Beware the Curse of the Protean Room

The ‘Protean’ Room
The ‘Protean’ Room

I am writing this from a hotel room of about 17 sqm which I have not left once for the last 7 days. I am halfway through the mandatory 14-day quarantine after travelling during the time of Coronavirus.

This is the first time in my life where I’ve been confined to a limited space for such an extended period of time. The global real estate industry has felt the direct repercussions of the Coronavirus,

As a real estate developer and investor, my business is simply the creation and provision of space for human activity. Residence. Commerce. Entertainment. Wherever I go, I am always observing and thinking about the usage of space, and more specifically, the level of productivity and utility of that space.

I’ve had plenty of time to consider the same for this room I am in. To say the least, I was surprised by the sheer versatility of the 17 sqm that I currently occupy.

Normally, conducting all of the daily activities such as sleeping, cooking, working, exercising, shopping, entertaining etc., would take me across tens, or even hundreds of thousands of square footage of residential and commercial real estate.

Under quarantine, all of that activity is forced into 17 sqm, demanding me to squeeze every last drop of utility out of this protean room that keeps shifting forms to accommodate my needs.

Slowly, this room has become my bedroom, living room, dining room, gym, work place, study, laundry space, kitchen, lounge, and even a shopping mall through the use of my computer.

I’ve even learned to settle into a sort of temporary routine.


Hypothetically speaking, what if this situation was not temporary? Would it be possible for me to live the rest of my life confined to this room, provided the same systems stayed in place?

The answer would be a daunting ‘yes’.

We’ve already seen millions of people compelled to quarantine themselves in their homes during the coronavirus. We’ve also seen a rapid emergence of adaptive technologies and systems to accommodate this new reality, such as automated delivery systems, use of drones and robots, and even the telehealth industry.

People have also become more immersed into their devices, ‘digitising’ their attention. Virtual Reality devices can now take them everywhere without going anywhere.

If this trend continues, in a very extreme case a reality where most people spend most of their time in one space could be possible. This would undoubtedly have an immense impact on the real estate industry, making a large percentage of our existing structures obsolete, at least under their current utility.

Although I am intrigued by the idea of a single space having so many uses, as I am currently experiencing, this kind of reality of confinement with little to no human interaction is sure to be very destructive.

According to this article by Psychology Today, solitary confinement can “cause changes in the brain, possibly leading to more serious consequences such as depression and other mood disorders.” In an extreme case where an ex-inmate was put in solitary confinement for 30 years, the hippocampus in his brain shrank, which “[relates] to learning, memory, and spatial awareness.”

I call this neurological degeneration through confinement the “Curse of the Protean Room”. Although after a week I only feel a mild case of loneliness, I can relate to how a prolongation of the situation could be extremely damaging.

Investment and Development as an Extension of Your Philosophy

There is a saying that says you can tell a lot about a person by looking at his library. The titles on the shelf reflect his interests, affinities, and even hopes and dreams.

I say the you can also tell a lot about a person by looking at his or her investment portfolio.

Generally speaking, you invest in the direction of your optimism. By investing in something, you are expressing that you believe the world will move in a direction that favours whatever it is that you are investing in (investor), or that you can make it become favoured by the world (developer).

It is a reflection of your philosophy. Your beliefs.

(You could argue that this is not the case for hard-core ‘technical investors’ in the equities market. But I don’t consider them ‘investors’, more as ‘traders’)

As real estate investors and developers, we have to adapt. We have to make hypothesis about what kind of world will come to pass, and invest in the direction of our optimism.

So what kind of world do you envision? One where people live isolated in multifarious protean rooms, or one more similar to the one we’ve known so far?

Whatever that world is, I know where I’d like to be in it.


Sam Lee

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