Weina Zhang is the CEO of Z Life Co., a company pushing innovative real estate solutions that prioritize sustainability, efficiency and hyper-community-oriented living. In the early 2000s, she brought fully engineered unitized curtainwall from foreign markets to the U.S. Her proprietary system, M8TRIX, is being used at Midtown by Z Life, a new project designed to foster a thriving, well-connected and highly sustainable urban living community within Las Vegas.
ENR senior editor Aileen Cho chatted with her and the firm's vice president of operations, Anna Olin. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
ENR: Coming from Mongolia, what inspired you to enter the industry?
Zhang: I was a self-made millionaire in China at 21 by reverse-engineering the tourist industry. In the 1990s, tourists would go to an antique store, and tourist guides like I was would take a commission from the store. I realized that if I opened my own store, I could get all the other tourist guides to come to my store.
I landed in New York City in 1998 because I wanted to be a millionaire there. I had no degree and spoke no English. Eventually I moved to Las Vegas and worked for the architect Velden Simpson, who built the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, the Luxor and others. He was my mentor. In Vegas, I found my opportunity.
I started my own company when I was 27 years old. Anna [Olin] began working for me at age 21. We became the No. 3 glazing contractor in the U.S. and one of the contractors for the Freedom Tower in New York. We went from $1 million to $15 million in revenue in three years.
As a woman and minority, have you encountered barriers that you had to break through? Were there skeptics and naysayers?
At age 31, I won a $100-million contract for the Fontainebleau Las Vegas as chief executive of [Zetian Systems Inc.]; it was the largest glass window contract in the U.S. in 2007. How? My quality and pride and my good record. It doesn’t matter if you're a man or woman or what race you are. Can you produce? Can you deliver?
Explain M8TRIX, your innovative approach to ground-up development?
Olin: It was developed from years of us working in construction and watching other developers waste time and money. We asked 'Why are you doing it this way?' They said, 'It's the way we've always done it.' Weina looks at a problem and breaks it down into a more efficient system. We broke down every aspect of development—how the land is acquired, how the design, constructability and delivery are done, and how each process how can be done differently. We developed a synergy—a vertical supply chain and production line to produce the building from concept to completion. It's not about reinventing construction, but about [revamping] the approach and delivery to produce high-quality assets.
We produce a lot with a small team. Under our model, we save 40% on labor costs and 30% on materials costs. We're able to produce at price points that are sustainable in urban core markets.
Zhang: We only have three types of units. All are standardized. We're standardizing mid-rise construction. Our product is repeatable. Land value is so high in urban development. We don’t need all that land.
One big problem is the parking requirements of urban living. Building parking would cost thousands. We provide Teslas as amenity cars. Every five units share one car. As urban dwellers, you can work from home or live close to work. You give up your car. You put your rental into equity as well. We also provide private mortgages at 5% for 30 years. In the end, you live in a community with no financial burden of a car. You build up equity.
Tell me more about Midtown by Z Life.
Olin: It was the first master-planned project in downtown Las Vegas using M8TRIX. In March 2022, we developed the English Hotel. Now there are another four acres adjacent to round out the project master plan. It includes a new urban core for Las Vegas with 3,000 residential units. Currently, there is a shortage of 4,000 units in downtown. This will be a significant solution.