A constant influx of individuals and companies taking up badly needed space in a tiny city has turned Geneva into a nightmare for many dwellers. Real estate companies can make a mint, but the competition is fierce. Swiss Style asked Laure Brolliet, president of Brolliet SA, about Geneva’s housing sector and the challenge of sustainable development.
When Laure Brolliet started in real estate in the late 70s it was a different world, perhaps a bit easier on the stakeholders. Today she is at the helm of one of Geneva’s leading real estate agencies. The company manages CHF 275 million worth of rental assets including more than 680 properties, over 12,000 residences, and around 2,000 commercial, cultural and industrial sites.
The Brolliet family was long in the real estate business, but the company itself was founded by David Brolliet in 1903, who bequeathed the company to his son Henry. Brolliet SA prospered steadily, but at the end of the 1950s, as the number of international organisations grew and Geneva started to become attractive to mulitnationals, the more vigorous executive style of next-in-line Jean Brolliet rapidly boosted the company’s standing, elevating it to the rank of one of the leading real estate agencies in the canton of Geneva. In 1989, Jean passed away, and Laure Brolliet, his daughter, became president of the company.
For Laure Brolliet establishing her bona fides at the top of the company was not that easy. She was just 32 at the time, a young age for the power she wielded. The old guard had some difficulty accepting that she was in charge. Jean Brolliet, her father, had left large shoes, as it were, and they were difficult to fill. “My father had an extraordinary personality and a reach far beyond real estate,” she points out. “He was involved in politics, culture and many other aspects of life in the city.” The admiration is in her inflexions. “His charisma was one of a kind, but this is also what made him irreplaceable and so I didn’t even try to imitate him. I had to replace him whilst still being myself and developing my own leadership style, which at times proved to be a challenge.” Even though she dismisses it, the gender issue must have also played a role. Real estate in Switzerland is very much a male world. Laure Brolliet was not just the first woman to run Brolliet SA, she was also the first woman to be nominated president of a major real estate agency in Switzerland. To succeed in this somewhat isolated position, some might take up cigars and golf. Laure Brolliet strove to simply be herself, as authentic as possible.
What she did find, however, was the difficulty confronting most women exercising a profession, namely finding the ideal balance between personal and work life. “It is not easy to bring these under one roof. I would even argue that it is more difficult for a woman in this respect. I managed to bring everything together by not taking on too many additional tasks and responsibilities. There are many associations that I am a part of, but just as many that I turned down, because I simply did not have any more time and energy to dedicate. Oftentimes people take on mandates in associations for recognition. The only recognition that matters to me is that of my family, clients and colleagues.”
A market in turmoil
She was young and had high expectations to live up to. But she did not become the president of the company just because she was her father’s daughter. “When I took over in 1989, I had been working at the company for more than ten years, so I knew the ups and downs of the real estate sector.” This experience would soon be put to the test. Shortly after taking over, a combination of higher interest rates and low inflation destabilised the markets. Vacancies soared, as no one was ready to invest or take new leases fearing huge interest rates that could ultimately fall to the parties renting. “Buildings were being bought and then sold within one afternoon. In addition, other properties stood empty for long periods of time and we were forced to rent properties we could not sell.” The crisis lasted essentially until the late 90s and almost ended in the collapse of the entire real estate market. “The situation was very dire and worsened by speculation,” Brolliet recalls.
In the past ten years a steady diet of low interest rates, a booming world economy and a quest for solid values restored the sector’s confidence. “Beginning in 2000, the market started growing again, albeit at a slow rate. In the last two to three years, growth has accelerated sharply due to economic growth in Geneva with demand pushing prices into the sky.” Just as a lack of demand for housing led to a slump in the real estate sector, excessive demand is now pushing the housing sector to its limits. “Today there is a vacancy rate of 0.2%. This might sound like a desirable situation, but it is not. In order for the market to be balanced, the vacancy rate should be around 2–3%,” Laure Brolliet explains. With the price of housing at current high levels, it has become very difficult for many people to find a place to live. The people most affected by this situation are not the well off, but those with less means at their disposal. In addition the young are feeling the effects of this shortage the most. Not only is it difficult for them to find a job on today’s competitive market, but they can also hardly afford to pay for accommodation.
The situation in Geneva’s housing market is largely the product of a spike in demand. This however is only half the story. Laure Brolliet highlights that the housing shortage has been negatively affected by a lack of political vision. “Politically there has been a strong movement to protect tenants, while at the same time blocking new property development.” The outcome is that not enough homes have been built in the last years. “We should be building around 2,500 new homes each year, whereas the current annual rate lies between 900–1,200.” Construction has become an excessively lengthy and complicated procedure. “Building a house or apartment can take between ten and 15 years. Administrative hurdles as well as recourses by citizens living in the vicinity of the planned construction site play the greatest role in blocking the development of new housing.”
At another level, the problem is that people come to live in Geneva because it is considered a pleasant place to live. It is small, yet it has all the amenities of a far larger town. It has a delightful lake, mountains galore for the athletic types, a Gallic live-and-let-live feel, and a vibrant cultural life – including a sort of sub-culture that has not yet been co-opted. The wealthy and those with far fewer reserves have, until now, lived in a kind of cheek-by-jowl symbiosis. A programme of intense building, say many, would simply destroy Geneva’s quality of life, which has already suffered considerably due to the current crunch on the real estate market.
Finding an affordable apartment for, say, a growing family, has become almost impossible. Everyone on the street has a story to tell of people spending up to five years looking for lodgings and not finding one. Run-down flats on noisy intersections go for absurdly high prices, and to get them, the potential tenant has to put together dossiers worthy of a petition to a monarch. Young people seeking some measure of independence from their parents have no outlook unless said parents are very wealthy. What is astonishing, until now, is that the city has not experienced the rash of squatting that turned empty buildings into viable cooperatives in the 1980s, the famous Ilot 13 being a particularly glowing example. Geneva has also seen large residential plans going awry. The Praille-Acacia- Vernets project, aiming to combine living and working space in a somewhat run-down industrial zone announced with great pomp and ceremony in 2007, ran into a terrible tangle red tape and lost additional momentum when someone figured out that the project’s claim to fame, two massive residential towers, would be standing on former marshlands and would require budget-busting foundations. In a referendum on May 15, a majority of the voters in the canton chose to declassify the Cherpines-Charrotons area of the city that had been zoned for agriculture until now. A total of 3,000 apartments are supposed to go up on the 42-hectare area. The Yes vote came after a bitter campaign pitting those who sought to maintain the city’s quality of life against those who wished to build quickly to alleviate the problem. The latter won the day with good intentions, sending the per-square-metre prices in the Cherpines soaring. All agree, however, that it will take at least two years to begin dreaming of construction. Meanwhile, the local media speak daily of Geneva’s current real estate bubble…
Life goes on
Geneva’s real-estate problem is a political and economic issue that can hardly be changed from within. Nevertheless, a company with some vision and its hand on the pulse of society will have a great deal to do these days in other areas. Preservation and energy efficiency, for example, are becoming ever more important and are a way of creating a competitive advantage. Considering that almost 50% of energy consumption is directly related to buildings, there is a lot that can be done in the housing sector.
Some of the measures taken in the past few years in the city in general have been more or less dictated from above. Many of Geneva’s old buildings, for example, still have gas piping, which is scheduled for elimination, as the lead can become porous. The “Services Industriels de Genève” has been assiduously tracking such pipe and ordering renovations wherever they find the old defendant. Legislators also got together in 2010 to enact a law defining energy consumption limits for new properties and the renovation of existing dwellings.
Tenants are expected to bear a certain burden of measures such as insulation and installing double glazing on older windows, but they should then pay less for heating.
Laure Brolliet, however, feels it is important to be ahead of the 8-ball in promoting environmental friendliness in the company’s holdings. “Apart from my personal desire, we realised that we, as a real estate agency, could play a big role in advancing and promoting energy efficiency. We are not merely a link in the chain,” she elaborates, “we are the link that brings all the other links together: tenants, home-owners, banks, general contractors and the administration. So we decided we will accelerate the process of sustainable development the best we can.” In order to achieve some measure of lasting success, though, the projects have to be grounded in economic feasibility, that is to say, they cannot negatively impact the profits of the company. “It is important to keep in mind that we are running a business, so it is necessary to make sure that our sustainability-initiatives are compatible with economic development. So far we have set up some concrete activities that make a difference both economically as well as ecologically.”
An extensive list
The list of Brolliet’s initiatives is extensive. A few years ago, the company set up a sustainable development internal commission to review projects and coordinate activities such as energy audits of buildings (with an A–G classification similar to that of electrical appliances), recycling of construction materials, ensuring “Minergie” standards for all Brolliet construction projects, choosing suppliers according to their ECO21 criteria for energy savings. The aim was strategic and long term. Given that buildings consume a lot of heating, electricity and water, these are all areas where a lot can be done with very simple, almost banal measures that have a cumulative effect. “In late 2010, for example, we installed energy-efficient showerheads in 300 apartments that we manage,” she says. “As of 2011 we are now systematically installing them in all apartments that are occupied by new tenants. We also organise courses for our building managers and awareness campaigns for our tenants, to eliminate waste wherever possible.
The over 600 properties under our management have strict policies in place to use sustainable building and maintenance materials, reduce consumption of fossil fuels, i.e. oil and gas, reduce water consumption, and reduce electricity consumption.” The success of Brolliet SA over the years has rested on adapting to the trends in the marketplace and the needs of its clients. In Geneva, all too often real estate is used as the easiest means of making a fast and hefty buck. Laure Brolliet has taken her company in another direction, focusing on ecological issues internally. She also collaborates with external actors to insure the highest environmental standards of the properties under management. In 2009 and 2010, Brolliet SA received the green label, developed by the Swiss association of real estate agents and granted to real estate agencies that commit to energy efficiency and recycling in the buildings they manage. “We are very proud of this achievement and are doing our best to to obtain the label for 2011.”
Article by David Sidler