Air BnB Will Begin Designing Houses in 2019

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After launching a home-sharing revolution, Airbnb’s founders started asking themselves, “What’s next?” They successfully created a global network of more than 5 million homes, castles, and treehouses for rent, and their business is worth an estimated $38 billion. But what else could Airbnb become?

It’s a question that led chief product officer and cofounder Joe Gebbia to start Samara, a futures division of Airbnb, in 2016, meant to develop new products and services for the company. Gebbia’s answer to what Airbnb can be next: architect and urban planner. Not just the company that provides the housing–the company that provides the houses.

Today, Samara is announcing a new initiative called Backyard, “an endeavor to design and prototype new ways of building and sharing homes,” according to a press statement, with the first wave of test units going public in 2019. In plain language, that means Airbnb is planning to distribute prototype buildings next year.

The name “Backyard” might imply that Airbnb just wants to build Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), those small cottages that sit behind large suburban houses and are often rented on Airbnb. But Backyard is poised to be much larger than ADUs, in Gebbia’s telling. Yes, small prefabricated dwellings could be in the roadmap, but so are green building materials, standalone houses, and multi-unit complexes. Think of Backyard as both a producer and a marketplace for selling major aspects of the home, in any shape it might come in.

“Backyard investigates how buildings could utilize sophisticated manufacturing techniques, smart-home technologies, and gains vast insight from the Airbnb community to thoughtfully respond to changing owner or occupant needs over time,” Gebbia says. “Backyard isn’t a house, it’s an initiative to rethink the home. Homes are complex, and we’re taking a broad approach–not just designing one thing, but a system that can do many things.”

As grandiose as that sounds–and ironic, given that Airbnb itself may be responsible for measurable increases in real estate pricing–there is a real need to rethink housing. The UN predicts the world will construct 2.5 trillion more square feet of buildings worldwide by 2060–which, as Gebbia points out, is the equivalent to another Paris every week. Buildings are environmental nightmares, too, contributing to 39% of CO2 emissions in the U.S.

Gebbia says there is a moral imperative to ensure that new homes are designed well, with a small environmental footprint, and he suggests Backyard is up to the task. But the initiative also represents a significant opportunity for Airbnb to diversify its business. The company is a digital product, after all, ever vulnerable to being replaced by a hungry competitor. Buildings are physical entities. They’re real estate and the world’s infrastructure. A software company that wants to future-proof itself could do worse than investing in buildings.

“Probably” a Backyard prototype. [Photo: Samara]
Airbnb didn’t share many specifics about what it’ll release next year, but my conversation with Gebbia, in addition to some of Fast Company‘s previous coverage of Airbnb’s futures lab, offer some hints.

The spaces will be designed to be shared, from the ground up. What exactly that looks like remains to be seen, but the suggestion is clear: They will be optimal Airbnb rentals to anyone who is interested in hosting, or perhaps even investing in the big business of backyard cottages.

They will also be adaptable. That doesn’t just mean adding a few guest bedrooms and an extra bath to rent out. It means creating spaces that evolve and even reconfigure to the occupants’ changing needs. We’ve seen this sort of approach in MIT’s CityHome project (which later became the company Ori). Ori sells robotic furniture, such as walk-in closets that expand out of flat walls, and beds that can drop down from the ceiling on a whim. It’s telling that Backyard’s project lead, Fedor Novikov, has researched robotic construction for NASA.

The spaces may also support co-living, like at the Yoshino Cedar House. This was the first living space that Airbnb built. Designed by Japanese architect Go Hasegawa, it’s a community center and rental property that Airbnb commissioned to spur tourism in the small town of Yoshino, Japan. The space is not only Dwell bait, with its austere cedar plank construction that sits beside a wide, idyllic stream; it also houses dozens of people under one roof in a grand co-living experiment. “I picture Western guests walking up, stepping inside, and you’re interacting with the community from the minute you arrive. If you want to tour the sake factory, or the chopstick factory, or take a hike, the locals are right there,” Gebbia told us in 2016. By March of 2018, the house had home welcomed 346 guests, and generated $25,000 in bookings along with an estimated $50,000 in local spending.

How much will a Backyard house cost, ballpark? “It’s too early to say,” Gebbia says. But based on both Gebbia’s comments and the looks of Airbnb’s models–which appear to feature modular floor plans and interchangeable roofs–it seems likely that Backyard will be a housing system that can be tailored to particular contexts rather than one, perfect, prefabricated home. And you won’t need to be an Airbnb host to buy into the initiative. “Backyard is about creating new options for people, whether they’re Airbnb hosts or not. We’re interested in making it easier for people to find new places to call home,” Gebbia says.

As for the business plan: Gebbia wants to see Backyard get as big as Airbnb itself. “Airbnb didn’t have five- or 10-year metrics at day zero, we just focused on building something we thought could help solve a problem, while bringing people closer together,” says Gebbia. “We’re optimizing for Backyard’s potential. We’re interested in thoughtfully exploring the opportunity and doing something transformative, similar to how Airbnb did when it started.”

~Mark Wilson, Fast Company

How backyard cottages could open up Seattle’s housing market

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Seattle City Council took a step closer toward legislation that would make “accessory dwelling units” easier to build, helping to offset mortgage costs for Seattle homeowners.

This comes hot on the heels of a study released by the City Council, evaluating “the potential environmental impacts of proposes changes to the City’s Land Use Code intended to remove barriers to the creation of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single-family zones.”

In layman’s terms, the city is looking to simplify and streamline the process for homeowners to build ADUs on their properties, known colloquially as backyard cottages or in-law units.

Homeowners would then be able to rent these units out, providing an additional source of income that could then be put toward anything from day-to-day living to mortgage payments. Alternatively, it also opens up more housing options for renters.

“We believe that backyard cottages will allow homeowners to increase the number and variety of housing choices in single-family zones,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien in a press release announcing the release of the study.

Imagine buying a home with a mortgage outside of your price range, but being able to balance that out — or even completely cover the mortgage cost — by collecting rent from a backyard cottage. Opening up zoning requirements to make that easier is the goal for the City Council, touting it a small, creative fix to help offset Seattle’s ballooning housing market.

A planned bill would “remove some barriers to building ADUs, including changes to off-street parking rules, owner-occupancy requirements, and design standards.” The Seattle Times estimates that this would add approximately 2,500 ADUs in the next 10 years, and prevent 500 houses from being torn down to build “McMansions.”

Up until recently though, the City of Seattle has been charging an arm and a leg in zoning fees for anyone trying to build an ADU on their property.

“Most of the municipalities in the Pacific Northwest are in the fee-generating business,” noted KIRO Radio’s Ron Upshaw. “What this entire thing has been structured for up until this point is for them to collect fees.”

Hopefully, homeowners are about to see some relief once the City Council finally settles on new legislation.

Between this, and a promising report from Northwest Multiple Listing Service (MLS), it seems as though the local housing market could finally be softening for new buyers on a budget.

“In the South Sound the market has shifted into neutral and is idling at the moment,” Dick Beeson of RE/MAX Professionals said in the Northwest MLS report. He went on to point out how housing availability improved in Pierce and Thurston counties, “but nowhere near what King County has experienced.”

“Buyers are taking deep breaths as they survey this new territory,” said Beeson, claiming that potential buyers will soon see more homes available for sale for the first time in three years.

If homeowners are made able to both offset their own costs and provide additional housing to renters, that can only mean good things for anyone looking to buy in Seattle in the near future.

~My Northwest