How To Transition From Architecture To Development With Brandon Donnelly

Published on June 6, 2015 | by Archipreneur
Welcome back to the interview series at ARCHIPRENEUR.COM with architects who do interesting things. The series highlights people who have an architectural degree but have since followed an entrepreneurial or alternative career path in the field.

Brandon Donnelly is an architect-trained real estate developer and blogger who lives and works in Toronto, Canada. I am a huge fan and constant reader of his blog Architect This City, which was named by the Guardian (UK) as one of the best city blogs in the world. He writes about cities, real estate development, technology and transportation. Brandon is also Co-founder of The Dirt – A free condo review platform that helps people find the best places to live.

Here are Brandon’s thoughts on architecture, development and entrepreneurship.

I hope you enjoy the interview!


What made you decide to become a real estate developer after many years of studying architecture? Was there a particular moment that sealed the decision for you?

I already had inklings in undergrad that I was interested in or wanted to eventually become a real estate developer. My goal was to figure out some way to combine architecture and development, despite everyone around me telling me that I should just pick one.

I decided to go to the University of Pennsylvania for grad school precisely because they had a real estate program I could take (at the same time as my M.Arch) and because they seemed very open to the idea of cross-disciplinary study. The business school is a major force on that campus.

I wasn’t sure exactly how it was all going to shake out, but I ended up taking a summer position for a real estate consultancy in Dublin, Ireland and that pretty much solidified my career path in real estate.

What do you find most fulfilling about your current job as a developer?

I love how multi-disciplinary it is and I love that my work has the opportunity to positively affect the built environment. Developers often have a bad rap (I know from the comments on my blog), but for me development is that perfect middle ground.

I never wanted to be an architect that designed beautiful but infeasible projects that could never be built. And I never wanted to be a developer that built terrible projects whose only goal was to make money. My goal is to be an integrated thinker (that was a big topic when I did my MBA at Rotman – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrative_thinking). My mission is to make buildings both beautiful and feasible.

My mission is to make buildings both beautiful and feasible.

How does your architectural training help you in your business. What specific skills are the most useful?

I understand design, space, drawings, and the construction process. As a developer you have to be a jack of all trades, passing between things like design and construction and finance. And my view has always been that the more you can master all aspects of the development process, the better off you’ll be. Creative solutions often straddle multiple disciplines.

Do you have any advice for architects who are interested in transitioning from architecture to development?

Well, you pretty much have two options. You can either try to convince a real estate firm to hire you or you can go out and do your own small development project. In both cases, I think you should figure out someway to shore up your business/finance knowledge. That could be through just reading, online courses, or maybe even a degree in real estate. This is something I worked really hard at when I was in grad school – shaking the prejudice that I didn’t “understand the numbers.”

To be honest, this is the most common question I get from readers of my blog. So much so that I’ve often thought about writing an eBook to help people get into the field. Development has historically been an entrepreneur’s game, and so there isn’t a lot of structure in terms of recruitment and entering the field. The barriers can be pretty high, particularly if you plan to start out on your own. But it’s definitely a rewarding career.

You started the blog ‘Architect This City’ and the online review platform ‘The Dirt’. Are you planning on following your entrepreneurial path in online business in the future?

I’m always interested in exploring how technology can be leveraged to improve the real estate industry. I love technology and I think it’s pretty clear that it’s going to continue to seep into every aspect of the economy. So I’ll always be doing things online and I think everybody else should be answering the same, regardless of the industry you might happen to be in.

How do you view the future of architects? In which areas (outside of traditional practice) do you see major opportunities for architects?

I wrote a post on my blog about how a lot of agencies (software, design, and so on) are starting to (or at least want to) move towards actual products. That is, instead of just providing services to outside clients, they’re building their own products in-house. And I think that’s really interesting, because it’s one of the ways you could categorize architects and developers.

Architecture is a service business. By contrast, most developers are in the business of creating products (such as an apartment that somebody buys or rents). I think we’re seeing a lot of architects rethink traditional practice and I think we’ll see more architects get into products.

About Brandon

Brandon Donnelly is a real estate developer/entrepreneur and blogger based in Toronto. His passions are cities, real estate, design, and technology. 

Brandon is currently the development lead at CAPREIT, which is one of Canada’s largest residential landlords. Prior to this he worked at TAS and Morguard Investments where he managed urban-focused residential (condo), office and retail development projects. He’s also cofounder of condo review site Dirt (thedirt.co).

Brandon studied architecture and art history at the University of Toronto. He also has a master’s in architecture and real estate development from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from the Rotman School. 

In his spare time, Brandon advises a non-profit called The Laneway Project. He also loves the gym, snowboarding, and Ontario wines.

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