Who does what in real estate development?

One way we like to explain development is with an analogy to filmmaking:

Real Estate Development Chain of Command

(Here’s a printable PDF of this graphic.)


We’ll try to limit the jargon, but some can’t be avoided. Here’s a running list of industry terms that we couldn’t help using in our writing. Hover over any dotted underlines in our posts to see these definitions, and let us know if there’s anything we can do to make our writing more accessible!

  • Area Median Income (AMI)

    AMI is a nearly universal metric used by regulators in the United States to determine if an apartment can be considered “affordable”. It varies depending on household size, and “affordable rents” are typically set at 30% of a household’s income, but it’s far more complicated than that. We’ll delve into a more detailed explainer in the future.

  • departure / variance

    Allows a building to deviate from the zoning code. Departures and variances are project-specific, and different cities set different rules. For example, Seattle doesn’t permit, under any circumstances, extra height or different uses from what is zoned. A project would need to change the underlying zoning itself, requiring City Council approval. Meanwhile, Philadelphia and New York do grant variances for these types of requests.

  • design-build firm

    An architect and general contractor rolled into one.

  • equity

    Like the down payment on a house: cash used to finance a project, that isn’t a loan. This cash usually comes from third-party investors, sometimes from the developers themselves, and sometimes from public funders who want to chip in for things like historic preservation or affordable housing.

    Lenders (usually banks) usually set a maximum “loan-to-cost” and “loan-to-value” ratio for their loans. This usually ranges from 60–80%, depending on how risky they think the project sounds. This means that developers need to raise the remaining 20–40% of the development cost and contribute it as equity.

  • gentrification

    For some, this term simply means changes in a neighborhood that’s becoming more upscale in character. At Bramble, however, we use this term as we believe Ruth Glass originally intended: involuntary displacement of residents or businesses, driven by said changes.

  • net-zero-energy building

    A building that generates enough renewable energy on-site to offset its energy consumption. In 2010, the Department of Energy attributed 41% of US energy consumption to residential, commercial, and warehouse buildings. Most of this energy is used to heat, cool, and light the interiors.

  • pro forma

    A spreadsheet that lays out a project’s budget. Developers use these to determine if the project “pencils”—in other words, if it’s feasible. Developers usually start with two pro formas: (1) A development pro forma balances the costs vs. funds to build the project, and (2) An operating pro forma shows how the project will make money after it’s built.

  • transit-oriented development (TOD)

    Basically, TOD means denser development around transit stations that mixes retail, offices, housing, and other amenities, making it easier to live our lives within walking distance of transportation. Equitable TOD seeks to develop around transit in ways that do not disproportionately harm or displace historically vulnerable communities, including Black, Latinx, Native, or low-income communities.

  • uses — commercial

    Most commonly offices, hotels, medical centers, shops, and restaurants.

  • uses — industrial

    Warehouses and manufacturing.

  • uses — mixed-use

    The most common example of this is apartments or condos built above a ground floor of shops or restaurants.

  • uses — residential

    Apartments or condos.

  • value engineering (VE)

    Shaving down a design to fit costs within budget. In a booming economy, as construction costs rise, a project usually undergoes VE several times over the years of development. Used in a (common) sentence: “We’d originally planned on brick siding, but had to VE it down to cement panels.”

  • zoning

    Regulations overlaid on maps. They delineate, for example, what types of uses and what size buildings are allowed.