Claire Flurin — Urbanist
My Career as an Urbanist
My name is Claire, I am an urbanist, I co-founded and manage a non-for-profit organization called PUREHOUSE LAB.
Our lab in itself is unconventional since it specializes in co-living, shared living spaces. We are an international network of professionals who study and develop shared spaces.
Trained as a civil engineer in France, and as a city planner in the USA, I am passionate about the way cities develop and evolve. As a planner, I am particularly looking at interactions between social trends and land use strategies, from urban sustainability to co-housing. As an engineer, I strive for innovative solutions that make cities more efficient and accessible to all.
I started my career as a Project Manager for L’Oréal Property Department, where I learned how to put the final user — at L’Oréal, the employees — at the center of the design process. That’s how I slowly specialized in urban sustainability, at the building scale first, at the city scale in planning school — with a delightful detour in the transportation world — and in my research and finally back at the neighborhood scale in my current practice.
I guess my career path is considered unconventional because I love to explore, dream and imagine! My multidisciplinary background and international perspective on projects have helped me identify opportunities worth exploring. As for the “why” and “how” I got to Purehouse Lab, serendipity and passion got me to PUREHOUSE LAB I think.
I met with Ryan Fix, the Founder of Pure House (a separate yet friendly organization) when I was looking for housing in NYC after planning school. At this time, my budget was very limited; all I could afford was a unit without a window, and I could not resolve myself to that. Pure House offered the option of beautiful, comfortable shared apartments. It actually did not work out then, but we became friends, I took a large apartment in front of one of his buildings and I started replicating his model on my own.
Around the same time, co-living and Pure House’s concept caught the eye of a small French real estate investor, eager to spread the word about this phenomenon. That’s when we started to realize that there was no central hub for knowledge sharing in the co-living world and that everybody was reinventing the wheel at every project. A couple years later, we created the Lab.
Can you give us a better sense of what you do on a day to day basis?
My days are very different from each other. Our organization divides its work into three big ambitions: THINK, research and market intelligence, CONNECT, networking, event planning, community building, and CREATE, concepts definition, prototyping and project development for clients and partners.
My job is to make sure we fulfill our objectives in these three areas. I help identify relevant research topics and collect market data; I review the planning of our events and help on-board members. I actually spend a good portion of my time assisting partners in the development of their projects.
My strength is in housing and mixed-use development, where we help create new frameworks of analysis and processes to approach an asset, an investment, a design, a regulation or policy, from the user's perspective.
Explain a bit more about the process of studying and developing shared spaces.
At our co-living lab, we see ourselves as facilitators of a broader knowledge sharing effort. I can certainly share what I have learned, but we are still learning a lot, so I'd rather walk you through a typical co-living development project.
Once a site has been identified for co-living, we like to do a quick neighborhood analysis. Our work then focuses on three big questions:
- Who lives there? Who is moving to this neighborhood? What do they seem to lack in terms of services and housing typology?
- What is the local policy framework? The city's plan for the area?
- What is the average rent for a room in a shared apartment? For a studio? For a family unit?
If this analysis confirms the relevance of co-living, we move to concept definition, based on our six-expertize lens:
- Community: who will be the audience of this new space?
- Business Model: how will the space run? At what level of rent and management?
- Space: how to design such a space? With whom?
- Regulation: what do local regulations allow? How can we work with the City on this project?
- Communications: how can we invite the community to co-create? How do we spur interest for this new space?
- Services and tools: what types of services are needed in the neighborhood? What will bring neighbors in and help create a true community hub?
Answering those questions are often our first steps towards developing a well-integrated, sustainable shared space.
Can you help give the reader a better sense of the variety of locations and that process? Do you buy existing spaces or do you build?
Co-living is not a new trend. People have been sharing spaces forever, and everywhere. The industrialization of our economy led us to individualize housing but we all remember our grand-parents villages or neighborhoods, where neighbors and family members keep an eye on each other. Modern co-living recreates this village atmosphere in a building that often aims to become a central gathering place in the neighborhood. PUREHOUSE LAB simply serves as a professional association for those players. We don't own, nor build spaces ourselves. We help people do so and develop their own concepts.
In the U.S., the most famous brands are probably Common and WeLive, but you have a multitude of smaller brands like Tribe (formerly Founder House), The Embassy Network, Open Door, Outsite, etc. Most modern co-living spaces are in Northern Europe, China, India, and the United States. But as you can imagine, there are people sharing homes around the globe.
Tell us more about multi-cultural construction sites.
Well, it's not a secret that construction sites are melting pots of different people from different backgrounds. As a foreign woman, you certainly are different.
One needs to understand his/her counterpart's perspective to get things done, right? So you learn and adapt to your collaborators, and to the cultural frameworks, you opted in.
How is what you do related to planning?
Our work is a mix of real estate development, branding, research and policy analysis. In order to do our job, we need to be able to create a dialogue between the various stakeholders of urban development. We need to comprehend city politics, city master plans and zoning codes, housing policies, public finance, the social fabric of a neighborhood, and so on. We need to understand the complexity of cities and that's what planners do, isn't it?
If someone were interested in your career path, what details would you give that might help them learn more?
My career has been driven by curiosity, from urban sustainability to new housing typologies. If somebody was interested in my career path, I would encourage them I would encourage them to pick a field or a subject they are interested in and build a real expertise, and to stay curious, to keep learning.
Now if somebody was interested in pursuing a career in co-living, I would invite them to read about innovative housing models and to inquire about their impact(s) on their residents and neighbors. I believe co-living is just one form of non-traditional housing among many others. Because co-living is still very new as a formal industry, professionals often form strong opinions on what co-living should or should not be. Being able to analyze a concept, based on a series of quantitative and qualitative indicators and/or based on comparisons with other housing typologies help formulate a solid response.
Is your career based on considered choices you planned or has it unfolded as part of a process you didn’t necessarily foresee?
I definitely did not think I was going to study shared homes when I started planning school! However, I have built my career and academic background to be agile and versatile. My intent has always been to have the technical background to build, and a sufficient understanding of social trends to innovate by designing for the people, rather than for some sort of technical prowess.
Can you talk about skill sets that you have acquired along your career path and how the skills you learned as a planner come together?
I have learned a lot and am still learning so much. Of course, there are the obvious technical skills which I use every day — neighborhood analysis, master planning, design coordination, construction management, financial analysis — but I have found the most valuable lesson is to know who you are speaking to and how to get to them.
I have learned to work in different cultures, in the French corporate world, in the U.S., with planners, engineers, politicians, even on multi-cultural construction sites. One of my previous bosses told me one day “always know who you talk too, and you’ll get your grand ideas approved.” Negotiation and mediation is a skill I learned as a planner that has proved essential.
What skills and personality traits lend themselves to success in your field?
Being collaborative and a good project manager is probably the most important skills in my current field.
What has been the best surprise in your career?
Knowing things? It took me a while to realize that I actually know things about sustainability, and now co-living, and people seek my advice.
Looking back, what might you do differently?
Looking back, I would probably have continued to develop spaces, while working for PUREHOUSE LAB. I think it is important to remind yourself what it is you create when advising others. And in fact, I thinking about it as a next move. I would also have learned some coding. Fully understanding the potential of the digital tools we have access too could have been very useful.
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
I really enjoy the creativity that is a central part of my job. Whether it is a real estate developer/investor looking to optimize its profitability while creating a positive impact, or a design issue when it comes to imagining how one could inhabit a repurposed space, I love being part of the problem-solving effort. I hope our organization grows enough that we can invite more and more people in these conversations.
How has your perception of planning changed since you first entered the field?
When I entered the field, first with an engineering lens than as a planner, I viewed planning as a technical field, where every problem had its solution. It's great to know how to solve a problem, but now I understand that the harder part is actually to set the problem correctly, which is less about being an engineer and more about listening to people. I strive to be able to think globally, to approach problems holistically, with a series of solutions rather than a magic bullet.
Education: A combination of technical and liberal arts.
First planning job: A hands-on project-based job. Develop real estate, manage public improvement projects, design parks, learn how to do and create what you intend to plan.
Influences and influential people: Read thought leaders in your field, and question them.
Tools: Understand the technical tools; know a little bit about how to use them, and a great deal about their limitations.
What to do outside of work that helps you be successful?
Have a side project that you can focus on when you need some fresh air.