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Universidad de Navarra

“Having a very well design real estate degree prepares you for a global job market”

Sam Azasu, Associate Professor of Real Estate with over 20 years’ higher education experience, is going to be the academic responsible of I and IV units in the new Master in Real Estate from the University

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FOTO: Manuel Castells
15/01/21 11:56 Laura Juampérez

Sam Azasu is Associate Professor of Real Estate with over 20 years’ higher education experience in Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, and South Africa. He is also the new academic responsible of I and IV units from the new Master in Real Estate that Architecture School of the University of Navarra will offer the next course in their Campus in Madrid. This new program is designed to be one of the most competitive programs in real estate area in Spain.

Why should a recent graduate in architecture, engineering or economics study this degree to be a better professional in real estate area?

One of the big realizations from the end of 20 century until now is that modern problems are extremely complex. To effectively face them as professionals one requires a multiplicity of skills. The real estate environment is no different, with different challenges in from conception, design, implementation and operation of different types for different users in extremely dynamic environments.

At the same time, the way disciplines are conceived in the university system often means our graduates are trained to solve only one set of issues at a time. So, people are trained to focus only on Conception and Design, or they are responsible only for implementation or operation. As a result, we send to the job market graduates who are not fully prepared to deal with the full complexity of the issues from conception to operation. For example, people design buildings with not very sound ideas how the users will experience the space and any problems of use emerge only after the building has been commissioned, sometimes requiring expensive retrofitting.

For this reason, it has become important that the degree programs that we develop in the XXI century span the entire range of product design, implementation and operation, whenever possible. This means even if you decide to be an architect specialized in Conception and Design, now there are very important issues around Implementations and Operations you need to understand. And if you do not have a decent grasp of the entire life cycle of a building, there will be unanticipated problems that will be only become apparent, post-construction.

It is therefore not enough for an architect to be skilled in Conception and Design. He has to fully understand issues around Implementation and Operation to be able to design buildings that work for the users. The same situation can arise with an engineer that must understand not only conception, design and manufacturing but also the needs of those who will operate or use the engineering product or service, once the product or service moves out of the assembly line. This is why, for example, the design of sanitation facilities for a refugee camp in Kenya, should differ from what is feasible in a European or Latin American setting – the users and their needs are very likely to be different. The models we use to forecast demand for space must now account for the demographic problems facing Western countries. A real estate practitioner must understand this. A pandemic will probably have lasting effects on housing preferences, office design and the way we shop. Architects, planners, and property developers all need to understand how it affects the development products that come out of the pipeline. The complexity of XXI century problems therefore require us to adopt a cross disciplinary approach to training our graduates, forcing them to reach beyond the narrow confines of our respective disciplines.

In the middle between theory and practice

What are the main strengths of this new real estate degree?

One of the main weaknesses of existing programs are that even though they have strong industry connections, the heavy reliance on practitioners as faculty means they would teach practice as it currently is. But when things break down is often very difficult to troubleshoot and create new solutions without resorting to first principles. What we decided to do is to take a more academic approach. This means to teach the disciplines as they are conceived: teaching the principles first while integrating practice by means of cases and projects that mimic professional situations. Pedagogical research proves that theory and practice are mutually reinforcing, with practical projects deepening students’ theoretical knowledge.

We therefore seek a middle ground between theory and practice. We will achieve that by making sure a subject not only covers a range of topics but is also formally responsible for training students in specific skills. That way we are able to explicitly account for what our graduates learn when they graduate.

It would therefore be crucial for university support to attract high class faculty with doctoral training, with teaching and research competence in real estate. A competitive program typically is supported by highly trained academics that feed their teaching with cutting edge research and use problems from industry as teaching cases. It should be possible for the University of Navarra to replicate its success in other areas by becoming the most competitive source of real estate research in the country.

Ethics: central issue in MRE

Would a better formation be useful in repeating a new real estate bubble?

On a normal day, people underestimate how pervasive the real estate sector is. Whether in personal or professional capacities, we are all players in the real estate market as tenants, owners, occupants or users of space. A lot of any country’s wealth is locked up in real estate wealth. The connection of the real state sector to the rest of the economy is as strong as it used to be in the past, when crisis in the real state sector quickly turned into a major macroeconomic crisis. What has happened in Spain and a few other countries is that when you do not professionalize the real state sector your ability to anticipate and respond quickly to this crisis is compromised. So, when this crisis hit, it probably hit Spain bigger than everybody else because relatively fewer people understood the system wide risks of a real estate bubble, from lenders to investors to policy makers.

After the last crisis in Spain, we have learnt that to get ahead of the next crisis, we need a well trained professional class to anticipate, respond and address the problems when they arise. We are in the middle of a crisis created by the pandemic. In the absence of a professional class who understands the drivers of demand and supply of each asset class, we may only understand the impact of the pandemic on the real estate market when it is too late. In addition to just responding to crises, there are also huge opportunities in the real estate market; opportunities to develop a career, opportunities to invest…  And you need people well trained to identify these opportunities and to take advantage of them.

Why is Ethics a central issue in this RE program?

In his famous presentation “How would you measure your life” – the famous Harvard Business School professor, the late Clay Christensen lamented about how in the last decades MBA programs have focused a lot on making graduates successful at generating wealth, but failed to teach them to be ethical decision makers in their personal lives, in the businesses they run as well as being responsible citizens of society; citizens who understand that the business decisions they make have consequences for themselves, for the people who work in organizations they run and also for society outside of the firm. Effectively, the failure to tackle ethical issues has consequences for otherwise successful professionals from prestigious institutions and the businesses they ran.

I believe that there is duty not to send professionals to the market who do not understand the ethical dimension of the personal and business decisions they make. By having Ethics as part of the curriculum, we are tackling an old problem which is the necessity of bringing ethical behaviour, ethical discussions back as a mainstream idea, and also letting people understand that you can do well by doing good. There should not be a matter of choosing between being financially successful and being ethical.

However I need to point out ethics is not the only differentiator in the program. We also plan to lay a foundation of general business training before we provide technical skills in real estate. This enables our graduates to acquire a range of personal, interpersonal and professional skills that complement their technical knowledge as real estate professionals.

Graduates employable from USA to Japan

Why this degree could be interesting both for young and senior graduates?

Having a very well design real estate degree prepares you for a global job market. Some of the international accreditations we plan to secure for this degree means that our graduates are employable from continental United States all the way to Japan. Taking a good Real Estate Degree should mean that you are employable not just in Spain but also anywhere else in the world where this competence is required. My South African programs were the first non-US programs whose graduates could be fast tracked to become Certified Property Managers after passing the required exam by the Institute of Real Estate Management in Chicago. Prior to 2017, South Africa had 3 Certified Property Managers. Between 2017 and 2020, we produced 102 new CPMs with about 90 of the new CPMs coming from our programs. Support for the exam fees came from industry sponsorship. The plan is to do the same with this program as well not just with IREM, but also CORENet and RICS.

In Spain there are people working in Real Estate area who came from other disciplines. They have learnt on the job but some of them do feel that there are deficiencies in the quality of decisions they make because of the absence of formal training. So, the other reason why we are establishing this degree is to have people who already are in the industry come and take formal training, in order to contextualize the experience they already have.

An opportunity this will create is that young graduates can expect to meet people who are ready in the industry in class and who bring their experience to the discussions that will happen in class. Through the professionals in class, the young graduates may also access job opportunities. For architects who may add this as double masters degree, we hope to expand the range of services they can offer professionally. The long term effect of this is to gradually change the role and professional image of the architect in Spanish society.

What are the main career opportunities for potential graduates?

First of all, you can work in real estate development, in corporate real estate management, in commercial property management, in investment and finance, and in consulting… One thing that we have seen in South Africa is that some of our graduates who started out as architects and return to Architecture have reported that the quality of Architecture that they do is a lot different after graduation because even though they are still architects but they have a better understanding of clients’ needs, the investment implications of different designs and the management issues that come with different conceptions of the built environment.

The same thing happens to graduates who are urban planners. They are better able to interface with developers and privates actors and they begin to see their role as more than just being regulators and enforcers of planning legislation and building codes, to becoming people who enable financially viable and environmentally sustainable development to happen. In this regard we also close the knowledge interface gaps that exist between architects, planners, construction managers and developers as well as property managers.

So, the career opportunities in real estate are extremely huge: from banks, to insurance companies and pension funds, developers, consulting, etc. It is a huge area.

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