Architects, stop wasting time schmoozing with developers. It’s the marketing consultants you need to know. Anna Holtzman reports on the cadre of consultants who are driving developers’ architectural decisions.
Courtesy hatje cantz
Top: Handel Architects oversaw the conversion of 485 Fifth Avenue, a pre-war building, and fashion designer Peter Som designed the interiors. Corcoran Sunshine’s campaign for the building plays on the couture connection, with a brochure filled with images that would be equally at home in a Saks Fifth Avenue catalogue. Bottom: Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group and Pandiscio & Co. both consulted on the Urban Glass House by Philip Johnson and Annabelle Selldorf. The marketing materials for the project included a mesh bag printed with Selldorf’s face; the mesh is meant to evoke construction fencing.
It’s hard to say which came firsttthe demands of increasingly design-conscious New York City real estate buyers, or the commodification of architecture by high-end condo developers. But the glut of starchitect-designed residences that has dotted the city over the past half-decade has made one thing abundantly clear: Design and real estate have merged to spawn a luxury industry. And as with any other high price-tag itemmbe it cars, jewelry, or clothingga host of savvy consulting agencies have emerged to help developers market their product, offering guidance on everything from defining programs and layouts to selecting architects to positioning the work in the marketplace. The cardinal rule of development has not changeddthis transparent market will always be driven by profit.
The phenomenon of developer consulting has not sprung up overnight. The undisputed queenn of the trade, according to luxury real estate marketer Richard Pandiscio, is Louise Sunshine.. In 1986, the New Yorker founded The Sunshine Group, a marketing firm that specializes in high-end residential buildings, and has since built an empire, guiding the development of residential projects by the likes of Frank Gehry, Philippe Starck, and David Childs, as well as the now-legendary Richard Meier towers in Manhattan’s West Village.
A year ago, the firm merged with Corcoran to become the Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group (CSMG). A hardy crop of younger firms has sprung up around it, offering both competing and complementary services. Each offers varying forms of consultation. Some, like Sunshine Corcoran, are brought in by developers as early as a project’s site feasibility phase, and will come up with a marketing concept, then recommend architects and interior designers to execute it.
For Michael Shvo, a former real estate broker who now runs his own eponymous, two-year-old consulting company, the selection of a designer is key to the packaging process. He recalled refusing a developer’s request to sell a project he considered poorly designed. I told him, I can’t sell that,” he said. With the Jade, a new Chelsea condominium project, it was Schvo who determined the units’ layouts ((The neighborhood doesn’t have any small apartments,, he said, explaining the logic behind the unit’s compact podd arrangements), and who decided to brand the building after its stylish interior designer, Jade Jagger. In addition to marketing and sales teams, his 55-person company has a design development team which provides input on everything from unit mix, amenity programs, services, and parking. For each project, we ask ourselves, What do we have that nobody else has? A fashion designer to do the interiors? A star architect? Phenomenal views?? he said. If a project needs something it doesn’t have, Schvo will try to convince the client to incorporate it.
Design involvement also varies from firm to firm. The 15-person team at The Apartment, for example, often designs and executes interiors, in addition to providing branding and marketing services. Gina Alvarez, who with partner Stefan Boublil, founded The Apartment in 1999 as a home-design retail business, began consulting for developers of high-end residential projects roughly four years ago. Alvarez said, We work really closely with the architects,, citing their work on two residential projects by ShoP Architects, one on Madison Avenue, the other on Houston Street, which are currently in development.
Enrique Norten, who is designing a residential project near McCarren Park in Williamsburg, noted that he rarely deals with the project’s developer: I deal mostly with Schvo [the consultant on the project],, said Norten. I like working with him because he is hugely supportive of the architect’s work..
While not from a design background, Shvo asserted, a lot of times I’ll personally draw what something should look likeefor example, at 20 Pine Street [a conversion of the former Chase Manhattan Bank headquarters, developed by Boymelgreen], I drew the kitchen and Armani Casa just executed it..
Other practices keep their hands firmly out of architectural design. We’re not working as designers,, said Elisa Orlanski Ours, vice president of predevelopment and planning. We’re helping guide the process, establish the building’s identity, and determine what the market wants and sales strategies,, while reviewing guidelines on everything from square footage, amenities, appliances, and outdoor space. These recommendations are informed by rigorous design knowledge: Her department is entirely staffed by trained architects. While predevelopment consulting has always been a part of the Sunshine package, it has only been formalized into a department in the last five months.
Like her peers, Ours has a few theories about what’s motivating the increasing demand for developer consultants. Buyers are more sophisticated now than ever, because of the Internet,, she said. They do a lot of homework before they visit the sales office, and they know what the competition is offering.. Alvarez also observes a changing developer demographic: We’re encountering a lot of first-time developers,, she reported. I think people see the perceived real estate boom as an investment, the way they would have invested in Internet stock a decade ago.. And with new blood, she says, come new ideas about how to market real estateemany new developers are savvy business people who draw on techniques more commonly used to sell luxury goods like automobiles and watches, such as slick imagery depicting idealized lifestyles.
Andrea Schwann, who has consulted on the marketing strategy for projects including the forthcoming Neil Denariidesigned residential building near the High Line, attributes the phenomenon to several factors: She, like many, point to the Perry Street project as among the first designer luxury condos to capture the development community’s attention. And with the skyrocketing expense of building in New York, in her view, developers have been forced into the perceived value game,, using design as a means of one-upping the competition.
Regardless of whether the movement is driven by economics or a genuine interest in design, the end result, asserted Richard Pandiscio, whose eponymous company provides marketing services to Sunshine Corcoran and Douglas Elliman, is that, New York is looking better, and developers are looking at different types of architects and younger architects..
The rise of design-marketed real estate is not just happening in New York. Miami, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles are keeping pace with the trend. We’re getting work all over the world right now,, said Pandiscio. New York is just the most concentrated place, but look at what’s happening in areas like Shanghai and Dubai.. Pandiscio foresees the public’s and the development community’s interest in design continuing to grow. And in a shifting marketplace, a building’s perceived value may be the deciding factor on whether a new development sinks or swims.
Anna Holtzman is a contributing editor at Architecture magazine and writes regularly for AN. .