Former Olympic competitors and founders of Podium Developments realize the need for better student housing

Life lessons have a way of inspiring results.

For Bernard Luttmer, 36, and Oskar Johansson, 38 — founding partners of Podium Developments — their housing experiences as Olympic competitors in sailing, and as university students, have helped hone the vision they have for their buildings.

Podium’s latest project, University Studios, is an eight-storey, 308-unit condominium to be built in Oshawa’s education hub that includes Durham College and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology which, together, have an enrollment of approximately 24,000 students. Co-developing the project is Markham-based Building Capital, a specialist developer and investor in student living and also commercial real estate.

The condo units, called SmartStudios, will be priced at $149,990, and aimed specifically at students, as well as first-time investors.

“I had studied on exchange abroad, in Sweden. Dormed in one school and visited others in the community,” says Johansson, 38, originally from Burlington.

“We’ve lived in some of the worst student housing ourselves,” adds Luttmer, 36, who grew up in Pickering.

“From our first project, we saw an obvious need to provide students with better housing,” Luttmer says. Over the past 12 years, Podium has completed 24 projects in Kingston, Toronto, Guelph and now in Oshawa with University Studios. “We use the feedback that we get from previous projects to improve the next project we take on.”

Offering three suite options at 274 square feet, 366 square feet and 376 square feet, University Studios’ units will include a kitchenette; an Internet-enabled study niche; a 3-piece bathroom; and main living area with a TableBed — a pull-down bed that converts to a USB-equipped dining/work. A coffee table, couch and flat-screen TV are also included.


“Students just need to bring their sheets and pillows,” Johansson says about the units. “They don’t tend to accumulate a lot of stuff in their first three years of tenancy, so we give a fully furnished suite . . . I travelled for five years when I was competitively sailing, and I was literally living out of a suitcase.”

“It’s a step above the dorm room, which is typically 150 square feet, and doesn’t have a private kitchen or bathroom. This is a hybrid in between,” adds Johansson.

Johansson and Luttmer first met as boys with a shared passion for competitive sailing at the Canadian Olympic-training Regatta at Kingston (CORK).

They went on, with another friend A.J. Keilty, to attend Queen’s University, in Kingston, and were all part of the university’s sailing team. Luttmer and Johansson later sailed for Canada in the 2004 Olympics, in Athens, Greece.

After graduation, the trio formed Podium Developments and Varsity Properties, the latter a property management firm built on Keilty’s expertise in the hospitality industry. Engineers by training, Johansson and Luttmer took their first steps into real estate with the purchase of a Kingston residential building as an investment project. It turned out to be a steep learning curve: Luttmer says the building was given a Golden Cockroach award handed out by Queen’s University students to the worst landlord in the neighbourhood known locally as the student ghetto. That prompted Johansson and Luttmer to tear down the building and construct a new student residence: University Suites, the first project for Podium Developments.

Now working on their Oshawa project, with a 2018 completion date, Johansson and Luttmer believe parents of prospective post-secondary students — and investors interested in leasing units — will be their buyers

“When parents pick up a place for the kids, they often run into problems trying to manage it,” says Johansson.

“Typically you get a four- or five-bedroom place, and you have to manage three or four other tenants. And you have to depend on your kid to pick up the rent cheque every month, deal with any property issues that may come up.

“This is just easier.”

For Rudy Wallman, of Wallman Architects in 2006, University Studios was an opportunity to work on a project with a different focus and scale from his large-project clients including Tridel, Minto and Menkes.

Research into student life led to a design that would create a hub on each floor, such as a full kitchen, dining room, lounge and laundry area. Ground floor amenities include meeting rooms, fitness facility, outdoor lounge with barbecue and dining area, and bicycle parking.

“I went through those (student) stages myself,” says Wallman. “Early on, students are more interested in living situations with shared spaces … As you get into the upper years, there are other priorities. You still want some social time, but you start spending more time with academics.

“Research indicated that students were happier with spaces with complete privacy. You’d rather not have a communal kitchen, and certainly not a communal bathroom.

“This is also something coming out of the micro-unit movement that’s started in cities like LA. Toronto has a condo — Smart House — at Queen and University. It’s virtually the same idea, with as much built-in cabinetry as possible.”

The centrepiece of each University Studios suite is the TableBed. “It’s not your traditional Murphy bed,” says Wallman. “We took it a step further because of the unit size, so that it folds up to become a space for eating or studying. The manufacturer actually designs products for the military, so it’s a heavy duty bed, long-lasting and low-maintenance.”


‘Man, your house is nice!’

One student discovers a world behond living in residence

Alexa Boyle, 22, is from Napanee and is in the three-year music business management program at Durham College. After a stint in student residence, she moved to a student-focused townhome complex, called The Taylorwood, by Podium Developments.

Q: Where did you live before moving into The Taylorwood?

A: I was living on res at Durham College two years ago and right away I was thiking about where I could live next. At the time (Podium Developments) was just building their property: The Taylorwood.

The residence was not the greatest place to live in. The rooms are so old. You have really loud neighbours, all the time. And the food plan is super expensive. The whole experience, it was just boring and expensive — especially since I am paying for university myself.

Q: Why did you decide to go with The Taylorwood?

A: The other options were really overwhelming. You would have to rent your own furniture, and they didn’t seem like the friendliest of places. Meanwhile, The Taylorwood was fully furnished, they have housekeeping, cable and Internet — all the good stuff is all included. I didn’t have to worry about trying to find or rent a bed, or paying Internet bills or cable — stuff like that.

Right now, I am living at one of the townhomes . . . I am sharing it with four other girls. It’s great to have your own kitchen. I can make meals when I want and not worry about missing dinner if I have a late class. Also, (property manager) Varsity does a good job of providing for students. They have a personal touch; they know your name and program. If you have a problem, you just send them an email. Like one time, the toilet was running constantly. I messaged them on a Saturday, and 30 minutes later someone was there to fix it. He told me what was wrong and what to do the next time it happens, or just email them.

Q: Who helped you choose this option?

A: When I started looking at the property, I got opinions from my parents, my friends’ parents. My parents think it’s great — they think it’s better than their own house. My Mom says she wants my kitchen! It’s so new, with granite countertops. My parents’ house is a bit out-dated. But literally, everyone’s parents said the same thing: “Man, your house is nice.”

Q: What do you think about the new University Studios building?

A: They sent emails to residents at The Taylorwood. It’s right across the street from us, literally steps away from the campus. That’s pretty cool. Not every school can accommodate that kind of space to build more student housing. I heard [Podium Developments] also did well in Kingston, so I guess there’s a market for this kind of housing.

I would live there if I was studying more, if I had one more year or if I was going to university. Eventually, you don’t necessarily want to live with other people. You want your own space. At the same time, it’s great to have amenities like a common room. You know, space to hang out with other people.

Q: What about units that are just 274-to-376 square feet?

A: I don’t mind the small size. It’s good, actually — easy to maintain. And the bed flips up so you get more space. I like that idea, not losing the footage of the area. The kitchen is small but you still have room to do stuff, get groceries and not live off of pizza.

I think it’s really affordable, even for an international student who is new and maybe does not want to live with other people. The whole aspect of it — I have not seen anything like that in Oshawa or anywhere around. This will give students a nice place to live and study.


By the numbers

308: Numbers of units in the eight-storey University Studios. Units range from 274, 366 and 376 square feet each.

24: Common amenity rooms in the building. Ground floor amenities include fitness facility, social lounge and student friendly retail. Upper floor amenities offer a social hub for students featuring full kitchen, dining and laundry areas.

8-foot-6: Ceiling and window height in each unit.

24 inch: European style condo appliances, including a two burner built-in electrical rangetop, to save space.

40 inch: Size of flat-screen TV in each unit.

1: high speed internet port per unit + wifi throughout the building

1: USB charging station built into the TableBed

1: TableBed per room. Each bed is roughly 62 x 90 inches — queen-sized