Joe Gebbia, Airbnb’s cofounder and chief product officer, likes to observe the simple ways that Airbnb hosts "hack" their homes in order to take on guests. He stayed with one New York City mother who had a bunk bed in her son’s room, so she could rent the master bedroom. Others build extra storage space, for sheets and towels and the like, or install electronic locks. He has a list of more than 50 examples made by talking with Airbnb hosts around the world.
Airbnb has been changing how people travel—and how its hosts view the value of their property. Now the company is exploring what it would look like to actually influence the design of homes from the ground up.
"The question that I can’t shake—it’s this question that keeps coming up for me is: What does the shared home of the future look like?" Gebbia told Co.Exist. "People are sharing homes at a rate that no one ever predicted, but residences and homes weren’t designed for it. They were designed around ideas of privacy and separation."
Gebbia very briefly touched on this thought in a TED talk in February and further explained his thoughts to Co.Exist after the event. By late March, he was in Japan working out answers to some of his nagging questions. The company is participating in House Vision, an expo that pairs designers, architects, and companies like Muji, Toyota, and Toto to build concept homes and installations that explore future living scenarios. Airbnb is the first American company invited to participate, Gebbia says.
The details of what an Airbnb-styled house would look like are still fuzzy, and the company isn’t yet ready to talk more about the Japan house, which will be on exhibition later this year and may eventually become an Airbnb listing. But Gebbia says it would go beyond what many people envision with "smart homes," where Internet-connected devices make it easy to control and personalize a room or environment or unlock a door without a key.
So what could a home designed to be used by both a long-time occupant and complete strangers look like? At a basic level, there could be physical accommodations such as "flex spaces" so people don’t have to give up their beds to have guests or different kinds of built-in storage. At a more conceptual level, Gebbia thinks in terms of whole apartment buildings designed to create a community for transient visitors. People could have separate spaces, but there would also be areas—such as a garden or dining space—that promote conversation. "In the future, we will see living experiences curated around a shared lifestyle," Gebbia says.
Of course, not everyone welcomes Airbnb into their cities. Affordable housing advocates in expensive places like New York and San Francisco say the platform is removing limited housing stock from the real estate market. The company has also clashed with a number of cities that say it facilitates the operation of illegal hotel rooms. It’s hard to imagine some cities welcoming real estate actually designed to be used on Airbnb without more regulation and oversight. But on the other side of the spectrum, overcrowded cities like Seoul, South Korea, have been welcoming to sharing economy companies. A pilot there not involving Airbnb pairs students who need housing with elderly people who have spare rooms (and might not mind some companionship).
Gebbia isn’t sure what form Airbnb’s design aspirations could take. But it’s not hard to imagine Airbnb having a design consultancy that works with real estate developers or architects to have a hand in home design. Gebbia notes that there are 2.2 million homes on Airbnb globally now, and as that number increases, he believes the company could have a real presence in residential architecture. Already, he says, there are apartment buildings that are making changes to their leases to allow Airbnb formally. "So you imagine that this could go to the next level. Not only is it in the lease and the policies of the building," he says, "but it’s actually in the design and flow."
He later adds: "Airbnb is about travel. And the idea that we would be able to influence or have a hand in the shaping of a home is beyond travel. That’s everyday life—and that’s cool."