Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The 10,000-apartment tech campus: what if companies provided on-site housing?

what 10,000 apartments on the Google headquarters might look like

Tech workers' impact on housing prices is a hot-button issue in the Bay Area.  The issue stems from a shortage of housing in Silicon Valley, which was originally research labs and electronics factories.  Now, software is dominant, and a lot more programmers can fit in the same space.  In fact, many don't need a desk at all. 

This has upended the city planners' calculations for balancing workspace with housing. The Valley lacks housing, especially the hip, trendy type of urban housing that young programmers love.  Tech workers to move to San Francisco and Oakland, creating waves of gentrification.

Building more housing is seen as the only long term fix to the housing crisis.  How much housing would a major tech company need, and what would it look like?

Let's use Google as an example.  Google employs 10,000 at its Mountain View headquarters.  Surprisingly, that number of apartments can fit on the parking lots and open spaces of the suburban campus.  Most would be in towers of 30 to 50 floors, with the rest in lower blocks lining the site. 

note: this is an academic exercise and is not actually being proposed

While this level of development is not allowed under current zoning and would require new infrastructure to even be physically possible, the density is similar to the Rincon Hill in downtown San Francisco.  Such a concentration of people would also create the critical mass to attract the trendy services and amenities that currently only San Francisco offers.    

This study assumes regular apartments, with an average of 800 square feet per family of 2 (400 square feet per resident).  It also assumes very limited parking (presumably folks would walk to work and take the Google Bus elsewhere).  Co-op style housing typically can get down to 200 square feet per resident, roughly double the efficiency of apartments.  That would still be a lot of housing in one spot though.

While Google does not have any plans for on-site housing that I know about, they have made some small investments in housing in Mountain View, most recently a 51-unit apartment complex.  But perhaps one day, an real downtown will be the ultimate tech job amenity...

See more at

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tech communities - the business case, and potential side effects

Recently, tech communities such as The Embassy Network have been getting lots of press attention.  These may well be some of the first instances of modern upscale communal living- a significant development, as it could be the first step of the mainstreaming of communal living.

Communal living and the innovation adoption lifecycle

The adoption of new ideas or products often begins with "innovators" - typically people who are young, well educated, wealthy, and willing to take risks.  These folks have the cash and the capacity for risk to handle the inevitable challenges and failures of testing out new ideas. 

Once something starts to catch on, a larger number of "early adopters", who might have less wealth to risk but more social connections, spread the word to the majority of the population.

chart from Wikipedia user Multichill

Tech communities - just for some, or the start of a trend?

Software engineers and other tech workers certainly fit the description of innovators.  However, for all the hubbub, it's important to note that they did not invent modern communal living.  Students, religious communities, immigrants, queer people, and punks have all formed self-governing residential communities.  A few factors that work in their favor include:
  • Limited economic resources - group living is intrinsically cheaper
  • Geographically concentrated employment - it's easier to live together if everyone has reasonable commutes.
  • Sense of greater purpose - can help promote unity
  • Mostly unmarried population
  • Discrimination by larger society - leads to seeking of safety in numbers

Limited economic resources Geographically concentrated employment Sense of greater purpose

Mostly unmarried population Discrimination by larger society




Religious communities









Queer people









Tech Workers




Tech workers are unique in that they actually have abundant cash.  However, the tech community has a lot in common with college students, and crucially, many tech workers are recent grads.  The "sense of purpose" factor is also important - at tech communities I've visited, there were a lot of startup and founder types, and no so many rank-and-file coders from large companies.

Tech communities - the next sharing app?

Housing's capital-intensive nature has limited the formation of large scale communities.  However, here is where the tech industry's capital-light approach could come in.  Similar to how startups like AirBnB or Lyft provide large amounts of short-term housing or transportation without having to own any rooms or cars themselves, a communal living startup could get started by master leasing houses and entire floors of apartment buildings. 

Affordability and inclusivity?

If it does scale up, there are several social issues on the horizon.  Currently, except for the Berkeley Student Cooperative, every community (of all types, not just tech communities) I've encountered has an extensive and very competitive application and interview process where existing residents choose new ones.

However, our entire system of rent control and fair housing is based on the idea that individuals and families individually lease or buy apartments from developers and landlords in a purely business transaction.

Unlike other groups that currently live communally on a large scale, most tech workers don't have to personally deal with gentrification or housing discrimination, and may lack knowledge on the subtleties of these issues.  At one tech community I visited, the residents were all white or Asian, and there were no children or senior citizens.  Policy, either at the community or government level, will be needed to avoid entire neighborhoods from turning into equivalent of an exclusive college or social club.

Dunbar's number revisited - why 70-80 people is the max size for a community.

When the question of how big a community should be, a number sometimes given as a maximum is 150.  This is Dunbar's number, a suggested limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. 

In practice, unless the community is very isolated, 70-80 people is a better limit.  Why?  In addition to live-in residents, a community will have peripheral members that hang out at the house, such as former housemates, boarders, and residents' friends and romantic partners.  These peripheral members effectively double the size of the community.

In the Berkeley student co-ops, houses with 50-70 residents often have the strongest house cultures, while the two houses with 120-150 people are so large that residents don't know all their housemates. This pattern also appears at the Austin co-ops, and may have been an issue at Pacifico in Davis as well. 

It is worth noting that Dunbar's number was originally derived from pre-industrial farming villages, where the community involved not just living together, but working together.  Members of such a 150-person community would not have outside jobs or social contacts outside of the 150.   

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

400-person group housing complex planned in San Francisco

In the last couple years, "micro-apartments", otherwise known as small studio apartments of around 300 square feet, have been proposed and built in San Francisco.  In contrast, a typical small 1-bedroom apartment comes in at about 500-600 square feet and a 2-bedroom apartment is around 800 square feet. 

Now, developer Build Inc. is proposing a 400 person group housing complex at 1532 Harrison Street in the South of Market area of San Francisco.  The facility layout is as follows:

- 1 or 2 beds in a bedroom suite.  Each bedroom suite is like a hotel room, but has a mini-kitchen.  The ktichen is a big deal, more on why further down.
- 9 bedroom suites in a "house". (9-18 people per house)
- 10 "houses" in each building. (90-180 people per building)
- 3 buildings (Total of 235-470 people).

Below is an image of a typical "house" from SocketSite. 

A few thoughts on the economics of this project:

- This building is significantly wider than your typical apartment building.  Building codes require windows in bedrooms and living rooms.  This is significant as often the number of rooms in a building is not limited by the size of the land, but the width of the land.  
Interestingly, the wide floorplate of this kind of group housing layout is very similar to that of mid-20th century glass box office towers.  

- Group housing such as 1532 Harrison virtually eliminates corridors, which cost money to build but can't be sold/rented.

- The real biggie is parking.  Outside of downtown, San Francisco zoning usually requires one parking space per apartment, but requires none for group housing.  This is a San Francisco only thing - in places like Oakland and Berkeley, every two bedrooms in a group housing building requires a parking space.  Parking spaces take up 300 square feet each - the same size as a studio apartment, but a parking space only rents for $200-400 a month, while a studio apartment can go for $2000.
Under SF zoning, 1532 Harrison isn't group housing though, as SF zoning defines dwelling units as "A room or suite of two or more rooms that is designed for, or is occupied by, one family doing its own cooking therein and having only one kitchen".  Those mini-kitchens, though small, are still kitchens.  So this is really a building of studio apartments.  Nonetheless, it is still an unusual building, and as such, Build Inc. has had to apply for a conditional use permit in order to not provide parking.  (edit 12/8/13: parking appears not to be require for this area).

Operational issues, or why kitchens are critical:

- No information so far on how 1532 Harrison will be operated.  Will rooms be leased/sold individually, or will each of the 9-room "houses" be leased/sold to a group?  Since each bedroom suite has its own mini-kitchen, under fair housing regulations, each is its own housing unit.  Unlike 9 people sharing a large single family house, residents of one of these 9-room "houses" would not be able to evict someone in their house if they didn't like them.  The big shared living room and kitchen would effectively be treated as an apartment building community room and lobby, even though in reality the role would be different.

- The big difference between this and the classic residential hotel is the division of the building into "houses" of 9 bedroom suites.  This creates communities of manageable size within the larger community.

Kitchens, Parking, and Resident Selection - a summary for most parts of San Francisco:

Individual mini-kitchens + large shared kitchen
  • 1 parking space required per kitchen. (there's some philosophical epiphany here...)
  • Anyone can move into a bedroom suite.
Shared Kitchen Only
  • No parking required in San Francisco.
  • Residents sharing the kitchen have some discretion over who else lives in a bedroom that is connected to their kitchen.
 Given the controversy surrounding these types of buildings, it will be interesting to see if 1532 Harrison is able to get the conditional use permit for not having parking.  Without the CUP, either half the building would be a parking garage, or the mini-kitchens in each bedroom suite would have to go. 

December 8, 2013 update: clarification on the parking issue and the potential use as student housing:
- It appears that parking requirements for this particular area allow zero parking spaces even if the building has studio units with kitchens.
- Comments on SocketSite suggest that this building may be marketed as student housing for CCA, Academy of Art, or other nearby colleges that currently have more students than dorm beds.  Students have been one of the largest users of shared housing historically, more thoughts on this in a future post.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Berkeley/Oakland port and highway air pollution map

"Don't cut corners on the location, as the rest you can fix up later when you have the money." - that was the advice I received from folks who in search of cheap land, had built a cohousing complex next to the BART elevated tracks a few decades ago.

Whereas those treating housing as a commodity can easily trade up to a better neighborhood, when establishing a community find it harder to move.  As folks have expressed interest in purchasing or building new housing, transportation access has been mentioned as something not to skimp on.

The flip side to transport is pollution.  Oakland is one of the largest container ports in the world and is full of freeways.

Air Pollution Hazards: Cars, Trucks, and Container Ships.
Freeway health risks are well known, with the first block downwind being extremely hazardous and problems persisting for another 700-1500' depending on whether the freeway is elevated.

The effects of port pollution from the container ships is a bit harder to track down, but based on public health asthma and cancer data it appears to be most severe in the first couple of miles, with effects as far as 20 miles away.  In areas near the ports, pollution can be over 10 times the regional average.

Ships are basically barely-regulated ocean-going power plants, spewing sulfur dioxide, particulates, and other pollutants in quantities far beyond what is allowed for vehicles registered in the USA.

 Click map to enlarge.  Heavier lines are elevated freeways.  

Fight for cleaner air, but for now, build elsewhere.
Many of these heavily polluted areas in Emeryville, West Oakland, Chinatown, and Downtown already are home to thousands of residents, and port and freeway air pollution have been a major environmental justice issue.  In recent years, community activists have demanded and won funding from the Port to upgrade trucks to reduce diesel pollution.

The Port has goals to reduce total pollution by 85%, though it expects to fall short on controlling ship pollution (only a 67% reduction is projected) as Oakland and California have little ability to regulate the international shipping industry. 

As a result, even though the pollution has decreased and will continue to decrease, it is still much worse in these areas than the rest of the region.  Therefore, in the near term, it would not be prudent to create new housing in this area and subject more people to risk.

Driving further out is not the solution.
While the origins of suburban housing came from an era of even worse industrial pollution, relocating to the suburbs may not necessarily lead to better health as drivers and bus passengers are subject to heavy air pollution while on a freeway.  Until shipping gets cleaner, the best plan may be to avoid the areas closest to the docks while remaining near BART stations. 

Could Oakland remove its freeways like San Francisco did?
In the 1990s and 2000s, San Francisco removed a couple miles of downtown freeways, clearing up dozens of blocks for housing and making several neighborhoods much more liveable.  Mass transit, biking, and trip reduction have made this possible without major traffic problems.  Right now, roughly 25% of Oakland is within the downwind zone of a freeway - could it do the same?

More Resources:

- Bay Area Air Quality Management District CARE Program
- Port of Oakland Emissions Inventory
- Port of Oakland Maritime Air Quality Improvement Program
- Pollution, health, and avoidance behavior: Evidence from the Ports of Los Angeles
- Southern California Particle Center

Monday, August 27, 2012

Household size and economies of scale, part 1

A couple years ago while hanging out in the basement of Synergy Co-op in Palo Alto, my friend Xander and I were talking about co-op living.  Xander brought up that of various economic indicators, household size is rarely studied. It's an important topic though, as every other aspect of human organization and economic life has seen a trend towards consolidation, whether it be businesses, government, or nonprofit organizations.  These businesses and organizations benefit from economies of scale, which provides buying power, insurance against random events, and political power.  Why not households?

Some Statistical Background

Currently, the average US household is around 2.6 people.  This is actually a bit higher than most industrialized nations.  Back in the 1930s it was around 3.7.  The Census defines households as follow:

A household includes all the persons who occupy a housing unit. A housing unit is a house, an apartment, a mobile home, a group of rooms, or a single room that is occupied (or if vacant, is intended for occupancy) as separate living quarters. Separate living quarters are those in which the occupants live and eat separately from any other persons in the building and which have direct access from the outside of the building or through a common hall. The occupants may be a single family, one person living alone, two or more families living together, or any other group of related or unrelated persons who share living arrangements. (People not living in households are classified as living in group quarters.)

This excludes group quarters, for which US census data is available here (PDF).  Currently 8.3 million Americans report living in group quarters.  Of these, prisons & jails make up 2.2 million, nursing homes 1.8 million, and college housing 2.4 million.  Total of these 3 largest groups = 6.4 million, the remaining1.9  include juvenile halls, homeless shelters, monasteries, barracks, group homes, worker camps, and other institutional housing. 

Key elements of the definition of a housing unit:
- Has direct access to outside or a common hall (i.e. you get your own key)
- People within that housing unit eat separately from other people not in that unit. 

- In a rooming house or residential hotel without shared meals, each room is a separate housing unit.
- Student co-ops are classified as group housing.
- A non-student co-op house such as Fort Awesome is classified as a single household.
- Cohousing where residents live in separate units is classified as separate households, even if residents eat meals together.

Why this matters - public policy on housing:
Housing goals in public policy are often defined in the number of units (houses or apartments, regardless of size).  Incentives are often given to maximize the number of units built.  However, what's actually important is the number of bedrooms... or perhaps the number of beds*.  It is much cheaper to build a 3-bedroom apartment (1000-1200 square feet) than to build three 1 bedroom apartments (500-600sf each for a total of 1500-1800sf).  Likewise the bigger apartment is also cheaper to heat and cool and maintain.

Affordable housing often gets criticized for its high per-unit costs vs. market rate apartments.  However, market rate apartments are typically studios, 1 bedrooms, and 2 bedroom units.  Affordable housing apartments often have a majority of 2 bedroom and 3 bedroom units.   Often funding requires a minimum of the units (20-33% is typical) to be 3 bedroom or larger. 

*Xander also mentioned once that the number of mattresses can be correlated to the amount of fascism in the country, as more mattresses means that people aren't sleeping together. 

The flip side: Except in college towns like Berkeley where group living in a house is common, most cities such as San Francisco do their zoning by counting kitchens.  When an area is said to allow a maximum density of 10 units per acre, it means that at most 10 kitchens are allowed.  When the planning code says one parking space is required per unit it means that one parking space per kitchen is required (this actually makes some sense even in the co-op context).  Typically 5 bedrooms is the maximum viewed by planning codes as still falling under the category of "dwelling unit" as opposed to "group housing".  Example in SF Planning Code

Architectural Efficiency
Apartment buildings designed to have lots of 5-bedroom apartments would be somewhat different than those made up of mostly studios and 1&2BR's.  The building would be the same size as in most urban areas height limits are the main limit to building's size.  Less of the building would be hallway or parking, making it a more profitable building.  The number of bedrooms (and therefore residents) would be double than that of a building made up of 1-bedrooms.  Imagine if the price of housing in SF dropped in half! 

While it's true that out in the suburbs there are often 5-bedroom houses with 2 people living in it after the kids move out, this would be a non-issue in a co-op environment, where household size naturally increases to fill all available bedrooms.

Outside of old Victorians with three stacked apartments, I don't know of any examples of apartment buildings with large units.  Perhaps I shall sketch one out sometime...

That concludes Part 1.  In Part 2, I'll discuss what widespread co-op housing means for food systems and the division of household labor.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Save the Domes! the book is now available!

The UC Davis Domes, also known as Baggins End, are a community of 26 UCD students living in a village of 14 fiberglass domes.  Two people live in each dome.  Although each dome has its own kitchen and bathroom, the Domies share meals together a few times a week.  It is a great example of a student cohousing community in a low density setting. 

"Save the Domes!" follows the story of how the Domes almost got shut down in 2011, how the Domies rallied the greater community of co-opers and cohousers to lobby for saving the Domes; and organized hundreds of people to make repairs and renovations.  Also inside are photos of life at the domes and information on how the domes are run. 

You can read the story online, download a free PDF of the story, photos, and other info, or order a hard copy from Amazon.

Here's some pages from "Save the Domes":