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Chicago Hackathon Bridges Gap Between Tech and CRE

A first-of-its-kind commercial real estate hackathon called CREforge was hosted recently in Chicago by Houston-based real estate giant Transwestern. The competitive event was meant to challenge the technology world to find new solutions to everyday real estate related problems. Four companies in the commercial real estate sector were introduced to numerous designers, coders and software developers, who then developed innovative solutions to the challenges posed by each business.

Some of the solutions explored included:

  • Using augmented reality to project 3D building renderings onto everything from tabletops to land sites, allowing clients to see a 360-degree view of a project before it’s actually built.
  • Capturing emotional data to inform the design of an office interior through a platform in which clients select images of various finishes and design features that are then instantly converted into a preliminary space plan and budget, providing a better starting point in the design of a new office space.
  • Creating artificial intelligence (AI) bots to pull data from multiple servers and quickly extract specific inventory, order and delivery information for clients, a function that used to take a half-dozen employees hours to complete.
  • Filling vacancies by utilizing dating-site algorithms to “match” commercial tenants with landlords through a bidding process, automating an otherwise manual process and saving considerable time while driving more competitive pricing.

“It’s no secret that commercial real estate is a late adopter of technology,” said Mike Watts, Transwestern’s Midwest president. “Our industry is ripe for innovation, and there’s no better place to move the needle than Chicago, home to one of the fastest-growing tech communities in the country.”

Our industry is ripe for innovation, and there’s no better place to move the needle than Chicago, home to one of the fastest-growing tech communities in the country.

Watts continued, “CREforge is a way for us to show other real estate professionals – everyone from architects and developers to brokers and service providers – how we all can use technology to overcome obstacles and change the way we do business. While the hackathon itself is over, our effort to ‘forge’ a synergistic relationship between tech and real estate is just beginning.”

More than 150 people, including speakers, exhibitors and programmers, attended the event, where Transwestern was joined by Heitman Architects, Leopardo Cos. and ConneXion, each of which represents a different sector of commercial real estate.

Developer teams that competed in CREforge were evaluated based on five criteria: creativity, complexity, utility, completion and ability to solve the challenge posed by each company. A panel of judges comprising tech industry leaders evaluated each of the solutions presented.

Heitman Architects posed the issue of assisting clients in visualizing how a completed renovation or development would look.

Most recently publicized by Pokémon GO, augmented reality – in which a real-world environment is digitally enhanced with text or graphics – is most commonly associated with the gaming industry. A team of developers used augmented reality to create a tool that would allow Itasca, Illinois-based Heitman Architects to project a scalable 3D rendering of a finished project on anything from a tabletop to a multi-acre development site.

“This tool enables us and, more importantly, our clients to see designs through an entirely new lens, providing a 360-degree view of a project before it’s actually built,” said Karl Heitman, president of Heitman Architects. “With this technology, we can share our design vision with clients in a realistic virtual overlay that transforms their view of existing conditions. This enhanced ‘augmented’ view of reality transports our clients virtually into our designs in real time. The result is that they become co-participants and take ownership of the vision.”

Leopardo Cos. sought a streamlined process for clients, many of which have never gone through a buildout, to develop a defined vision and navigate the planning and approval process for a buildout.

With a goal of providing a starting point for discussion, a team of developers created an image-based platform that, by asking Hoffman Estates-based Leopardo Cos. clients to respond to questions relating to various finishes and design features, uses emotional data to map out not only what a space would look like, but also how much it would cost based on size.

“We’ve found that the design and construction process is intimidating to many companies because they’re faced with decisions they don’t make in their regular course of business,” said Daniel Klancnik, director of project solutions at Leopardo. “Corporations can benefit tremendously from visualizing a space early in the process, affording them increased decision-making power that is helpful aesthetically and financially.”

ConneXion needed a more cohesive IT solution to automate pulling inventory data from multiple servers that are connected but not communicative.

Realizing the resources that could be saved by pulling the information together into a centralized database, a team of developers created an artificial intelligence (AI) bot capable of logging into each server and pulling relevant data based on queries submitted via Facebook by Buffalo Grove-based ConneXion employees.

“This exercise helped us realize we could automate a lot of the processes we currently do manually while also helping us enhance our clients’ experience by providing them with real-time data on demand,” said Kyle Hanson, executive vice president of ConneXion. “It’s an example of how a small business can utilize technology to deliver a great customer experience at a reasonable price. This will allow us to redeploy assets in a way that is more efficient and visible to the customer, further elevating the service we’re able to provide.”

This exercise helped us realize we could automate a lot of the processes we currently do manually while also helping us enhance our clients’ experience by providing them with real-time data on demand.

Transwestern asked for a web-based platform that would bring lease negotiations out from behind closed doors and allow landlords and tenants to bid against each other to fill vacancies and drive more competitive pricing.

Lease Mingle, one of two auction platforms conceptualized at CREforge, utilizes dating-site algorithms to pair tenants with their ideal building, similar to how singles are matched through services like eHarmony and

The second platform, Tennt, utilizes empirical financial modeling, but also assigns ratings to buildings based on weighted “quality of space” metrics that are difficult to quantify on a spreadsheet. These benchmarks are calculated using square footage, base rent and escalations, and tenant improvement allowances, but also intangible factors like location, workplace environment, amenities and brand image.

Data is presented using an online dashboard with charts and tables that are updated in real time as properties change their bids.

“By adding a layer of transparency to lease negotiations, we can fill vacancies faster by eliminating some of the back-and-forth, ending up with terms that are agreeable to both owner and occupier,” said Mike Watts, Transwestern’s Midwest president. “And it’s a solution that works for users of all sizes, including smaller tenants that otherwise might not have access to the tools and resources available to larger companies.”

While the solutions created by the teams weren’t necessarily fully formed, the hackathon proved that each solution could be achieved with further investment. Programmers behind Tennt, the winning concept, received a cash prize and three HTC Vive virtual reality headsets. In addition, developers retained rights to all code developed as part of CREforge.

“Until now, there’s been a tangible disconnect between our industry and the innovative ideas coming out of Chicago-based startup incubators and accelerators like 1871 and Elmspring,” Watts said. “The workforce is changing and young professionals raised in the digital era want to be surrounded by technology at work as well as at play. The revolution in real estate begins now, and we are thrilled to be leading the way.”

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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