Airbnb’s network of rental listings includes more than 5 million properties globally, a $38 billion empire built on the idea that homeowners would be willing to rent a spare room, or give up their homes completely while they were out of town.
Now the 10-year-old company is working on a new business model: designing prototypical homes that are built specifically with shared occupancy in mind.
Airbnb’s future’s division, called Samara, announced its Backyard initiative late last month, saying that one of the questions it would like to answer is: What would a home that is “designed and built for sharing” look like if you started with a blank sheet of paper and designed it from the ground up?
Joe Gebbia, Airbnb’s co-founder, said in a press release, “With Backyard, we’re using the same lens through which Airbnb was envisioned — the potential of space — and applying it more broadly to architecture and construction.”
Gebbia offered no clues about what such a dwelling might look like, but said that the company expects to begin testing prototypes in about a year.
The starting point was an understanding of how Airbnb hosts modify their homes in order to take in guests. In developing a new template for housing, the company wondered how a dwelling could be designed to meet the needs of many residents over a long period of time. Housing types that are currently on the market didn’t seem to do the trick.
“Simply put, nothing addressed long-term adaptability from a systemic perspective,” said project leader Fedor Novikov in a prepared statement. “The only way to close the gap was to work from first principles and imagine entirely new approaches for building homes.”
Samara said it was exploring how it could make use of sophisticated manufacturing and smart home technologies in a new design. “The way buildings are made is outdated and generates a tremendous amount of waste,” Gebbia said. In order to meet future housing demands, he added, the home “needs to evolve, to think forward.”
Airbnb is not beloved everywhere
There’s some irony in Airbnb’s claim that it has a “unique responsibility and global opportunity” to improve how homes are built and used. It’s Backyard announcement comes at a time when Airbnb is being challenged in a growing number of cities.
Renters may love the deals they can find online, but city officials and residents alike have criticized the company for degrading the quality of life in neighborhoods with invasions of noisy wedding groups and weekend party hounds. Critics also complain that the number of housing units committed to short-term rentals drives up the cost of housing for everyone else.
In New York City, the city council voted in July to restrict Airbnb and other home rental services by enforcing disclosure requirements that are already on the books. The New York Times said that the new requirements could force many of the 50,000 housing units rented through Airbnb off the market.
When a similar plan was enacted in San Francisco, listings were cut in half.
New York and San Francisco are major markets for Airbnb, but it’s not just big cities that are rebelling at the growth of short-term rentals in markets where housing is already in short supply.
In South Portland, Maine, for instance, a city of just 25,000, voters capped a year-long campaign in November by backing a city council effort to ban unhosted stays in residential neighborhoods. The city is right across the harbor from Portland, an increasingly popular destination for tourists in pursuit of upscale food and craft beer. Housing is tight, and critics said that Airbnb and companies like them were altering the basic fabric of neighborhood life.
“We have protected the integrity of our neighborhoods,” said Jeff Steinbrink, president of Neighbors for Neighborhoods, after city residents voted 6,375 to 5,378 to uphold the council’s revised plan.
South Portland Citizens for Property Rights opposed the ordinance and said that it would put most operators out of business, The Portland Press Herald said.
The same dispute is now playing out in Portland, where city councilors recently enacted new rules to allow property owners to register as many as five short-term rentals per year. Mayor Ethan Strimling, who opposed the plan, predicted that the issue won’t go away.
“This body will be back looking at short-term rentals in a few years because we didn’t get it right,” he said.