Striking Demographic Trends, Massive Market Gaps and the Future of Neighborhoods

Real Estate, Development & Investing #1

Hi!  It’s Austin.  Welcome to The Building Culture Playbook.

Over the past decade I’ve built a vertically-integrated real estate development company from the ground up.  I left my CPA career in 2012 for the Peace Corps in search of meaning and adventure.  I stumbled into inspiration, which has since developed into a lifelong mission: building a thriving world for people.

This journey began with a two-year apprenticeship of hard labor laying brick for a master builder.  Fast forward 9 years and Building Culture is an award-winning design + build company with exceptional emerging talent and a growing team.  I’m now working on the last piece of the puzzle: syndicating and sponsoring our own developments—our first of which is a $33MM urban neighborhood slated to break ground late 2024.  

Join me in real time as we pioneer a new way to approach development, fusing the liberal arts with construction and real estate to build a more beautiful, resilient, and thriving world for people. I’m glad to have you along for the ride!  Cheers to building a richer life and a better world.


I'm excited to start sharing about our upcoming urban, mixed-use townhouse project called Townsend, and our thinking and process behind it. It's located in downtown Edmond, a city of around 100,000 people, twenty minutes north of Oklahoma City, the 20th largest city in the US. Edmond is one of the fastest growing cities in Oklahoma, and its historically sleepy downtown (formerly nicknamed Deadmond) is waking up.

I think a good place to start is demographic trends, and why I believe the housing market, across the country, is not reflecting the wants and needs of people, but instead is, understandably, simply responding to the incentives of industry, finance and bureaucracy.  The last thing housing is built for today is the actual people living in it. 

So that is where we are beginning—people.

I'm going to give you some local Edmond statistics, but these trends hold true nationally, give or take a few percentage points.  For what it's worth, Edmond is known locally as the place for families, making these statistics all the more surprising.

  1. 60% of Edmond households are 1-2 person

  2. 77% of Edmond households are 1-3 person

  3. 66.5% of Edmond households do not have children

When I ask lifetime Edmonites to guess what percent of households are 1 to 2 person, they guess in the 20% - 40% range, and are shocked to learn it's 60%.  It's one of those statistics that just isn't obvious or experienced on a day-to-day basis.  But it's real.

And this is one of the many reasons I believe we have a housing mismatch, where the market isn't delivering what people want or need.  The average suburban house is close to 2,500 sq/ft.  Most people don't need 2,500 sq/ft, and would be willing to sacrifice size for convenience and community, and higher quality for reduced footage.  If there were good options.

This is anecdotal, but in my observation the vast majority of new construction housing falls into 3 categories:

  1. Single family detached houses in monolithic and isolated subdivisions w/ 3+ bedrooms.

  2. Multi-Family apartment buildings for rent.

  3. Condo buildings near downtowns/mid-towns and walkable areas.


What's striking is how extreme each of these products are: subdivisions are extremely low density, and then multi-family and condo buildings are extremely high density.  It's not that we shouldn't have these housing products (though we could certainly execute them better), it's that there is almost nothing in between, which is where the vast majority of housing should be: in between.  Why?  Because that’s where the vast majority of people are: in between. 

But more importantly, of this very narrow mix of housing at each end of the extreme, single family detached subdivisions still reign supreme.  By a LOT.  Check out the housing stock of the US, by type1:

Doing the math, single-family detached makes up 64% of the total housing stock, with everything else combined making up the remaining 36%. 

The idea of the suburban subdivision was largely built around families: Two parents and a few kids with a white picket fence, and the home serving as the 'center of life,' a safe oasis away from the dirty, industrial city.  With a family of 5+, it makes sense to have 2,500 sq/ft and 3+ bedrooms.

But when 60% of households are 1-2 person, and 77% are 1-3 person, we are building housing stock that simply doesn't meet people where they are in size, type or context.

I’ll give you a few examples of what I mean.

 Demographic 1: Late Stage Professionals & Retirees

There is a large cohort of former suburbanites in their late 50's+, middle-class or above, where their kids have moved out of the house, and they are looking for what's next.  They don't need the 1/2 acre lot and are tired of the house maintenance on 3,000 sq/ft.  Many of these people want to downsize, simplify, prioritize quality over quantity, reduce yard and house maintenance, live near friends and peers, and have some level of walkability and convenience.

The suburban subdivision is out, so that leaves, in terms of new construction options, renting in a multi-family building, or buying a condo with structured parking and an elevator.  These are huge jumps, and while they appeal to some, they do not appeal to most because they still want to be a part of a beautiful neighborhood and community -- not live in some big building off a hyper urban street.  What about hosting barbeques, and grandkids visiting?

Most of these people, in my experience, would much prefer a 1,400 sq/ ft to 2,200 sq/ft high quality, low maintenance townhouse with a small courtyard, tucked within a neighborhood, that's located in close proximity to daily needs where convenience, a more active lifestyle, and neighborly connections are baked in.  Even renting in a cool apartment building, within a great neighborhood, can be appealing for this cohort.

I cannot emphasize enough the different experience between this living space and a condo high rise plopped on a street.  More on that in future posts.

 Demographic 2: Young Professionals & Renters

Young professionals and lower-income individuals/families are usually renters.  If they're young and single, convenience and being able to meet other people is a priority.  If they have kids and both parents work, kids being able to get to school easily and act with some independence is important, plus the ability to obtain daily needs without a car.  At an average cost of $12,182/year, per vehicle, the ability to own just 1 car as a family and still function as part of society has huge financial implications. 

Renting in a subdivision isn't a good fit for either demographic – it's simply too isolated.  Condos are too expensive.  That leaves multi-family. 

Multi-family does solve a problem by adding housing, which we desperately need.  But they are generally not designed for families, and are too big and institutional to facilitate human, neighborly connections within the building itself very well.  Developers will tell you: all those 'amenities' and 'lounge areas'?  Yea, they know no one will use them.  They're just for leasing up.

Most of this demographic would much prefer smaller scale courtyard apartments, or a quad-plex, or a flat over a commercial space, in the context of a cool street or neighborhood. But we aren't building any of those options.

 Demographic 3: Small Families

Families have gotten smaller, be it due to fewer kids, divorce rates, or both.  The 1-3 person household is a huge demographic, making up 77% of all households.  These could be two parents and one child, or two children and one parent. 

If two parents and a single child, both parents very likely work.  If one parent and two children, that parent very likely works, too.  The kids need to be taken care of while the parents are gone.  The suburban subdivision with large, 3 bedroom houses, higher maintenance costs, and distance to daily needs (kids have to be chauffeured everywhere by already busy parents), simply does not serve this demographic very well. 

That leaves multi-family and condo buildings.  Some of this demographic might opt into this, but it's such an intensely urban and institutional feel, it only truly appeals to a small minority.  Why?  In addition to these products generally not being built for families, kids that live in these buildings are trapped in them. They can't go out on their own. They can't do anything on their own because the moment they walk out the front door they are on an intense, transient urban street.

And, unfortunately, the isolated subdivision, while the houses may be built for families, and there may be a yard for kids to play in, any activity whatsoever has to be planned, scheduled, and driven to. Kids, once again, can virtually do nothing on their own until they are 16 – if the family can afford a car for them – unless they are lucky enough to have a friend or two in the neighborhood for play dates.

But school, sports, play-dates, doctors, recitals, sleep overs – any daily activity that occurs outside of the home – must be planned and executed by the parents, and at great time-cost to them. 

Many families would prefer more convenient, walkable neighborhoods, and would be willing to live in smaller houses, on smaller lots, or even a townhouses and courtyard scenario, or even apartment/condo buildings that were intentionally built for families, if these were options. But they aren't.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.

My point is that the isolated suburban subdivision with large lots and single-family detached houses do not serve the 77% of 1-3 person households very well. 

That leaves multi-family and condos as the alternative, which serve a very narrow niche themselves.   


Let me drop a few statistics on you from a recent poll by the National Association of Realtors2 about what people actually want:

  1. 79% said being within an easy walk of other places and things, such as shops and parks, is very/somewhat important."

  2. 78% of those indicated that they would be willing to pay more to live in a walkable community.

  3. 56% said they would prefer a house with a small yard and be able to walk to places vs 44% who would prefer a large yard and would need to drive to most places.

  4. 53% would prefer an attached dwelling (or or rent a townhouse/condo/apartment) and be able to walk to shops, restaurants, and a short commute to work vs 47% who would prefer a single-family home (own or rent) and have to drive to shops, restaurants, and a longer commute."

Do some people still want the traditional suburban subdivision? Yes. But the majority is now firmly in the place of wanting better connected, more dynamic, more walkable neighborhoods. 

Yet, that is a tiny fraction of what is being built today. I don't have statistics, but I would guess well below 5% of new construction based on personal observation in Oklahoma and Texas. I actually think it's less than 1%. 

The market is simply not delivering what people want or need.   

The type of housing that does appeal to a large majority of people can sometimes be referred to as 'missing middle' housing: townhouses, garage apartments, quad plexus, small apartment buildings, courtyard housing, and yes, even single family detached with garages and courtyards — but on much smaller lots in the realm of 3,500 sq/ft or less in more convenient locations.

When organized correctly, this type of housing has the broadest appeal to the most people — and can be infused with some higher and lower density housing as well.  It can look more like this:

Poundbury, UK

People of all demographics are realizing that location really does matter. The context of your house, and what's around it, is just as important as the house itself, and has far more impact on your day-to-day experience. 

If housing were a bell curve, I believe this ‘missing middle’, these medium density living options that bring with them the ability to arrange things differently, to balance privacy with vibrancy, freedom with safety, and convenience with comfort, believe the vast majority of people are within the middle two-thirds of the bell curve.

I believe we could build a much better world for people if we focused on diverse, multi-generational, medium density housing, arranged these into real neighborhoods (rather than monolithic subdivisions or oversized buildings), and then integrated punctuation of higher density towards the center of neighborhoods, and lower density at periphery.

While that is what I believe two-thirds of people generally want, this is less than 1%3 of what is being built, and has been built for the last 60+ years, due to top-down, bureaucratic, imposed destruction of our built environment.

More on that later, but it’s critical to recognize our current building pattern has nothing to do with the free market, economics or demand—it’s all contrived, subsidized and tyrannically imposed, and has been for so long people alive today have no concept of how America was originally built.

But this also creates an incredible opportunity, and need, for developers and investors willing to take on harder projects, to deliver something that serves people, creates a better world, and makes money.

This is what we are doing with Townsend.

Until next time!


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  1. Housing Chart

  2. What People Want

  3. This is anecdotal from personal observation

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