A New Lens on Real Estate Design

Natasha Sadikin, a master’s student in the MIT Center for Real Estate (CRE), was fascinated by the relationship between people and spaces long before her career in real estate development. A portrait and nature photographer since high school, Sadikin says her work acts as a mirror to her many interests.

“My photography reflects two different sides of me,” she says. “One focuses on the human subject and the intimate, romantic nuances between people, and the other zooms out into the vastness of wild landscapes and contemplates the smallness of our existence in the great outdoors and beyond.”

Her intertwined passions for art, space, and people led Sadikin to undergraduate studies in architecture at the University of California at Los Angeles, but afterward, she found that working as an architect was not what she had envisioned.

“In school, we are taught to believe that we have decision-making power over our designs, so I was so discouraged to realize that at the end of the day, it’s ultimately a client’s decision and is out of the architect’s hands. The things we value in design tend to be value-engineered, meaning important qualitative design features are cut for financial reasons,” Sadikin explains. “My frustrations with these realities drove me to pursue a better understanding of investor decision making as a means to ultimately find a feasible path to realize beautiful, well-designed buildings.”

Sadikin left her firm for AutoCamp, an outdoor hospitality startup for which she worked as a design and project manager in Yosemite, California. It was the perfect marriage of her fondness for the outdoors and her desire to make design decisions: She was free to manage her own budget and a team of interior designers and architects to make her ideas come to life.

Still, Sadikin wanted to expand her creative autonomy and decision-making authority. “I might have control issues!” she laughs. Grad school was the next logical step toward her goals.

Only at MIT

When she was selecting a graduate school, Sadikin was drawn to the CRE Real Estate Development Program because of the ways MIT could complement her artistic bent.

“I chose it out of all the other schools because it’s at the forefront of real estate development,” she says. “Coming from a design background, I was never the best with math and rigorous statistical skills. Picking the most technical program in the United States was a challenge to myself. I thought, if I can survive MIT, I will survive anything.”

Her experience in the program has enriched not only her technical skills but her social and communication skills as well. She credits her growth in the latter to dedicated women mentors in an industry that remains male-dominated. In fact, being at MIT has deepened her awareness of gender biases in her field.

“For some reason, as I grew in my career, I was always told, ‘Oh, you’re too nice for real estate; you’re not going to cut it as a woman in a man’s industry; you care too much; you’re soft-spoken,’” Sadikin explains. “And I didn’t realize until after I went to MIT and took these soft-skill courses in leadership, entrepreneurship, and negotiation that the things that I’ve always been working on in my life—in terms of communicating with clients, being able to understand their interests, and being empathetic—these are actually incredibly strong skills to have! Up to that point, I thought I didn’t have what it took to succeed.”

One of her mentors is Andrea Chegut, a research scientist and director of the MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab, whose passionate remarks during orientation inspired Sadikin to join her lab. Part of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P), the lab aims to quantify benefits of innovation and design in real estate development—traditionally evaluated in qualitative terms. Ultimately, the goal is to leverage financial benefit to promote progressive design.

Sadikin has embraced her work in the Innovation Lab with verve. “I want to do everything I can that I can only do at MIT,” she says. That attitude also inspired her to venture into the startup world through the SA+P incubator accelerator DesignX, which emphasizes future-oriented design innovation. Her team was among those selected to receive $15,000 in seed funding. Their winning pilot project was inspired by the 1% public art requirement needed from new construction projects, and the increasing need to connect public art creators and art seekers.

Sadikin also ventured to Shanghai and Chengdu in China during MIT’s Independent Activities Period last January, with an architecture travel and design studio. As a daughter of Taiwanese and Indonesian immigrants, her time at a Chinese development site was particularly memorable.

“They invited us out to come up with our own proposals on how improve their design and increase the sense of community,” she recalls. “Although I’m half-Chinese heritage-wise, I haven’t really explored that side of myself. It was a great experience to revisit China with the architecture master’s students on the trip, who were well-versed in Chinese design. Seeing the potential for synergy between architects and real estate development was fascinating.”

An advocate for good design

Due to the pandemic, last spring, Sadikin returned to her childhood home in San Francisco, where she has been working on her master’s thesis, “The Financial Impact of Healthy Buildings.” Similar in principle to concepts like “green buildings,” healthy buildings adhere to design standards that account for basic human well-being like good air quality, natural daylight, and water quality.

“While the benefits of healthy spaces have long been qualitatively understood and appreciated, it has not been financially analyzed to impact economic decision making. It’s sad to say that a majority of our buildings are not being built to even these basic human essentials,” she notes.

Sadikin also continues to maintain a photography studio on the side, specializing in outdoor lifestyle and weddings. It’s her first love, and she never plans to give it up: “A part of me always feels like there’s always more to explore in photography—clearly, I’m interested in too many things—because it’s creatively fulfilling and, in a way, deeply healing for me. All along, I’ve known that photography would always be a part of my life.”

Artistic inclinations run in the family: Her twin sister also worked in architecture; her father runs a video media house in Taiwan; and her mother is a former wedding photographer. Lately, Sadikin has been experimenting with her mom’s much-loved, vintage, medium-format Hasselblad camera.

Sadikin’s partner also happens to be an architect, which leads to interesting discussions about her goal to have her own real estate development company focusing on “trouble” sites, places where the available space or context pose a challenge for building.

“I think that’s where our value proposition would be: coming in with a creative design approach to say, ‘This is a complicated site, but you can use architecture and design thinking to help come up with solutions that are not only good for the financial investors, but also for the community and the environment,” explains Sadikin. She and her partner both believe that design is the answer to these sites, and she hopes to build a company that unites the interests of architects and investors,  a concept that crystallized during her experience at CRE.

Reflecting on her time at MIT, Sadikin says it has enabled her to find a way combine her various interests and to figure out what she really wants to do moving forward: advocate for architects and for good design.

“MIT helped me find my voice, and I’m realizing I have a lot to say.”

This article originally appeared on MIT News on January 14, 2021.

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