…A huge advancement has been made in terms of home security. Given the availability of high-speed internet and improvements in video compression technology, it’s not unlikely for homeowners to have several security cameras around their home, as opposed to traditionally they may just have had an alarm system. These are also being adapted to keep an eye on the home when parents are at work and children are left with a childcare provider, and of course these cameras can be accessed from a smartphone. This also has wide ranging effects on the safety of our communities, because there are so many more ‘eyes’ on the street now.
As a part of our series about “Homes Of The Future”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eli Y. Meltzer.
Principal of Meltzer/Mandl Architects P.C. in Brooklyn, NY, Eli Y. Meltzer AIA NCARB has been responsible for the design and construction of several thousand units of market rate and affordable housing throughout New York City and the surrounding areas. A passionate promoter of housing development and high-density living, Eli believes in the power of homes to transform communities and revitalize our cities. Eli lives in Brooklyn with his wife Miriam and two sons Yehuda and Mendel.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Growing up, my father always had the business, and I would work for him during the summers. As a teenager, I was the only one in the office who could figure out the 3D rendering software, so I got to do some fun things for them. I got into an architecture program for undergrad but decided to go to Dartmouth instead which did not have architecture, and I studied philosophy there. After college, my existential journey took me to Israel where I studied Jewish law for a year in Jerusalem, and then I came home and met my wife. I had to start thinking about a career, so I took another look at architecture, and got accepted to the New Jersey Institute of Technology School of Architecture in Newark for a Masters, where I had a lot of success and won several awards and I was off to the races!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Definitely living through the pandemic and learning to pivot as a business owner is something I will never forget. I do most of our business development through in-person networking events, and obviously that went totally dry in March and April. In May, while sharing my bedroom with my 9-year-old doing zoom school, I had a call with our marketing team trying to figure out our next steps. We realized that unless we could keep meeting new people our pipeline would just dry up. Fortunately, I had some experience with LinkedIn and we realized that, while not exactly the same as trade shows or conferences, social media provided the best way to make new contacts, especially considering everyone else was in the same boat. We hired a consultant and began developing a platform to do sales 100% digitally, which I believe may be a first for an architecture practice. Things picked up and since then we’ve extended it to Instagram and a newsletter, and we are reworking our website to include features like chatbots, which you typically see in e-commerce, but I believe we can leverage them for B2B as well.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
My first semester in architecture school was a disaster. I didn’t know how to draw or make models, and my professors did not know what to do with me! A month or two into the semester, we had a project to work with a laser cutter, and I fell in love with it. I went in 110% and used it for everything except brushing my teeth the rest of the semester. The technology leveled the playing field, helped me stand out gave me a competitive advantage. I have always remembered that and continue to look for opportunities to leverage new technologies.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I think I have had a unique opportunity to share in running this business with my father, Marvin. He has a half-century of experience in this industry in New York, and has taught me a tremendous amount from building design, to negotiating, staffing, and everything you can imagine. I like to call him the “Dean” of housing in New York. The pandemic is at least the fifth economic downturn he has experienced, and he has an innate sense for mitigating risk. Since I came into the business in 2018 he has resisted several of my efforts to increase our staff, our office footprint and our marketing budgets, and when the pandemic struck and we came through almost entirely unscathed, I realized he had been right all along.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
As a philosophy major, I often found myself frustrated by the large gap between theory and practice. Ethics that sounded good on paper just did not make sense in the real world. At the age of 22 I met the chassidic rabbi on my college campus and he introduced me to the “Book of the Intermediaries”, or “The Tanya” in Hebrew, which laid out a philosophy for life that I found both aspirational and incredibly practical. Instead of looking for ways to ‘solve’ the human condition, it celebrates and invites us to engage in our struggles as a path to perfecting the world. In more straightforward terms, it encouraged me to connect with my Judaism and faith each and every day of my life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Think Good and Things Will be Good”
You cannot underestimate the power of having a Positivity Bias. Beyond setting you up for success, living in a positive mind frame makes every second of your day more enjoyable and productive, even before you have reached and achieved your goals.
OK super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Homebuilding in the US has grown tremendously. We’d love to hear about some of the new trends and techniques that are being used to build the homes of the future.
Given the changes we have seen over the past year in work/life balance, the prominence of the home office certainly plays a huge role in the domestic space for the coming decades. Whether Work-From-Home ‘kills’ the office, I don’t know, but the possibilities for flexibility and re-prioritizing family and quality of life are real and here to stay. People have adjusted, neurologically, sociologically and financially to this change, and infrastructure has developed to support it, from remote work tracking software, to video-conferencing technology. Even multi-family developments will incorporate this, perhaps in addition to co-working spaces within the apartment complexes.
Can you share with us a few of the methods that are being used to make homes more sustainable and more water and energy efficient?
I think Passive House has the potential to transform the way we view our homes. By eliminating the need for air conditioning or heating, it effects the homeowner in terms of day-to-day operation, maintenance, and certainly finances. It requires a totally new understanding of how homes get built and also incorporates well with pre-fabrication and modular construction techniques that can take place within controlled factory environments, to achieve the high levels of insulation and air tightness that the standard requires.
There is a lot of talk about Smart Homes. Can you tell our readers a bit about what that is, what that looks like, and how that might help people?
Smart homes use sensors in various devices around your house, from thermostats, to door locks to faucets and anything in between to share and store data, allowing fine-tuned and automated home-owner control. For example, controlling your thermostat from your smart phone or using Alexa to turn on lights, these are Smart Home technologies. It has advantages from reducing electricity costs to creating a level of ‘service’ that your home can provide you, almost like a hotel. Imagine setting your coffee machine to start brewing when you turn on the faucet to shower in the morning, so you have fresh brew waiting for you when you get out!
Aside from Smart Homes, can you talk about other interesting tech innovations that are being incorporated into homes today?
A huge advancement has been made in terms of home security. Given the availability of high-speed internet and improvements in video compression technology, it’s not unlikely for homeowners to have several security cameras around their home, as opposed to traditionally they may just have had an alarm system. These are also being adapted to keep an eye on the home when parents are at work and children are left with a childcare provider, and of course these cameras can be accessed from a smartphone. This also has wide ranging effects on the safety of our communities, because there are so many more ‘eyes’ on the street now.
Can you talk about innovations that are being made to make homes more pet friendly?
Honestly, I’m not a pet guy!
How about actual construction materials? Are there new trends in certain materials to address changes in the climate, fires, floods, and hurricanes?
There is actually a trend moving back towards more lumber in construction. Single family homes in the suburbs have always used lumber, but now there’s a movement to build even tall apartment buildings out of engineered wood products. For one, it’s a renewable resource, and the logging industry has figured out ways to grow this stuff really fast. There’s also been a lot of education about the ways in which wood actually has natural fire-resistant properties, by charring, which has opened up people’s minds to using this material.
For someone looking to invest in the real estate industry, are there exciting growth opportunities that you think people should look at more carefully?
I’m very bullish on the opportunity to re-imagine our downtowns by converting class B office buildings, with very high vacancy rates, into multi-family apartment buildings. These often turn into really nice loft-style apartments with high ceilings, lots of glass and enough room to fit a home-office (which building and zoning codes actually make an exception for). Especially as energy codes become more and more restrictive, these ‘old-dogs’ just don’t have the chops to compete anymore as viable office assets, however, they line up perfectly for a conversion to residential, which typically has less stringent sustainability standards, because they inherently use less energy.
Let’s talk a bit about housing availability and affordable housing. Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
The underlying cause, in all of these places, comes down to the tension between the desire of young people to live in cities and the rising cost of rent that comes about as a result of that influx. On the one hand, these folks bring with them expendable capital and they encourage the growth of business and the general economy, while on the other hand, most of the new development tends get marketed and priced toward their needs. Unfortunately, it seems the more we try to regulate the construction of Affordable Housing to serve the rest of the market the gap in production between the different income levels just increases and exacerbates the problem. You end up with over-saturation at the top of the market and anemic supply at the low end.
Is there anything that home builders can do to further help address these problems?
I think builders have to understand the difference between Affordable Housing, with a capital A, and housing that’s just plain affordable. Affordable Housing, as an industry, refers to a variety of financing mechanisms that enable the reduction of rent for a certain tenant base. However, we have to look deeper and understand that we can reduce cost and increase supply in other ways, that don’t require the additional layers typically associated with Affordable Housing. At the end of the day, these buildings are pretty simple and with the right mindset, we find that we can often increase planning efficiency by 5% or more, reduce project schedules by several months, especially in design, and reduce the cost of construction significantly by using well-tested and familiar construction systems and materials. All these small changes add up, and over the course of years we can start to move the needle.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Given the situation right now, a lot of older folks in this country are struggling with loneliness. My wife came up with an idea in the spring to have a system where everyone would call an elderly person in our community in the morning and just chat with them and keep them company for a short while. I think this could be very powerful if we all took it on. Maybe we can even develop an app for it!
How can our readers follow you online?
I post regularly on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/elimeltzer/) and we recently started an Instagram handle @meltzermandl. You can also sign up for our newsletter, by contacting us on one of these platforms!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!