MHN Interview: Brice Leconte, Founder, iUnit
iUnit is a new modular housing project coming to Denver in 2015, blending smart energy use, wireless connectivity, green construction and the urban living preferences of American Millennials.
Believe it or not, iUnit is not the next device a certain ubiquitous technology company wants you to run out and buy. Rather, it’s a new modular housing project coming to Denver in 2015, blending smart energy use, wireless connectivity, green construction and the urban living preferences of American Millennials. iUnit is intended to challenge the way we think about apartment living today, says founder Brice Leconte.
A Washington, D.C., entrepreneur with a passion for startup technology, Leconte is currently an Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Maryland as well as an advisor and mentor at Georgetown University.
“iUnit is really a reflection of how I see the world and what I want to do with commercial real estate,” said Leconte, who worked on large single-family home developments early in his career. iUnit at Highland Park is his first foray into the multi-family space.
MHN recently spoke to him about the project and what makes it unique.
MHN: Tell us about iUnit. What’s it all about?
Leconte: There are a lot of things in real estate that don’t make sense to me. One of them is on the modular front—why we are still building buildings out in the elements, while they are being rained and snowed on. I’ve wanted to build differently for a long time, and modular construction has always made sense to me. Building in a controlled environment, we end up with a much better, greener product and better worker safety. That’s the method we’ve chosen for our multifamily building. We will use a factory in Idaho for the module construction.
The other thing that has never made sense to me has how commercial real estate has lagged behind in integrating technology into its buildings. How can we introduce technology into buildings and achieve different things? Our goal is to use technology to empower tenants to be more energy efficient.
The analogy I use is to the Prius. In the real estate industry, we know how to build an energy efficient building, but we don’t have a dashboard for the tenants like the dashboard inside the Prius, which lets the driver know how their behavior is affecting the vehicle’s efficiency. Our goal is first to educate the tenant, and then empower them to make better energy choices. The No. 1 priority is energy efficiency.
Leconte: For this first project, we are focusing on building a smarter, smaller unit. It’s better laid out, with smart storage solutions and space usage. We are working with with IKEA to furnish the units. We will take advantage of the 9-foot high ceilings to have storage on the walls, using their Besta cubes. It will have a very contemporary look—think Apple Store meets IKEA.
When the tenant walks in, they will have a mobile app to do things like pay rent and file maintenance requests, handle access to the building for guests, review their energy efficiency, and control wireless appliances like speakers. We’ll have wireless power transmitters as well.
MHN: What are the project specs?
Leconte: We’re building 40 units—30 studios, 10 one bedrooms. Studios will be around 390 square feet, one-bedrooms around 480 sf. Siting is in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood, which is one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods. These are smaller units, so they come at a more attractive price point, even though you’re in a trendy neighborhood. One bedrooms in LoHi right now are going for $1450 to $1650. We’re looking at right under $1000 for the studio and $1250 for the one bedroom. It’s a great neighborhood, with walkable retail.
MHN: What value does the walkability add to the project?
Leconte: In a neighborhood like that, you’re not there to stay inside your place all the time. You’re out working, at school, out with your friends—you value the location more than you value the size of your apartment. That’s really an amenity, for us, is the location. Walkable retail, transit, in theory the tenants don’t need a car. Car sharing and bikes are very feasible here.
MHN: Who do you expect the residents to be?
Leconte: The key word is Millennials, of course. We’ll have renters in their 20s and 30s. But I think we’ll be surprised by renter demand from Empty Nesters, also. Whether they are divorced, or enjoy travel, or are on a budget—they still need a local place to call home.
MHN: What’s been the response as you’ve introduced this concept?
Leconte: College students that I talk to ask why buildings like this don’t already exist. Hopefully we can set an example and illustrate that tenants truly care about this stuff. I would hope that within five years, most buildings will have a more modern technology package—some developments will surely offer more than others.
MHN: You have a background in single-family subdivision development. Have you ever built an apartment building before?
Leconte: This my first ground up multifamily development. I was never interested in building traditional apartments. It just took some time to get educated on the modular process and be able to move forward.
Real estate development is a big part of my business background, but I have also started-up and invested in tech companies. I’m an entrepreneur before a real estate developer. The crowd I hang out with is more of the start-up tech crowd. I just happen to be an entrepreneur who also likes to build in the physical world.
MHN: Where are you in the building process?
Leconte: We are finishing up entitlements. We should be breaking ground in late January. The beautiful thing about modular is that in six months we will be delivering the project. It should be completed in late July 2015.