Tulane’s MSRED Program Pairs Architecture Students With Local Clients

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” –Chinese ProverbAfter Hurricane Katrina and the spectacular failure of the levees, nothing is purely academic in New Orleans. This is certainly true of Tulane University, in particular the School of Architecture, and the role it has played in NOLA’s recovery and rejuvenation. […]

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” –Chinese Proverb

After Hurricane Katrina and the spectacular failure of the levees, nothing is purely academic in New Orleans. This is certainly true of Tulane University, in particular the School of Architecture, and the role it has played in NOLA’s recovery and rejuvenation. Building on the school’s successes in that regard, dean Ken Schwartz saw an opportunity for his institution to be more proactive in the areas of land use and development while positively impacting the quality of education in the architecture programs. I’m a graduate of Tulane’s School of Architecture and a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board. So when in 2009 Schwartz called me to participate in an informal planning group for a possible new real estate development program, I eagerly took up the challenge.

The new program was launched in 2011 as the Master of Sustainable Real Estate Development (MSRED), based in the architecture school. MSRED is modeled on other one-year graduate programs in real estate, with an intensive summer session followed by two full semesters of coursework. Its director, Alexandra Stroud, is a graduate of Tulane’s School of Architecture, as well as MIT’s real estate program. MSRED is distinctly different from the others, however. It’s one of the few such programs in the Gulf Coast, and the only U.S. real estate degree to focus explicitly on sustainability at its core.

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Distinct from the accredited architecture degree programs at Tulane, MSRED infuses the school with practical discussions of how to initiate, finance, and operate a successful project. The ongoing exposure of professional degree candidates to the practicalities of business and aspects development strengthens the traditional role of the architect. Similarly, by teaching real estate development within an architecture program, Tulane emphasizes the value of traditional design expertise to future developers/clients.

Key to MSRED is a capstone Directed Research class that each student completes in the spring semester. In it, students are paired with practitioner clients who help direct the topic as well as connect to other practitioners and project-based resources in the field. While the final deliverable for each student is a lengthy written report, the class is treated as a consulting relationship with the partner/client.

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I was asked by director Stroud to coordinate this capstone research class, in part because I own a real estate consulting practice based in New Orleans and work with clients across the country. My company, Oystertree Consulting, provides traditional real estate development advice, incorporating green building measures and financing tools to achieve long-term affordable housing and community development goals.  As a result, the structure and content of my professional work corresponds uniquely well with the type of work the MSRED students are asked to research. By design, the majority of the faculty work primarily as active practitioners in the field, including developers, attorneys, and technical and financial consultants like me.

Once “hired” by a client, students in Directed Research initiate contacts, arrange meetings, prepare agendas, conduct online and in-person research, and prepare a draft report with an executive summary, detailed citations for reference, and an appendix for support and further information. Much of the research is industry based, conducted through interviews and site visits with project team members and other practitioners. In-person research is initiated by each student and builds confidence as well as long-term relationships through working with senior professionals.

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This practice-based approach prepares students to conduct independent research on real estate-related topics such as market studies, project finance and management, development team structure, legal and corporate issues, life cycle costing, sustainable design, public policy, and asset management. We also expect them to understand and integrate key topics they learned elsewhere MSRED curriculum. When our graduates leave the program they enter the job market armed with a real project to reference in interviews, and a practitioner to use as a job reference.

Research projects are based in a city where the students will want to work following graduation, including New Orleans. Although it’s unlikely that students will get a job with their former “client” following graduation, a number of them have been able to strengthen their job search through the relationships they built in the Directed Research class.

The MSRED program is raising awareness of Tulane’s School of Architecture within the real estate and development industry. In 2011, we had some 30 partners propose 36 projects (three students found and proposed their own partners and projects). Last year’s client list included national and regional developers such as Forest City and Stirling Properties, public agencies such as the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), and organizations such as the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

To date, few MSRED research partners/clients have been architecture firms. But the large and diverse firm, Perkins + Will has provided our students a unique opportunity to integrate design and development issues. Such integration is necessary to achieving outcomes that are sustainable economically, environmentally, and socially. This practice-based education is a natural outgrowth of the holistic take on education for the MSRED program through case studies of actual projects, traditional courses led by faculty in practice, and direct client connections as part of the capstone research class.

Casius Pealer, Esq., associate AIA, LEED AP is principal of Oystertree Consulting, which provides real estate advisory services nationwide, focusing on affordable housing and community development. He is the past-chair of the AIA’s Housing Knowledge Community, and was the first director of Affordable Housing for the U.S. Green Building Council. He’s an adjunct lecturer in Tulane University’s Master of Sustainable Real Estate Development (MSRED) program.

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