05/07/2013 10:16 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

Solving the Arrested (Real Estate) Developer Once and for All

Cities are in a pickle: Populations are skyrocketing but there is little room for people to go. One hundred years ago, a meager two out of every 10 people lived in urban spaces, but today that number has jumped to over half the population and growing. It's impossible for developers to keep up using traditional methods. The time to innovate is now.

If there is one thing architects and designers know, it's that flexibility is key when working with limited space. "Here in the same number of square feet of rentable area might contain twice the living facilities of the apartment planned in the ordinary way, allowing a fair meeting point between the rental income demand of the owner and the pocketbook limitations of the tenant." Sound like something written last week? In fact, it was published in 1925 in The Architectural Forum. If the public knew that efficient spaces would resolve housing issued 90 years ago, why are we still facing the same challenges today?

Opportunities for work and social interaction are expanding in cities, not "down on the farm." Fuel costs escalate and time spent commuting is considered more and more of a waste. The speed in all aspects of life increases as more technology exists at our fingertips.

Essentially, the "action" of life is city-centered. It is the hub of the world's population both now and in the future. Resources become scarcer and housing and work space costs escalate exponentially despite "zero inflation" worldwide. We're in a world that demands housing of over 7 billion people and not just the demand of the western population of less than 1.5 billion. Building more efficiently and living more efficiently are points of survival for humanity, not just a "nice thing to do."

City dwellers are on board. More than one 1925 article in The Architectural Forum came to the same conclusions about efficient living: "The idea of the large living room or studio gained by sacrificing the dining room has achieved great popularity," C. Stanley Taylor writes in "Features Which Help to Rent Apartment Houses." "In cases where both types of apartments were made available in the same building, those planned under the efficiency system have been the first to rent."

When showing a prospective tenant a small living space, which would be the more likely choice? (A) An empty apartment without any efficient units, or (B) a place designed with space saving features? If you answered B, give yourself a pat on the back. It is a struggle to visualize life in an empty space but a pre-designed efficient apartment makes imagining everyday life a breeze. It is no wonder these intelligently designed homes are snapped up so quickly.

In Efficiency Apartments, architect George Pelham Jr. describes a stereotypical builder in New York City. Not unlike modern New Yorkers, when there was a need for change -- no matter how greatly it would improve lifestyles and efficiency -- changing minds was no easy task. People find what they like and stick to it. As the "Making Room" exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York shows, we face an additional problem today than simply changing the minds of developers -- we need to change interfering government policy.

Just like today, other cities were innovating faster than New York. Visionaries came to the city in most dire need of their ideas only to be met with builders unwilling to gamble. A few brave developers took risks by constructing efficient buildings and (surprise, surprise) they were rewarded with quick sales and high demand. In 1925, the world population was about 2 billion and by 2025 that number will have quadrupled. How are we going to house all of these people? Efficient spaces. It's time to put an end to arrested development.