Born in L.A., Clare De Briere has spent her career creating special places for her fellow Angelenos and visitors. Since 2018, Clare has served as Executive Vice President and Regional Manager in Los Angeles for construction and development company Skanska USA. Her female-led development team will soon be opening 9000 Wilshire, the most sustainable office building in Beverly Hills.

Since this interview took place, Wayne Ratkovich, an early inspiration in Clare’s career, has sadly passed away. His L.A. Times obituary can be read here.

Clare spoke with LA Forum Board Member El Larson about the importance of adaptive reuse, the benefits of biophilic design, and the welcome challenge of designing a Net Zero building.


Interview date: September 14, 2023

El Larson
Can you share a little bit about what drew you into development, particularly focusing on office buildings and now adaptive reuse?

Clare De Briere
I was a history major at UCLA and took a history of architecture class and an intense class on the history of L.A., both taught by Thomas Hines. He’s a fantastic writer about real estate and architecture. He told a story about how the way people build cities or communities can change the way they operate, and how innovations can literally change the course of human existence. I was like, “Wow, that's amazing – I want to be an architect. I want to be able to make those changes and create better places for people.”

I went to the only person I knew involved in real estate, [developer and preservationist] Wayne Ratkovich, and I said, “I'm interested in becoming an architect.” He said “I don't think you really want to do that, but if you decide you want to, let me introduce you to Marty Borko.” And Marty Borko, who's now the executive director of ULI’s district council here in L.A., was opening an L.A. office for a New York architecture firm.

He hired me as a marketing assistant putting together proposals.  He let me sit in on design meetings, let me go to presentations and pitches, and I kept thinking, “Wow, the architects can create a perfect building, but the developer gets to say, ‘paint it pink and make round windows’ or whatever, and I thought, ‘I want to be on that side of the table, I want to be the one making those decisions.” I worked for the architecture firm for a year and went to talk to Wayne, and he ended up hiring me as a developer.

I got to learn from one of the best visionaries in real estate and development. He never wavered from the idea that our jobs as developers isn't to build buildings, our jobs are to create places for people to live and to work and to be. And we need to create the best places for people we possibly can. That was the driving force.

It wasn't necessarily about doing adaptive reuse, historic preservation, office, retail or residential. It was about finding opportunities and figuring out what is the best opportunity for people to enjoy this place. My first project I developed was the parking structure in the supermarket behind the Wiltern Theatre. Not the most glamorous thing I've ever done, but it turns out we actually built one of the highest grossing Ralph’s supermarkets in their chain. It was something that the neighborhood desperately needed. Residential was just starting to grow in that neighborhood and now every time I've gone in there, it's been slammed. It was really about trying to figure out how to build what people wanted and needed.

From there I started in property management, learning how buildings operate, which I think is really, really important for anybody who wants to develop. They need to know how tenants actually use space, what are the things that you should never put into a building or always put into a building, how leases work – that functional side of being a developer.

Then I worked in leasing, I did construction management for Tenant Improvement and for some of the new buildings we were doing, and then development management. I went to grad school full time while I was working. I just kept learning – every single project was different. Some of them were industrial-to-office redevelopments, some of them were office-to-office, creating new places and doing it differently, making it more sustainable.

Then I retired, which was also kind of fantastic, and traveled for a year and a half. When I met the people from Skanska, I had never felt such an alignment of values and purpose. I couldn't say no, and we've been having a fantastic run here over the last five years, which has been great.

That's excellent. You have such a holistic experience in real estate, which is so important for thoroughly understanding what's going to be effective in a space.

Yes – and what people want. That's one of the things that was very much in common with Skanska – our mission is to build for a better society. Yes, we build some amazing buildings designed by amazing architects. But they're not coming from a place of ego, they're coming from a place of what's needed, and we want to give a piece of art back to the community, or we want to create an icon for this part of the city. And it always drives back to: what is our customer experience? What is the experience of the people who are going to be living or working in these buildings? Are we going to make their days better? Are we going to make them healthier? Are we going to make them live happier, more productive, more efficient lives? How do we do that?

We only get to touch one little part of a person's day, but it can be really impactful. Walking into an office space that feels good and healthy, where you know people care about your health and your well-being. That's going to make you feel better when you walk in the door. There is hard data that shows that this actually works, people are more productive, they are at work longer, they are healthier, more efficient, happier. I don't think there's any way, now that we have that data, that anybody should be building anything that doesn't focus on that.

Can you talk a little bit about biophilic design in the 1811 Sacramento concept you’ve proposed in the Arts District?

We bought that property a number of years ago, went through a [design] competition with three firms and selected Perkins + Will. There was great sympathy between our two corporate cultures. We gave them a pretty big challenge: we want to build a truly Net Zero building. We started looking at timber, obviously, because that's the best way to reduce embodied carbon. Which, in the City of L.A. is not terribly efficient if you want to build anything more than two or three stories because you have to clad everything, so you're actually doubling the amount of material you have to use.

We created a concept that is unique to our market. I believe the buildings we’re designing need to reflect the environment in which they're built. The US Bank building that we're in now [Skanska’s L.A. office], is a beautiful, iconic building. But this building could be in New York, Hong Kong, Paris – it doesn't necessarily speak to the environment that it's in. We wanted to create a concept that really was of the place where it's being built. And the thing that's so awesome about Los Angeles, or Southern California in general, is our weather.

This also came from the idea that one of the things we all had in common post-COVID was that we loved getting out and walking. We wondered – how do we take that lesson and put it into an office building? How do we bring that connection to nature and fresh air into an office building?

In our first project, 9000 Wilshire, we have fifty huge, operable windows. The building gets this beautiful ocean breeze coming up from Santa Monica and has cross breezes all the way around. It's just incredible how cool it is, and how much airflow you get from these operable windows. So we made a bolder move with this concept with Perkins [+ Will] to say, “How can we create a covered space that feels like it's indoor space but it's basically open air so you get fresh air, and you can still plug in your computers and work all day?” It's not a balcony space, because in L.A. it is hard to use because it gets so hot. So we're trying to figure out how to give people the opportunity to work outside without the inconvenience of working outside.

We developed this concept of a scrim that Perkins + Will designed and we collaborated with Zahner to make it functional, affordable, and practical. It's just enough of an angle to bounce the light up or down, but it doesn't impact the view, which was also really important because we wanted to make sure that people had great views. And, there's a big open park on top of the parking podium facing downtown.

With Skanska, we always say we build buildings to last centuries, not decades. This building in its lifetime may go from being an office building, to an apartment building, to a hospital, to a university, to a museum. Our responsibility to sustainability means we had better make sure that building is going to survive for a century or two and have the flexibility to be anything. We tried to build in as much flexibility as we could, but design it in such a way to have the lowest carbon impact that a new building can have. We wanted to think about that carbon for the full lifespan of that building.

Biophilia had a big impact on that. We have a deck on the very top of the roof for the tenants, a big park space on the seventh floor, and green everywhere in the building. We've designed watering systems and drainage systems so that you can have a really interesting, meaningful experience of nature while you're in that building.

What are some of the hurdles for getting that manifested and built?

We have some pretty substantial hurdles. One of them is that the location in the Arts District isn't quite where it needs to be yet to kick off building a 300,000 square foot office building. And this isn't necessarily the best time for a developer to be starting a new office building, so I think we need to have the market recover a little bit. That's the practical, financial side of it. Secondly, one of the challenges of that kind of space is that for a single tenant, it works amazingly well. But the likelihood of finding a single tenant that's going to take a 300,000 square foot building is not terribly high. We may find somebody who will take half of it, but it's going to be hard to find somebody to take the whole building. We really need to figure out how to design those open air spaces in a way that provides privacy for the tenants. If we have five or six different tenants in that building, they're not going to want to have every other tenant see what they're doing in their space. So we have to tweak the design a little bit to figure out how to make it work really efficiently for a multi-tenant building. Those are pretty practical concerns. The last hurdle is that we actually have to get the entitlements to build the building. So we're in that process now.

Have you seen an increased implementation of initiatives like ULI’s Building Healthy Places, WELL and Fitwel since COVID?

Definitely. ULI’s Building Healthy Places Initiative started well before COVID. How do we make our physical environment healthy for the people who are occupying it? That's everything from the width of streets to having low VOC materials when you're laying down carpeting or flooring. It's big, broad, urban planning thinking, and then drilled down to this very, very small issue of – do you have a bowl of fresh fruit versus mini Hershey's on your desk? The Building Healthy Places Initiative tried to say, “here are the 15 things you need to do to create a healthy environment.” That idea of fresh air, natural light, a visual and physical connection to nature, to the outdoors, and to plant material. And also being a walkable place.

ULI started in the early 90s with Smart Growth. If you're growing a city, where do you want to grow your city? This is a perfect story for adaptive reuse, as well – you want to grow your city where you don't have to build a road, parking, retail – it's all already there. All you’re going to do is infill development, building in a neighborhood where there's already infrastructure. From my first day [at Skanska] I said, if you want to develop in L.A., you need to start following the transit lines, because over the next 20, 50 or 100 years, that's where people are going to live and work because that's going to be the only way to get around.

That's all part of Smart Growth – you go where the infrastructure is. If you do that, then you have a much more environmentally sustainable way to develop and a path to development, but you also have a more sustainable human environment. I don't know if it needs to be the 15-minute city, but it’s that idea of having everything you need relatively close. The glory of doing that in a city like L.A. is you can have 20 of those neighborhoods, and they're all connected.

We have all these different environments to choose from, and it's all within this wonderful context of Los Angeles. The more we think about how we connect, and how we can use our transit infrastructure to make those connections, then we can really start thinking about the Smart Growth and the Building Healthy Places initiatives looking at infill locations, and not having to constantly tear down trees and forests or deserts or whatever it is we're tearing down and constantly building new communities. We should be able to do that within the confines of our built environment already.

Are there other projects that you're working on that you're really excited about that are moving the needle in meaningful ways?

Yes - 9000 Wilshire. On July 31 we got our temporary certificate of completion which was amazing. It's a little project but it's a really powerful project. It's the first new construction LEED Platinum building in the city of Beverly Hills. It has a green wall that goes the entire length of the long side of the building, indoor-outdoor space on three of the four floors, and the 50 operable windows that I mentioned. We've put in 12 EV chargers and another 19 for which we put in the infrastructure so you can have a whole fleet of EV cars, we have a 10,000 gallon cistern that is constantly rotating the water for all the landscaping which saves 73,000 gallons a year in water.

There are two stairwells in the building. One of them is utilitarian; in the other one we put these awesome Tom Dixon chandelier lights and fun graphics and signs that say, ‘put the well in stairwell’ or ‘take the stairs!’ and we're really trying to get people to use all the good stuff we put in there. We did everything we could do to make it as healthy as possible, including showers and bike storage.

8633 Wilshire, designed by SOM, is a little building – three and a half stories, about 43,000 square feet. It's right on the transit line – that's why we're in Beverly Hills and developing these buildings. It's obviously a great market, but it's right on that new transit line Skanska is building up to Beverly Hills. One of the lessons learned from 9000 Wilshere is that it's a bigger building underground than it is above ground. Four full stories below ground, it's only three and a half stories above. That is not sustainable – everything else we did was super sustainable, but that was not sustainable. Beverly Hills has a very low height limit on Wilshire Boulevard, and they don't allow above grade parking.

We are proposing an AGV system ​(automated guided vehicle system with Volley), to park the same number of cars in half the space. It cuts two months out of the construction schedule – and eliminated 700 truck trips (a much higher carbon cost than regular car trips). That’s a 44% reduction in embodied carbon using the system as opposed to building a traditional parking garage.

From an operational standpoint, you drive into a lift, turn your car off, lock it. It goes down on a lift and little electric robots park it. The system is all electric so we have no carbon emissions. Once you turn your car off, you're done. That cuts it significantly from an operational carbon standpoint. And it's great from a customer service standpoint. You're always going to be able to come in and get the best spot in the lot, and all the time that saves.

Those are the kinds of innovations that Skanska is really good at – driving sustainability, driving our customer focus, and ultimately reducing operating costs for tenants.

What are some of the biggest barriers you see, in tenants and landlords' ability to address climate change? Budget, red tape, design?

Tenants don't necessarily want to pay more to be in a better building. They will choose the better building, all things being equal. Some of them will choose the better building paying higher rents. But most tenants are really focused on the practicality of, ‘I have to run my business, this building is going to cost me a million dollars more a year than this building.’ I think we have to start to shift that cost decision to understand that 80% of our costs are coming from our employees, not from rent or anything else. So if your employees are going to be a lot happier in your space, and they're going to be more productive, it's probably worth that million dollars for the rent you're paying to have happier, healthier employees. I don't think every employer believes that or gets it – some do. The ones that do, move into our buildings and buildings that are highly sustainable.

There's not a lot of red tape associated with developing it. It's a cost issue, it costs more to build healthier buildings. Even just getting certification alone is an expensive thing, but I think those certifications are important, and that’s why we focus on spending the money to do so. But it's really a cost issue, both for the tenants and for the landlords.

Investments are crucial aspects of development. Can you discuss some financing models or investment strategies that you've employed on building projects?

Skanska is unique because we self-finance 100% of the cost of our developments, so we don't have to worry about financing. However, we are very focused on the financing of our buyers. When we build a building, we lease it out, stabilize it, and generally sell it. We're very focused on how we make this the most valuable asset for an institutional buyer. Generally they will use debt and basically have their own equity.

Skanska not only designs trophy-plus buildings, we also focus on our ESG. Skanska was just voted the fourth best company in the world to work at for women. Not construction development company, company across the board.

In the 50s and 60s, Skanska focused on this idea of diversity. [Skanska] brought women in, because that was their version of diversity, at the time there were very few ethnic minorities in the Nordics. The nice thing is that the same ethos follows through. So when we get into a country like the United States, our diversity is unlimited, literally. But it comes from that same Swedish goal of diversity being a good thing. And even though their initial approach to diversity was only bringing women in, it has carried over and grown and ballooned and become what it is.

You've been in the industry for a while, how have you seen it change? Particularly from a woman's perspective, and then also in terms of diversity and inclusion?

I've been in this business for over 30 years, and it has changed dramatically over that time period. It has not changed enough, and I don't think it is reflective, necessarily, of the city we live in. L.A. is one of the most diverse cities in the world and I don't think our real estate industry reflects that yet. However, the times that I am the only woman in a meeting and the only woman in the room are getting farther apart and they're becoming more rare. Conversely, I am probably more likely to be in a meeting with all women than I am in a meeting with all men, which is saying a lot. I think from a DE&I standpoint, there is a much greater openness to the LGBTQ community. There is a real intention around driving racial and ethnic diversity as well. I think the intentionality is there for most companies.

We do it because we sincerely believe that having a diverse team makes us better, stronger, and more resilient. Some developers, construction companies, and people in this field do it because they need to check that box. It's better if it's part of your efforts, and at your core you value it, but getting that diversity, regardless of how or why it's happening, is critical.

The support around underrepresented people in this business is also a lot better. ULI has an LGBTQ group, an African American group, a Latinos group, and a women's group that is now celebrating 10 years. There are organizations that are really good at giving support and building underrepresented people up, and that's really starting to have a positive impact. We now tend to have more diverse teams because people have an intention around it. If you have intention around it, it will happen. It's not where it needs to be by any stretch, but it's getting a lot better.

What advice do you have for aspiring real estate developers, particularly women looking to enter the field and specialize in office building development?

Find a mentor. That is one of the most important things you can do when you are starting off in any business. Seek out both formal and informal mentoring opportunities. ULI for example has two mentoring programs – one for young leaders and one for mid-career people. Reach out to people whose work you admire. Let them know that you are just starting out and you want to hear their story – how they got to where they are. And make that meeting as easy for them as possible. Ask them at the end of the meeting if you can reach out again in six months or a year and then follow up.

Build your network, find peer-to-peer mentors, people who are in the same place you are and stay in touch. You need to actively own your career path – manage it the same way you would manage a project.

Photo Credits:
9000 Wilshire, Los Angeles, CA. Skanska, Neil M. Denari Architects and HLW. 
8633 Wilshire, Los Angeles, CA. Skanska, SOM.
1811 E. Sacramento St., Los Angeles, CA. Skanska, Perkins & Will.
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