Factoring A Neighborhood

When you first encountered factoring in grade school math, it probably seemed like a strange game where you break numbers apart and put them back together again.

Something like

30 = 1x2x3x5

or

AB+AC = A(B+C).

But your teacher probably didn’t mention the most important thing about it:

You can factor reality!

Once you get the hang of it, factoring will give you design superpowers!

Elon Musk. Photo: Steve JurvetsonTim Ferriss. Photo: NEXTconf.

Tech CEO Elon Musk has used factoring to transform the car, energy and space industries.

Bestselling author Tim Ferriss has used it to streamline his life and learn new skills such as Japanese or Tango 10x faster than his peers.

The best part? Giant industries, such as real estate, still have vast untapped potential for factoring.

Whether you’re a land use planner, a developer, or just trying to figure out where and how to live, stick with me to the end, and you’ll be on track to a richer life.

You’ll see why later, when I factor this neighborhood:

But first, here’s what factoring did for me.

How factoring put a million stars in my pocket

Over the years, I have spent tens of thousands of hours crunching numbers and writing software. A big chunk of that was apps I wrote for the PalmPilot.

PalmPilot was the ancient ancestor to the modern smartphone. It was popular between 1996 and 2005, back when “popular” meant three to 25 million customers (now 2.5 billion people own smartphones).

I wrote a Palm astronomy app called to 2sky.

It was like a Google map of the sky. It showed you the view overhead wherever you are in the world. You could zoom in and out, or tap to identify any of a million stars, galaxies or nebulae. The app would animate planets, comets, asteroids and meteor showers anytime between 1904 and 2032. And I crammed all that into 9 megabytes.

Now here’s the kicker: it ran perfectly on a device 400x slower than even the dumbest of today’s smartphones, with 40x less storage.

And yet it ran as smooth as today’s smartphone astronomy apps (some of them even still use bits of my code).

My secret?

You guessed it: factoring.

Spoiler alert: the same trick that let me improve my software’s performance by factors of tens to hundreds can drastically improve the performance of real estate.

How does that make you feel?

Hopefully curious, because I’m going to show you how to do it.

How to Factor

Step 1: Look for Patterns

Patterns are elements that repeat.

In math, elements can be numbers or letters. You’ll find them in expressions like this:

ay + by + cy + dy + ey

or this:

y5+ 5y4 + 10y3 +10 y2 +5 y + 1

In a computer program, you might encounter something like:

Compute a running sum for aby + cdy + efy for 100 values of y and constants a, b, c, d, e, f.

If you love puzzles, look at each expression and figure out which elements repeat and how much they repeat.

Otherwise don’t worry, I’ll spell it out below.

Step 2: Group Repeated Elements

OK, so you probably noticed that in each case, it’s just the y that repeats. In math, that’s the common factor in each term of the expression.

Once you’ve found the common factor, you can simplify the expression so that nothing repeats. That first expression now reads:

(a+b+c+d+e)y

The second reads:

(y+1)5

(Yeah, I know: you need some math chops to see that one. Don’t worry, we’ll take it easy for the rest of this post.)

And for the final example, we precompute g = (ab+cd+ef) before the loop, then stick g inside the loop like this:

Compute a running sum for gy for 100 values of y and constant g

Yay! All the expressions are factored, meaning nothing repeats.

What’s next? Oh. Yeah…

Step 3: Profit!

How much richer did that little bit of theory make me as a programmer?

Multiplications and exponents take a lot more time to compute than additions, so just counting those big ticket items, I saved

  • 4 multiplications in the first example, making it 5 times faster.
  • 7 multiplications or exponents in the second example, making it 8 times faster.
  • 497 multiplications in the third example, making it about 6 times faster.

Now, when I wrote my software, I had:

  • a loop to retrieve star positions from a database.
  • another loop that figured out where the earth was in its orbit.
  • and another that figured out what you could see from where you stood on the earth.

If I factored each loop, its performance would multiply together with the rest to give you this massive speedup, like 5x8x6 = 240x.

For me that was the difference between award-winning software with thousands of ecstatic customers and something impossibly slow and clunky.

You’re probably thinking something like “yeah, but that’s software. Here in the real world…”

Actually, in the real world, factoring works exactly the same. Opportunities to factor abound, and it can blow the lid off your product’s performance.

Case in point: Elon Musk

You’ll find factoring throughout two companies that Elon Musk started and currently directs: SpaceX and Tesla Motors.

Rocket technology took a giant leap forward when SpaceX started 3D printing major components of their engines. Now it’s routine.

Before they did this, rocket motors were built out of many metal parts bolted or welded together in hundreds of places. Each bolt or weld was an opportunity for the rocket to break under heavy load, so they were reinforced, adding a lot of weight. Engines could have part counts in the hundreds to thousands.

The 3D printed Merlin 1D engine cut the part count way down, resulting in a thrust to weight ratio of 181. That’s astonishing because, for decades, engines never performed better than a ratio of 77.

What SpaceX did was like figuring out how to run a 100-yard dash in 4 seconds, when the world record had hovered around 10 seconds for decades.

Then there are the electric cars built by Musk’s other company Tesla Motors. An internal combustion engine has 2,000 moving parts, while Tesla’s electric motor has 20.

By having 100x fewer moving parts, Tesla can affordably design, test and build cars that are drastically safer, faster, more reliable and more efficient than anything that came before.

Notice how, in product design, the numerical advantage of factoring improves quality in many areas at once.

Also notice how a Tesla doesn’t look too different from cars already on the road.

Factoring can give you incredible advantages without having to look weird.

Ready for the big payoff?

Let’s factor some real estate!

Here’s that neighborhood again.

Now let’s run it through our 3 step factoring formula.

Step 1: Which elements repeat?

Elements in this case means physical structures. Here’s my count of repeated elements:

  • 15 houses, each with their own exterior roof and walls.
  • 4 streets, 26 feet wide.
  • 20 Cars and parking for them.
  • 15 Small swimming pools.
  • Assorted Trees and plantings.

Step 2: Combine redundant elements

Here’s what I came up with:

  • One apartment building with 24 apartments.
  • One bike path (shown) or bus lane.
  • One large swimming pool.
  • One large park, mostly forested with native and edible species.

Notice the cafe on the ground floor? Mixing residential/commercial space like this is something you’ll see in New Urbanism, which designs neighborhoods to meet most of your needs within walking distance.

But New Urbanism still bends over backward to accommodate the car and the detached home. That means dedicating amounts of space to parking and roadways that seem absurd next to a factored design.

With efficient bike / bus access, it’s possible to fill the transportation gaps economically with car shares or rentals. This would give people access to the right size car, van or truck when they need it.

Of couse, a bike or bus corridor would need to admit moving trucks at selected times of the month.

Notice also that I didn’t factor out the trees. I actually increased their number on a smaller footprint.

But I would still follow the core factoring strategy of reducing repetition.

This is a sharp departure from many suburbs, which landscape every yard with the same obnoxious fast-growing trees. A few decades later, silver maples, for example, start dropping huge branches on driveways and roofs.

Instead, I would plant as diverse a forest as possible, with plentiful native species. I would select some of these to fix nitrogen and provide leaf mulch to the the nut and fruit trees planted among them.

Step 3: Count your money!

Let’s tally the overall value created for the builder and residents.

Better Amenities

Let’s start with the obvious. The factored property has:

  • A resort-quality swimming pool big enough to swim laps, not just splash around.
  • A ground floor cafe where you can hang out with your neighbors.
  • A forested park large enough for lots of people to play, exercise or relax.
  • Edible landscaping that you can snack on most months of the year.
  • Much less traffic.

Lower cost

  • Land costs 4.8x less per resident, because the factored property has more units on less land.
  • Construction costs 24% less because the apartments share various combinations of walls, roofs and floors. While it does take stronger material to go multi-story, that’s offset by the much shorter utility runs.
  • Heating and cooling costs 2.9x less because of the lower surface area to volume ratio.
  • Roads cost 12x less because there are 4x fewer streets and a 9 foot bus/bike lane can provide twice the level of service as a 26-foot-wide street.
  • Transportation costs 20x less for residents than owning a car.
  • Less hard surface means much less concrete to pour for storm drains.

The total cost to build, own or rent will vary by region depending on the prices of land and materials. Builders could save 50% or more on overall construction costs.  And residents would save so much on transportation, tax, insurance and utilities that their total monthly expenses could fall by 50%, even if they pay more per square foot.

Safer and Healthier:

  • Children don’t have to cross busy streets to visit neighbors in the building.
  • Far more opportunities for face-to-face interaction, so no one remains a stranger for long.
  • The green space can be landscaped to buffer floods and droughts, and planted with fire-resistant species. This is easier to implement and manage on a single property than to enforce over time among many separate houses.
  • Far less air and water pollution from cars and power plants. Car exhaust alone killed 58,000 people in the United States in 2005. That’s more than died in car accidents. Oh, and I’ve factored out most of those, too.
  • Bike commuting provides great health benefits (see below).
  • Because it’s more compact, we can build the factored property closer to urban centers, shrinking commute times. This can drastically increase how much family time the residents enjoy.

Pay close attention to that last item. Most Americans think of suburbs as safer and healthier than apartments, especially for children. But in his book Happy City, Charles Montgomery has chronicled the exact opposite. Bedroom communities with long commutes can become places with no family time at all. Predictably, children end up neglected and alienated: a perfect recipe for gangs, drugs and teen pregnancy.

How factoring reduces stress

Now, I realize that many people will think of  apartments as a big step down from the suburbs. They worry about noise and crowding.

I’ve lived in many apartments over the years, and these issues were mostly a matter of build quality.

So let’s assume good acoustic and visual design and follow a suburbanite’s move to a factored property.

He may grumble about it at first.

But a year later, he has a jolting visit with his doctor.

She says, “what happened to you?”

“What do you mean?”

“OK, here’s your chart. Since last year, you lost 15 pounds. And your blood work and vital signs look a lot better. What changed?

Oh, just a few things. Now he:

  • Commutes by bicycle, which builds exercise into his day.
  • Has time for daily walks with his kids in the forest. More exercise!
  • Snacks on fresh-picked fruit rather than chips.
  • Dines with family and neighbors in a garden-fresh cafe.
  • Worries a lot less about crime and family drama.

Yeah, but will people buy it?

I’ve obviously designed this property to be really “green.”

It uses a small fraction of the material and energy required to build and maintain a suburb. It also offers vastly more opportunities to interact with people as well as wildlife.

Face it, that sounds pretty hippy.

Problem is, in America, “hippy” sounds down-market. Probably because the counterculture and the back-to-the-land movement were all about renouncing materialism.

Well, today green is gold

I discovered that first hand when my neighborhood’s green reputation propped up my home’s value during the housing crash. And I’ve confirmed it through additional research and travel, which I’ll discuss here soon.

Bottom line

A factored housing project will cost the developer much less to build and command a higher price per square foot than traditional detached housing. For the buyer or tenant, it offers a much higher quality of life than a suburb, at lower cost.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ll have a lot more to say about this soon.


If you are a land developer or planner, I invite you to apply for a free Abundance Factor  call.

In this 30-minute videoconference, we’ll map out a strategy to:

  • Position your projects as world leaders in sustainable living.
  • Factor your site plan to multiply its market value and dramatically reduce costs.
  • Attract high-quality partners, buyers and tenants.

I only have a few time slots available, so apply now before they’re all taken.


Images: Steve Jurvetson, NEXTconference, Kev Polk, SpaceX, Tesla Motors, Donald Tong.

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