Oh what a feeling when you’re sleeping on the ceiling

Back in 2011, MIT Media Lab’s Changing Places Group started their CityHome project, which explored how data and technology could make living spaces more flexible, efficient, and reflective of use patterns. Eventually, the group built a prototype micro-apartment with sensor-enabled, gesture and app controllable furniture; the centerpiece of which was a module containing a bed, table, kitchen, storage and other stuff.

The CityHome was part of a larger movement. Mostly focused on micro-apartments (sub 350 sf), this movement saw how furniture could play a critical role in spatial design. Other players included LifeEdited (where I worked for several years) and Yo! Home—the residential arm of Yo! Companies/Yotel/Yo! Companies.

Anyway, fast forward a few years and some of the MIT students decided to bring the tech to the free market. Thus Ori Systems was born.

Ori now sells a less far-out version of the original module direct to developers. It doesn’t have the funky LED lights and gestural controllability, but it moves back and forth depending on user needs and can be voice (Alexa) or app activated (there’s also a nifty control panel). The module contains a bed, desk, and a ton of storage. I saw one in situ a month ago and what impressed me was that it looked—and felt—like a real piece of furniture.

Ori opened up a new class of “robotic” furniture (I’d call it automated or even IoT but whatever)—a class that is now joined by stealth-ish mode Bumblebee Spaces.

Helmed by engineer Sankarshan Murthy—formerly at Tesla and Apple—Bumblebee is building ceiling-mounted furniture systems that use the “third dimension” of space (assuming he means height), as Murthy told The Information (paywall).

It’s a novel approach—one that The Information says might bring a number of regulatory, financial, and psychological barriers, particularly Bumblebee. Ceiling mounted furniture might add a layer of DOB complexity most developers won’t want to be bothered with (both firms are mostly focusing on developers rather than retail). Any elective FFE—particularly that which costs >$10k—is at high risk of being lost on the pro forma editing room floor. And folks might not know what to do with these new-fangled contraptions—much less ones that loom overhead.

The other issue is that architects and developers need to consider these systems in the design DNA of a space. Adding them after the fact provides some utility but not nearly as much as if the systems were integral parts of the design. Making them integral means a developer must commit units to a relatively untested market concept and business model (smaller, furniture-enhanced spaces). In my experience, most developers won’t commit to anything that’s untested.

Then again, urban housing development is mad f’d. Crazy development costs drive developers to churn out high-end units which go vacant while low middle markets are underhoused…so it’s not totally implausible that a developer or two might be willing to do something different.

Indeed, Ori reports their systems will be in 200 units by the end of the year and Bumblebee will be installed in one of coliving company Starcity’s units sometime in the near future. And both companies have raised a bit of capital—$6m for Ori and ~$3m for BB—suggesting furniture-as-gadget is far from a pipedream.

Don’t forget our event May 30th in NYC and Podcast (not time or location dependent). 

Affordability is the freaking amenity

If you have an hour to fill and are interested in the intersection of design and affordable housing, you could do a lot worse things than watch this talk at Harvard’s School of Design’s Reframing Housing from a few weeks ago (below). The panelists represent some of my favorite designy, affordable projects of the last decade or so. Each represents a way to develop in a different urban (or non-urban) condition and all the considerations that condition entails. All are worth knowing about if you don’t already.

From Philly, there was architect Brian Phillips. His shop, ISA, has done of a ton of cool infill projects that incorporate a variety of cost-saving, energy-saving, design-savvy stratagems for affordability. ISA is the design force behind Postgreen homes, makers of the 100k house, a LEED platinum townhouse in Philly’s East Kensington neighborhood that was built for $100/sf. Postgreen—powered by ISA—has done a bunch of similar project with names like Awesometown and Avant Garage. Continue reading “Affordability is the freaking amenity”

Much ADU about something

Around 76% of American housing is single family. One solution to adding affordability and density to this commodious architectural form is accessory dwelling units, aka granny flats (because grandpa, you know, lives underground). ADUs are basically little houses you can toss in your backyard—they can be used by family, a tenant, or Airbnb. They’ve been gaining popularity particularly in California and Oregon, each state lending crucial legislative support.

But a lot of folks paying a mortgage can’t necessarily afford to build a second home, which can easily run $100K+.

Portland-based startup dubbed Dweller has a solution for this shortfall. According to the CityLab, “Dweller fronts the cost of purchasing and installing one-size-fits-all prefabricated ADUs in backyards. Third-party property managers rent out the unit to long-term tenants, and Dweller splits the revenues 70-30 with the homeowner, almost as if the company is leasing the land.” Homeowners can buy back ADU at any time or can purchase one of the prefabs outright.  

Continue reading “Much ADU about something”

Are we over-sharing (housing)?

Last Spring I caught wind of a project called ONESHAREDHOUSE, a self-initiated effort by superstar creative agency Anton & Irene. OSH explored concepts in coliving, inspired by Irene’s formative years in a Dutch lesbian co-housing arrangement (they also made a badass interactive documentary that you should check out). OSH caught the attention of SPACE10, a Copenhagen-based, IKEA-funded “future-living lab” that is tasked with detecting trends that might affect the furniture behemoth’s business in the years to come. One of those trends is “shared living,” and the two parties collaborated to make ONESHAREDHOUSE2030, a research project exploring the future of shared living.

SPACE10 was in NYC this last week and held an event the other night in Brooklyn, which I attended. Some takeaways:

Continue reading “Are we over-sharing (housing)?”

Coliving operator rocking the suburbs

One of our favorite co-living/housing/whatever operators, HubHausraised a $10M series A lead by Social Capital the other day. Whereas most coliving operators focus on multifamily housing in super pricey cities, HubHaus takes on shared living in single-family housing in Bay Area/SV and LA suburbs. While these areas have an abundance of jobs for single, techy types, their suburban housing is decidedly family-friendly.

HubHaus rents out rooms in normal, old suburban houses at very approachable price points (~$1k/month). And the shares give residents a built-in community, which is more important in sleepy, low-density burbs than cities that abound with social opportunity. And given that 76% or so of American housing is single-family, the market potential is huge, something this latest investment attests to.

Continue reading “Coliving operator rocking the suburbs”

The machine that will drive the NIMBYs out of their homes

NIMBYs objections tend to run something like, they want to: protect the character of their neighborhoods, prevent gentrification and maintain affordable housing for existing populations, prevent overcrowding, and so on. But underneath the protests is a more base—if unconscious—financial concern. Often, a large share of the NIMBYs wealth is tied up in their home’s value. Suggestions of easing housing scarcity—the big driver of their personal wealth—can strike them as an existential threat.

But most people have a price. What if the NIMBY could see—and benefit from—the real development potential of their property? That’s the idea behind CityBldr. The Seattle-based startup is using “machine learning on dozens of disparate data sources” to find the “highest and best use” of a property (read: milking the most money from it). They claim their system can help fetch as much as 89% more than conventional valuations. They will help you shop your property to builders and developers and they also have tools that will keep you apprised of potential upzoning—an issue that could be a big deal in California in the next year. Continue reading “The machine that will drive the NIMBYs out of their homes”

NYC gets mod complex

Interest in modular construction is exploding. Modular factors into Katerra’s product offerings. Google is working modular into their Quayside master plan and has commissioned 300 modular units from upstart Factory OS, bound for employee housing in Silicon Valley. And a handful of interesting companies are moving into the space. Now the city of NY wants to go modular. The city’s Modular NYC RFI and RFEIs are looking specifically at modular solutions to help meet De Blasio’s Housing New York 2.0’s ambitions for creating and/or preserving 300k affordable housing units by 2026.

The “I” in the RFI is a brain-dump from “market participants,” explicating how modular will work in a variety of multifamily settings throughout the boroughs. The RFEI “invites expressions of interest for modular affordable housing construction on private sites within the five boroughs,” with the aim of expediting “the pre-development process” for successful RFEI  respondents. These preliminary steps will be shortly followed by an RFP for a project built on city lands. Continue reading “NYC gets mod complex”

Sky’s the limit with biggie smalls apartment

The micro-apartment topic tends to be framed around micro-studios. But the hefty development costs of building an NYC micro studio result in a rent which is 115% of the AMI (area median income). 

The problem is studios require the same plumbing and electric work as larger units (which is why shared kitchen/bath SROs make so much sense). So developers default to building two and three bedroom units, where plumbing and electric costs can be distributed across more beds. Larger units are also seen as a more reliable unit type by lenders, probably because they can be adapted to roommates, couples, and families. 

Cheaper development costs and cheaper debt mean two and three beds can be offered at cheaper price points…to an extent.

Square feet still cost money. A luxury square foot rents for around $6/month in Manhattan, which means a 900 sf two bedroom will set you back $5400. This is a good chunk of change for most.

The world belongs to the developer who can figure out how to bring new units to market without giving away $5k gift baskets.  

Ranger Properties might onto to something with “The Lanes.” Their Long Island City building features 57 micro two and three bedroom apartments—490 and 735 sf, respectively (compared to 900 and 1,200 sf for more conventional units). By shrinking unit sizes, Ranger presumably achieves the economy of scale that keeps development costs low on larger units. But because units are small, they can charge a solid $/sf without elevating rents too much, especially when compared to market comps.  Continue reading “Sky’s the limit with biggie smalls apartment”

Got me looking SRO crazy right now

When big cities gutted their single room occupancy (SRO) inventory in the mid-to-late 20th century—and failed to replace them with Section 8 or anything else—it left a big gap in the market for cheap and flexible housing. The vanishing SRO can be blamed for the birth of the roommate and its consequent squeeze on family-friendly urban housing and—more critically—the birth of the modern homeless crisis. One poll from 1980 found that half of NYC’s homeless population had once lived in SROs. Moreover, what SROs survived the purge became de facto bastions for the uber-poor, reinforcing negative stereotypes about the housing type.  

A recent report by NYU’s Furman Center is renewing interest in the SRO as a viable market-rate housing typology. They argue that small efficiency apartments with shared kitchens and baths (i.e. SRO units) can achieve development and operating costs far lower than conventional apartments; for example, per unit hard costs on SROs are 67% less than normal studio apartments. 

Continue reading “Got me looking SRO crazy right now”

Should Americans have to rent their dreams?

Homeownership rates are near historic lows. Some try to spin this as liberation from the shackles of geography and home maintenance. But others see it as the road to a new form of feudalism. In this fiefdom, the landed rental conglomerates consolidate their wealth. Meanwhile, the renting peasants see their fortunes diminish having been stripped of the one appreciating investment still accessible to commoners. Their chances of breaking free of this cycle become slimmer as the 20% downpayment and securitization of a loan become out of reach due to endemic student loan debt and stagnant wages.

A few new ventures are offering novel ways for would-be homeowners to break this cycle. Companies like Unison, Landed, and Patch Homes are offering homeowners “shared-equity” in home purchases. Consumers get cash toward down payments in exchange for skin in a home’s appreciation (or depreciation). The added funds are being touted as leading to smaller, easier-to-secure mortgages to boot.

Continue reading “Should Americans have to rent their dreams?”