Calm after the storm

Rod Fehring, CEO Frasers Property Australia

19 May 2020

In what felt like the blink of an eye, COVID-19 changed everything. Social distancing restrictions and work from home requirements forced us all into rapid adaptation—some of which has been painful and difficult. The sanctuary of home has never been more important, yet for many people their property dreams are on hold as they wait to see how recovery takes shape. Frasers Property Australia CEO Rod Fehring has some thoughts on what’s going to be different and what will remain comfortingly familiar when we get to the other side.

They say that after a break, a bone heals stronger than before. I’m no doctor, but I find the metaphor helpful when I think about what recovery might look like as we navigate the path to a post-pandemic world.

There’s no question that the injury COVID-19 has done to our collective sense of normality has been severe. Freedoms we’ve long taken for granted and the incidental richness of life that comes from contact with friends and workmates and strangers has been ripped away, leaving many people anxious and overwhelmed. All exacerbated by simply not knowing when things will get better.

Of course, we know it will get better. As labs around the world race to create a vaccine, we inch closer to a world in which a return to ‘normal life’ will be within reach. In the meantime, there’s much we can learn from this moment to ensure that we are stronger, more adaptable, and more resilient than we were before.

The uncommon rise of common interest

A phenomenon that’s been striking to me—and inarguably for the better—has been the rise and embrace of the ‘common interest’. A core thesis of the ancient Greek philosophers, the common interest—or common good—is an idea that’s somewhat fallen out of favour in our modern times. The speed with which we coalesced around the social obligation of caring for each other’s health and safety during this pandemic, however, is perhaps a sign that it’s always been there, lying dormant just below the surface. 

Reactivated as it is now, we’ve seen that the power of common cause is (in the absence of a vaccine) the most potent tool in our arsenal. The social compact of physical distancing has dramatically squashed the curve in Australia and saved countless lives, while at the political level it has reminded governments that their purpose and obligation is to the common interest rather than to parochial self-interest. The motivating factor of urgency has also opened up real and meaningful dialogue between industry and social institutions toward solving problems quickly and collaboratively. The hospitality industry’s role homing the homeless and the property industry’s ability to bring on stock for social housing are just two examples of this new, more productive accord. 

The question is, will this sense of obligation to something larger than ourselves be a lasting good to come from this crisis? I hope so. I suspect that it’s among younger generations, especially those that have never experienced an economic shock like this, where the impacts will be the most long-lasting. When you come of age in a time where the myth of unlimited growth is shattered, your health cannot be taken for granted, and social freedom is taken from you, those are life lessons not easily forgotten. 

Redefining the value of ‘place’ 

A level down from the broader societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are signs of evolution in our homes and neighbourhoods as well. As a consequence of spending a good deal of time ‘sheltering-in-place’, we’re more conscious than ever of what place really means to us. Can we get to a local supermarket or pharmacy easily? Will an urban hike around the neighbourhood lead to those small moments of social acknowledgement, like a smile or a wave, that can brighten an otherwise dark day? Is it a safe place to ride your bike or go for a run?

These elements have always been important in urban design, but the degree to which it’s done well and cohesively will be under the spotlight more than ever in a post-pandemic world. For a company like Frasers—with deep expertise in residential, retail, and commercial development—we have the ability to affect outcomes across the board. We’ve already begun to design our shopping centres to adapt to online shopping, restaurant deliveries, and after-hours activations or pop-up stores that add some theatre to the retail experience. And anticipating a world in which work-from-home (WFH) will play a larger role, our commercial developments will likely evolve to be less about office space and more about creative collaboration and social connection.

As for the home, there’s no question that we’ll see change here. With the sudden—and for many, unwanted—transition to WFH, the value of a room in the house that you can retreat to for study or work in relative privacy has skyrocketed. The question for designers is how to balance that with the desire for ‘flow’ that’s so popular in open design footprints. I think the answer will lie in adaptable spaces that can easily be opened up or closed as the need for privacy waxes and wanes. We’re doing some interesting work in this space, analysing how the apartments and homes of the future will be more flexible, without needing to be bigger or more expensive to run.

Bringing it home

With so much change in such a short amount of time, it’s natural to wonder if anything will ever be the same again. As someone who’s been in the property game for as long as I have—four decades and counting—what I can say is that there is one thing that’s unlikely to ever change; and that’s that the value and meaning of home is so much more than the physical asset you buy. It’s a place of sanctuary. A source of pride. A means of connection with the place around you, and a foundation for communion with those you love.

Whether you’re watching the market now with a view to buying soon or planning to jump back in as life returns to normal, the best advice I can give you is to think about property as the sum of many parts. The home or apartment is a key element, that’s for certain; but it’s also much more than that. Is it in a community you feel you can belong—where friendships will be made, and all life’s meaningful social connections are supported? Does the neighbourhood offer more than just houses to live, but places to shop, work, learn and play as well? Can you leave the car at home and walk to do whatever you need to do? Or catch the train or bus to work? Is it a place with a distinct character and strong bonds of inclusion? 

The secret to making a decision you’ll feel proud of long after the keys are dropped into your hand, is to add the value of all these elements together, not trade them off against one another. Ultimately, the choice you make isn’t just about the price of the home, but the value of connection that comes from the amenity around you, and the full life it helps you live. 

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