the module of the furniture systems proscribed by the corporate standards and the minimum dimensions of aisles defined by code. Geometric precision defined economic value.

Then, a confluence of global comic development, financial meltdown, technology acceleration and the innovation imperative scrambled the value set. Rising real (and artificial) estate costs initiated a quest to squeeze, and "footprint hierarchy" disappeared. Technology enabled a work-anywhere potential, and realistic real estate utilization metrics proved the case for dramatic reduction in real estate demand. Innovation, the key to competitive differentiation and precious growth, was now believed to arise from a culture of creative and cross-disciplinary collaboration for which the cube was an enemy. Even after economic collapse and the disappearance of price pressure on real estate decisions, the demand for space may now be felt more by the coffee shop than the corporation.

Leading organizations are now trying to find ways to operate as networked clusters of competencies rather than closed corporations. The concept of work "stations" now only has value if you believe that if you have one you will not get laid off; instead, quality of place and attraction of space get attention. Work, in any case, is no longer contained in a company's buildings, nor by the clock, and is progressively becoming part of a seamlessly networked, diversely urban lifestyle. People now much more agile in place and time, choose places and spaces that are the most effective, or can be made more effective, for whatever activity is part of their workstream.

So, what might this mean?

Our clients regularly ask us about trends. Understanding what is happening in workplace planning and design, for example, allows them to become current, test their status against industry and competitors, and make more informed choices about their own programs. Trends, a term borrowed from the world of style, may however be evidence more of group-think and less a valid tool for decision-making. The trend-setter may actually have been the only one in the chain who made an authentic move, creatively adapting and innovating their workspace to meet the unique and differential needs of their organization's purpose. His followers may now be experiencing the frustration of trying to fit function to form.

In a recently posted video of his presentation at a TED conference, Simon Sinek offers a diagram – "the Golden Circle" – of the path to influential leadership, and a simple formulation that people want what you believe, not what you are. Individuals and organizations with a well-formulated and articulated belief system ("why" – their purpose for being) develop aligned and authentic means to deliver on their promise ("how"). In order for the "how" of their organization to be effective, they shape their presence in place and space in the character of their culture ("what" – the tangible and physical expression of their unique DNA).

Trends in organizational real estate and workplace design

In their real estate and workplace design programs, aspirational organizations may see the impact and influence of others' space moves and, sensing "trend," may choose a similar approach for themselves, believing they, too, may benefit from the concepts.

The trend-setting organization may say – we are relentless in our quest to understand the needs of our clients and their customers. To get this understanding we do our work standing next to them, enabled by technology and support policies that allow our people to work in our client's places. We've developed an agile workplace with all of the tools to support and nurture our highly committed and recognized staff.

The trend-following organization sees a "trend" to shed real estate costs through a reduced space inventory and minimized allocations. They initiate a mobile work "policy" and measure their success with a 40% reduction in occupancy costs, which, they believe, enhances their competitive position in the market. Their people begin to experience a high level of stress, make  harmful decisions based on the celebrated internal metrics, and cling to a cubicle as an entitlement and an assumed job insurance.

If I could apply Simon Sinek's principles to our advice to our clients, I would always propose that we design from the inside out. Developing a deep understanding of the purpose and goals of the organization (the why), we would then begin to shape with them a strategy design (the how) to meet their goals and then begin to uncover, test and develop concepts to shape a design strategy for place and space (the what) to enhance the performance of people and to achieve and sustain leadership in their mission.

In other words, I'd try this new formula with them–

  • Articulate why you are in business and let that purpose be the principle drive of real estate programs and decisions
  • Define how you uniquely do what you do, first without reference to space
  • Shape space and place around the how

This is a great time for corporations and other forms of organizations to reassess the purposes and power of place for their own goals and objectives, whether considering new initiatives or reviewing the impacts of past or recent programs.

What do you think?

© Jim Meredith

The good news in Wilbur Ross's bad news about real estate? Radical "Attraction strategies"

branislav krapilak_garages12-735x459In double-barrel bad news accompanying the drop in the market today, both Wilbur Ross and George Soros offered dismal outlooks for commercial real estate, each stating that the U.S. sector is in the beginning of a huge, perhaps unprecedented, decline.

“All of the components of real estate value are going in the wrong direction simultaneously,” said Ross... “Occupancy rates are going down. Rent rates are going down and the capitalization rate -- the return that investors are demanding to buy a property -- are going up.” (via Bloomberg, 10/30/9)

The principal drivers of this are interlinked, with investment conditions and business demand influencing each other, and all of this is bad news. On the other hand, in way too fast of a reaction, I thought I'd try a draft of an approach Ross himself uses. Quoted in the Bloomberg article, Ross said,

“Our methodology is to make a great big list: What’s every thing we can think of that’s either wrong with the industry or that we just plain don’t like about it...Then we start work on another list. If we had control of this industry, what would we do to fix each one of those problems? Once we feel that there is a reasonable likelihood that the second chart kind of equals the first chart, that’s when we get ready to do something.”

I'd (over-) characterize almost every commission I've been part of for the millions of square feet of corporate space we've planned, designed and built or built-out over the past decade or more as driven by a set of values only nominally connected to what actually drives the performance of our clients' businesses. Through most of this time, our profession has made extensive use of programs and metrics around efficiency, productivity, effectiveness, and performance, yet with little reflection of a core understanding of the underlying businesses and with primary measurements related to amount of space.

In the happiest of cases, we've built new buildings under an optimism around business growth and scaled both by planning standards and credit equations. In more stressful times, we've made new workspaces driven by integrations, consolidations, and revised standards generated primarily by an interest in occupancy cost reductions. In relatively informed times, we've put together strategies and implemented programs to leverage potentials in technology advancements and acknowledge trends and benefits in mobility. In the best of cases, although these were very few, our projects were driven by an appropriately appreciated definition of sustainability for both the business and the property.

Now, I wonder, if this unfolding new collapse could present the critical conditions for a dramatic change in the way we think about occupying space for work? What might be the new answers to questions like these –

  • Could work look different now? The "look" of work has been shape by management concepts about command and control, attendance, entitlement, and hierarchy and made physical by cubes. The reality of work in most leading companies looks like teams and networks, visibility and activity, and its physical presence changes the definition of what "work" is. Will the predicted second wave collapse cause a closer examination of what the workplace is? What "activates" value?
  • Will there be a C(B)D anymore? With ongoing and building momentum reshaping how and where work is done, can we any longer zone for work separately from lifestyle? What will be the attributes of a building reprofiled for recovery after the crash, and can it have the same attributes, configurations and approach to tenants as now? Can a building be planned simply within its site, or will collaborative and coordinated community-based planning approaches provide a richer, more robust, more sustainable and more attractive domain for how work is done?
  • Will we care more about quality in cities? Will quality of environment mean the end of economic incentives to attract development to cities? That is, will owners, developers and cities work together to find the means to promote a broader perception of the value of place? Will quality of place demand a premium that outweighs any incentive intended to overcome the negatives? What will define quality? Will this example be a model in other places? Is this model relevant anymore?

Will this be end of "exit strategies" and the beginning of radical and aggressively positive "attraction strategies"?

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5 expensive tactics to reduce cost and one big missed opportunity for improving corporate performance in a down market

Companies Sold Office Space at a Fast Pace - WSJ.com.

One of the immediate tactics corporations make in their recession strategies after downsizing is to seek release of real estate. Real estate is a tangible line on the balance sheet, whether as owned asset or lease, and RE and facilities staffs, pressed for a contribution to the task, see their best move as cutting space.

If not able to release space because of market conditions, corporations and other organizations also explore or move on attempts to consolidate from other locations, sublease unutilized space, compress in the space they have based on current or downsized standards, and turn off the lights in underutilized or abandoned space.

Most of these tactics while eventually saving costs have relatively high interim costs, in the carry, the fees, the planning, the moves, and the disposition of furniture and equipment, as well as in the apparently intangible or non-measurable  losses to the corporation from a resultant anxiety or hostility psychology of the staff.

Research in other places shows that significant enhancements to individual staff performance and overall corporate financial performance can come from workplace planning and design that recognizes that work looks different now. Some organizations have broken the straightjacket of workplace standards perpetuating the unreasonable demand for ever more spacious and high-walled cubicles (the Thain influence?). They have implemented programs that have supported and managed planning that recognizes that we are all mobile, even within the office walls, that work is highly varied for most people during the course of the day, and that each component  of modern work is enabled by a worksetting that suits the activity.

Planning in these organizations is focused on these differentiated workstyles and interactions and not on individuals and titles. The strategy results in the ability to  attract better talent and, with a more active, agile and energetic workplace, they get better performance from them.

It's important to remember that cutting real estate and occupancy costs will never yield the metrics that matter--share price growth. When confronted with excess office space as a result of staff reductions, corporate RE and HR staffs and their advisors may want to look beyond the metrics of space and into the metrics of performance. It just may be that a little thought spent in observation and analysis may yield insights for planning and design that will provide, rather than the static hurt of one-time cost reduction, the dynamic pleasure of ongoing and significantly higher growth returns.

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Five considerations for the places and spaces of the square-shaped organization

02_28_10 I’ve become increasingly interested in the spatial implications of what I’ve been calling the “square shaped organization.” But before getting to space, let me explain this term.

We have for so long tended to think of the classical modern organization as triangular or pyramidal in form. That is, we see them shaped by a relatively small leadership group at the top of the organization, a proportionally larger middle management rank, and employees in various staff roles forming a large base. This organizational design is now more typical of command-and-control enterprises.

Professional and creative services organizations have traditionally and typically had more of a diamond shape. That is, there is still a relatively small leadership composed of partners in the organization, a broad middle band of associated professionals, but then a relatively small number of support staff.

The spatial and formal footprints of each of these organizations have also been different. The pyramidal organization, usually large and spread across many properties in a portfolio, typically centers in a headquarters building and, most classically, this is a high rise. The corporate officers are on the top floors, the middle management fills in the tower, and the staff is mostly out at regional or manufacturing sites. In the more enlightened of these organizations, management ranks have been typified by the higher levels of middle managers getting offices in the interior of the plan, and the others in this processing and production group organized in hierarchically assigned space in an open plan “cube farm.”

Most of the professional firms have also liked the high rise form for their offices. Although smaller in scale and filling only a few floors of the tower, these firms have nonetheless organized hierarchically. Power is reflected in the assignment of corner and perimeter offices as in the form of the top ranks of the pyramid organization. Associates also get offices, but in many cases, these are located to the interior and with the distinction of not having views and natural light. Support staff and support functions fill in the great middle ground of the floor plan.

But this organizational form is changing. Over the past few months there have been stories about layoffs in law firms, architectural firms, advertising agencies and other similar organizations appearing almost every day of the week. Reading into these reports, it is surprising to see how single layered most of these reductions are. That is, the “associate” ranks seem to be the place of the largest portion of change.

With neither a clear command structure nor a significantly measurable support staff, the organization appears flat and non-hierarchical—they’ve become “square shaped.”

Combined with the adoption of more flexible workstyles enabled by technology, places and spaces that have characterized these organizations no longer make much sense. So what are the implications for space planning for square-shaped organizations? I’d offer these:

It’s now about how things get done, not about who does them Well, before getting to that, who does what is certainly much more important in this new organizational form. The thinness of the organization in most cases means that specialists now compose the firm. But the resources available to them to do stuff are now much more limited. The isolation of practice areas, the dedication of administrative support to individuals or small groups, the accessibility of support, and other characteristics of the recent past are no longer sustainable. To get things done, I believe these organizations need to become much more transparent, that is, much more visually connected.

Design for collaboration, not for direction The new composition of the organization means that older modes of production no longer apply. Just as office technology has put more productivity and in the hands of the professional, the thinning of the ranks of the middle ground in these firms also pushes more production responsibility “upward.” Counterintuitively, this also seems to be making work more diverse. Specialization of knowledge and reduction in production support means that work looks different now. In addition to focused work and production, the professional is increasingly engaging, motivating, and innovating with peers. Effective and productive work now includes socialization, collaboration, mentoring and learning, and these activities need appropriate places and spaces to be effective.

It’s now about place, not about power That is, it’s a good idea to reconsider place-making. In a firm, a community, of peers, and with the need to support more diverse workmodes, not only does work look different now, but place can (must?), too. The expressive vocabulary of the workplace is no longer binary, open or closed. The need to communicate, coordinate and collaborate breaks down walls. The office begins to look more like a city, a community of practice, where the articulation of what you do and how you do it shapes the look and feel of where you do what you do.

Express activities and rituals This is a long overlooked opportunity that I think now has greater relevance in the new organizational form. There will be a set of rituals, a cadence of events, that comes to define what differentiates the organization and supports how things get done. The places where these take place now are found by labels on doors—“conference room”—in otherwise undifferentiated space. The activities of the evolving place are about actions—collaborating, integrating, innovating—and not about hierarchy or formal processes. The right spaces for these activities may call for, or certainly accommodate, new forms and expressions. They can be as distinctive as churches, schools and factories in the urban landscape.

It’s a great opportunity to become a brand The design of these firms in the past has been about style, not about substance. That is, the organizational form was so consistent across these professions, that the formal vocabulary used in planning them became common. What differentiated one from the other was essentially the name on the reception walls and the materials used in the office halls. This new form, however—of specialization, collaboration, ritual, and differential place-making—offers the opportunity to professional services firms, and other organizations evolving to look like them, to be read as distinct brands. Whoever walks into these places will see what is different, and walk away with a visual impression that reinforces the unmistakable differences between them.

If there is this opportunity for a shift in the planning and design vocabulary for the evolving square-shaped organization, and if the firms of this new generation take advantage of this opportunity to see the world as fundamentally different, then other things also begin to evolve and change as well. The office building of today becomes obsolete. Where we choose to do work is less centered. Standards are not. Real estate shifts significantly. But more on this later.

square-shaped_1791_001

A postscript--

Just found this discussion today in Harvard Publishing's HBR Editor's Blog. It seems to be an interesting affirmation of the underlying shift in values and perceptions that might inform this shift in planning I address above.

What will help corporations survive? Here is Handy's prescription:

"....what enables a corporation to succeed in the longer term is a wish for immortality, or at least a long life; a consistent set of values based on an awareness of the organization's own identity; a willingness to change; and a passionate concern for developing the capability and self-confidence of its core inhabitants, whom the company values more than its physical assets. I suggest that those conditions are best met when organizations live up to the literal meaning of the word company--"the sharing of bread"--and regard themselves as communities, not property.....in time, the laws governing corporations will change to reflect (this) new reality." ("Looking Ahead," HBR September 1997)

So what does the future of the organization look like? In one of his very first books, Gods of Management: the Changing World of Organizations, Handy advanced the idea that the best organization operates most like a village--a place where people equally contribute their skills for the good of the whole, where culture matters most, where the initiative is bottom-up, where the shareholders are the people who do the work. "Villages are small and personal, and their inhabitants have names, characters and personalities," he wrote. "What more appropriate concept on which to base our institutions of the future than on the ancient organizational social unit whose flexibility and strength sustained human society through millennia?"

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Projects for a shrinking city

Photo Credit:  Courtesy Of The Artist Via Museum Of Contemporary Art Detroit, via Washington Post I thought I'd pass along this article in its entirety. It's about some small moves in Detroit that are continued indicators of new settlement patterns in the transition to new futures in difficult places and times.

Featured in the article are Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope. Gina is an architect and artist and currently heads a very clever retail/consultancy called Design 99. Mitch is an artist who contributed to the great Shrinking Cities project and was a founding member and curator at Detroit's MOCAD.

The New York Times

March 8, 2009 Op-Ed Contributor For Sale: The $100 House By TOBY BARLOW

RECENTLY, at a dinner party, a friend mentioned that he’d never seen so many outsiders moving into town. This struck me as a highly suspect statement. After all, we were talking about Detroit, home of corrupt former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, beleaguered General Motors and the 0-16 Lions. Compared with other cities’ buzzing, glittering skylines, ours sits largely abandoned, like some hulking beehive devastated by colony collapse. Who on earth would move here?

Then again, I myself had moved to Detroit, from Brooklyn. For $100,000, I bought a town house that sits downtown in the largest and arguably the most beautiful Mies van der Rohe development ever built, an island of perfect modernism forgotten by the rest of the world.

Two other guests that night, a couple in from Chicago, had also just invested in some Detroit real estate. That weekend Jon and Sara Brumit bought a house for $100.

Ah, the mythical $100 home. We hear about these low-priced “opportunities” in down-on-their-luck cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland, but we never meet anyone who has taken the plunge. Understandable really, for if they were actually worth anything then they would cost real money, right? Who would do such a preposterous thing?

A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

Admittedly, the $100 home needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced. But Mitch plans to connect their home to his mini-green grid and a neighborhood is slowly coming together.

Now, three homes and a garden may not sound like much, but others have been quick to see the potential. A group of architects and city planners in Amsterdam started a project called the “Detroit Unreal Estate Agency” and, with Mitch’s help, found a property around the corner. The director of a Dutch museum, Van Abbemuseum, has called it “a new way of shaping the urban environment.” He’s particularly intrigued by the luxury of artists having little to no housing costs. Like the unemployed Chinese factory workers flowing en masse back to their villages, artists in today’s economy need somewhere to flee.

But the city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (think of a neighborhood covered in shoes and stuffed animals and you’re close) to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends.

In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.

Toby Barlow is the author of “Sharp Teeth.”

Another perspective in the same day's issue:

All Boarded Up

Previous related posts:

Lawlessness and cannibalism rule the streets

How many does it take?

Detroit wildlife

After the crisis--Macomb interventions

Utopian visions--building in cornfields

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