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Developers Have a Responsibility

Jeremy Hudson’s Keynote address to the Fayetteville Chamber’s Construction and Developers Awards Banquet

I’m humbled to be speaking to you on an evening that honors development projects and construction teams that are making positive impacts on our community. In reflecting on what I could share with you, I kept coming to the concept of responsibility.

So how are we to be good stewards of this responsibility?   To understand my viewpoint, I want to share my story with you.   How I came to be here today and how my company, developed the values that we apply to the places we invest in.  

In high school, I spent my summers working in the construction industry to save money for college.  One summer I crawled underneath houses working for a plumber and another I built pole barns, which was the hardest work I’ve ever done.   I had always been interested in design and those summers created a desire in me to see the physical fruits of my work, so I chose to attend John Brown University and study construction management.  I enjoyed a lot of things about what I learned, but I decided not to pursue a career in construction right after college. Instead, a friend, who is now my business partner, convinced me to get into real estate.   I spent the next 6-7 years learning the real estate and property management business. I call it the waxing-on and waxing-off stage of my career. Learning to sell houses, figuring out how to lease and operate apartments, and watching and learning from other people’s investments, both good and bad ones.  

In 2010 we leveraged our experience in turning around multifamily properties and embarked upon our first apartment development as owners.  We bought Glendale Apartments on South Hill Ave in Fayetteville. I believed if we could re-invent the image of the property we could be successful.  

After going through our due diligence it was clear that the image was not the only problem.  The property was an Energy Hog. Besides having high vacancy rates, nearly 25% of the gross income was being used to pay the utility bills.  There was no way the economics would work until the energy efficiency problem was solved.  We hired an engineering consultant and they introduced me to the US Green Building Council, and we decided to pursue LEED certification.   This process opened my eyes not only to a true understanding of sustainability, but also to the impact that buildings have on our health. I grew up with severe asthma and allergies and when I realized that buildings could actually make people sick, I knew that I had to build places that made people healthier, not sicker….  In 2011, Glendale Apartments became what you know today as Eco Modern Flats, the first LEED Platinum apartment project in the state and one of the first in the nation.  Since that “aha moment” for me 9 years ago, my understanding has matured, but the basics have remained the same.   Ever since then, I have felt a responsibility not only to the financial performance of the project, but also to how the project uses our planet’s resources, and how it affects the people who live in and around it. 

Triple Bottom Line

This triple bottom line mentality is the definition of real sustainability and it has shaped the foundation of our organization’s culture. We run every significant decision through the multiple bottom line filter of People, Planet, & Prosperity. Let’s look at each of these quickly:

Prosperity 

There is no such thing as sustainability without economic profit and my experience is that a triple bottom line approach can be just as profitable, maybe even more so. 

I believe we have a responsibility to think long term in the investments we make, even if we don’t plan to own them long term ourselves.

Planet

Did you know that 40% of the nation’s energy consumption comes from the operations of residential and commercial buildings?  When you add in the industrial and transportation components of the construction of these buildings, then well over half of the nation’s energy consumption comes from the buildings that we live, work, eat, and shop in.  Buildings use more energy than any other industry.  

The good news is, so much can be done by just challenging the status quo.  Small investments can pay big dividends – for example, our typical 1 BR apartment uses just $25-30/mo in electricity

The city of Fayetteville is leading the country in its commitment to solar energy.  They are showing that investments in clean energy are economically feasible at a large scale. 

The buildings we build today will be using resources for decades to come, so we must consider the future and not just the cost today.  We have a responsibility to our children and future generations to be good stewards of our planet’s resources. 

People

Most in this room are familiar with sustainability measures, but the built environment has an impact on more than just our planet.   It has a major effect on the health of the people living in our communities.  

New research is showing the #1 predictor of health and life expectancy is the Zip code in which you live in.  Take a minute and let that sink in… The place that you live in will play a huge role in determining not just the quality, but the quantity of the life you live.  Listen to this statement from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: “Affordable, high-quality health care is essential to our health. But where we live can have an even greater impact” 

This is not just national-level statistics or issues that are affecting big cities in other parts of the country.  A recent public health study found that, of the 658 census tracts in Arkansas, the area with the shortest life expectancy is just under 66 years and the longest is almost 90 years.  That means the difference between the least healthy and most healthy census tracts in Arkansas is 24 years!  

Certainly there are a lot of factors that go into making a place healthy or not, but many of them are directly related to the built environment.  ULI’s Building Healthy Places Initiative identified 21 recommendations to improve health. Things like:

    • Designing well-connected street networks at the human scale.
    • Supporting on-site gardening and farming
    • Using materials and products that support healthy indoor air quality
    • Increasing access to nature

Dr Richard Jackson, a pediatrician that quit his practice to lead the Center for Disease Control and now is a professor at UCLA’s school of public health says: “those of us in development and construction are just as important to community health as the people in the white coats”

We clearly have a responsibility to make sure that the places and projects we build are healthy ones.  

Specialized’s Purpose

For my company, our mission and vision has been focused on the triple bottom line for the past decade, but last year we re-articulated our purpose statement to more clearly define why we exist.   Sure, we are a real estate development and management firm. But that’s what we do.  We wanted to to articulate why we do what we do.  The Specialized purpose statement reads “We cultivate healthy spaces that inspire people to connect with neighbors and nature”

A few weeks ago Sarah King, a member of our leadership team, shared with me a conversation she had with a resident at one of our projects.  The story was so inspiring because it was real evidence that our work is influencing people’s lives. While we see anecdotal evidence fairly often, it’s rare that we get such a clear picture of our impact.   The story was so powerful I asked Sarah to capture it on video so I could share it with you tonight.

We had never met Kay when we created our purpose “to cultivate healthy spaces that inspire people to connect with neighbors and nature”, and, to my knowledge, Kay had not heard what our purpose statement was when we interviewed her,  but the way she described her experience on the trails matched our purpose statement precisely. Her experience shows that you really can improve the quality of someone’s life through your work.  

We are extremely proud that we were able to make a difference in Kay’s life, but the primary thing we did was enable her to take advantage of the trail system that already existed.   We just gave her access to enjoy the neighborhood and connect with nature. One of the Urban Land Institute’s principles for building healthy places is to “make the healthy choice, the easy choice.”  That’s what we were able to to for Kay, but she gets the credit for making the choice and her story would not have been possible without a city, a region, and a generous community that has invested in trails, mobility, and the protection of our natural resources. 

ULI NWA

All of us in this room have a tremendous responsibility for our community’s well-being – there’s a lot on our shoulders. The good news is that you don’t have to figure this out on your own.  I want to share a resource with you that has been a major influence in shaping the way I think and the way we approach projects. The Urban Land Institute, known as ULI, is the leading organization of real estate and land use professionals in the world.  One of ULI’s major initiatives is Building Healthy Places, which focuses on the intersection of health and the built environment.  ULI now has a local presence, ULI Northwest Arkansas, led by Wes Craiglow.  Please consider this your personal invitation to join us as we apply the best resources from our industry to the opportunities of our region.  

Development has a lasting impact

 To close, when you do things right, you can have a lasting impact on the people who interact with your projects and our community as a whole.  The projects that are being honored tonight do just that. In different ways they are delivering impacts which will last for generations to come. 

My challenge to all of you is to take inspiration from these projects, my story, and Kay’s.  Look for ways that your can serve your community through the places you develop and construct.   The decisions we make in the built environment have an impact for 40, 50, or even 100 years. It’s a big responsibility so let’s use it wisely.



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