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). 

Pizza + PropTech with David Friedlander and Dror Poleg

If you’re in NYC on Wednesday, May 30–or need an excuse to visit–come out to Pizza and PropTech. Dror Poleg and I will be giving short talks discussing the latest in real estate trends. You will be rounding out the conversation and consuming pizza. Please join us.

Purchase more info and tickets here. 

Space analytics, starchitecture, construction tech and more on Dislocation Podcast

When I’m not blogging, I’m talking into microphones (I do lots of other stuff too). Last week, I spoke into one of those microphones with my friend and fellow consultant Dror Poleg. In our half-hour podcast, we cover:

  • On-demand office venture Convene’s acquisition of space analytics firm Beco.
  • WeLive’s foray into starchitecture with the hiring of Bjarke Ingels.
  • Google’s Duplex and its implications for real estate.
  • How SB 827’s death might presage a wave of pro-housing policy reforms.
  • The recent $45m investment in Entekra and what it could mean for the advancement of construction technology.

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)?”

When will we stop building in dumb places?

Conversations about the future of real estate tend to cover topics like autonomous vehicles’ impact on place-making, coliving, modular and tech-enabled construction, and robotics. These fun topics allow us to put on our Muskian caps and wax about the possibility of how wonderful things could be in the future.

What’s less often discussed is the bad, highly-probably stuff. And the baddest and most probable stuff is global warming, which will likely make many major markets virtually development-proof in the not-so-distant future.

As of 2010, 39% of America’s population lived directly in coastal areas that include virtually every major city (the number was projected to jump to 47% by 2020); most of these areas will be subject to the impact of sea level rises and their attendant storms. A recent report underscored this, suggesting that 41M Americans live in areas, both coastal and inland, that are susceptible to 100-year flood (read: big-ass flood). This is a major revision from FEMA’s previous 13M estimate.  

Continue reading “When will we stop building in dumb places?”

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”

The (construction) robots are coming

“The machines will never replace the human,” Jeff Buczkiewicz, president of the Mason Contractors Association of America, told the NY Times regarding the role of robotics and masonry. Jeff was speaking to the Times at the Spec Mix Bricklayer 500 bricklaying competition (who knew, right?), where fast-handed masons race to build high-quality walls in the least amount of time.

Also at the competition was SAM, a $400k bricklaying robot by Construction Robotics. SAM was slower than the humans (who could lay 7-9 bricks/minute) and didn’t have the “human element” Buczkiewicz claims is necessary to lay down bricks—elements like opioid addiction and onsite deaths, we assume. Nevertheless, the Times wasn’t so convinced the masons are safe from the robots.

The article feels portentous. Things are bad and seem to be getting worse for America’s contractors, masons included. Labor shortages are delaying projects and adding expense. The workforce is aging and younger folks are showing little interest in learning construction trades. The only people who might not want robotic intervention are the current contractor labor force, who are crushing it. Continue reading “The (construction) robots are coming”