Airbnb builds houses now, too
SINCE its inception, Airbnb – the website that allows people to rent out their homes for holiday accommodation – has been a contentious issue in cities. It’s a cost-saving convenience for travellers and a money-making opportunity for homeowners, yet a source of ire to scores of traditional hotels and guest-houses.
Some have accused the global home-sharing initiative – which operates in 34,000 cities – of playing a part in gentrifying neighbourhoods, as more Airbnblisted properties means fewer available homes to live in, thus pushing up prices.
Mark Tanzer, chief executive of the Association of British Travel Agents, has also criticised Airbnb’s contribution to growing tourism numbers as a threat to historic cities around the world. Meanwhile, a number of city governments have implemented restrictive permits and regulations to curb the practice and its negative impacts.
But could Airbnb be finding another way to influence cities? Earlier this August the multi-billion-dollar company launched a brand new initiative called Samara. It claims it is an innovation and design studio that “generates new ideas and building products that serve the Airbnb community” and “explores new attitudes to sharing and trust”.
So far, so vague. Samara will apparently focus on architecture, product design, software engineering, and new economic models – but the design studio has started with a house for a Japanese village.
The Yoshino Cedar House, created in collaboration with Tokyo-based architect Go Hasegawa, explores “how architectural features can engender a deeper relationship between hosts and guests”. The house – made of cedar wood with a living room, kitchen, dining room and bedrooms – will be permanently installed in Yoshino, a rural town in the Nara district of Japan, where it will be a bookable Airbnb that is maintained collectively by the community.
The house is currently installed at the House Vision exhibition in Tokyo until the end of August.
Samara says the rental income from stays at the house will be used to “strengthen the cultural legacy and future of the town”, which has struggled as young people move away to cities – an issue that has affected many of Japan’s rural communities as the country’s population ages, shrinks and urbanises. Abandoned houses blight many of Japan’s rural towns; in 2013 there were 8.2 million vacant houses across the country, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
Samara’s Yoshino project was initially inspired by an elderly woman who started up an Airbnb property in the small Japanese city of Tsuyama Okayama. Apparently, her neighbours thought no one would visit – but many did. The tourist influx resulted in the woman enlisting her neighbours as hiking guides, translators, and tour guides for the guests. The venture ultimately boosted the local tourism economy.
The Yoshino building hopes to be both a community centre and a form of communal housing: aside from the bedrooms, all rooms in the house are designed to be shared by visitors and community members. The idea is that local residents act as tour guides for the Airbnb guests. “It’s a pathway to get the community to help each other, and it happens to be in the form of architecture,” said Joe Gebbia, Airbnb’s co-founder and chief product officer, in Digital Trends. The project, however, has been criticised as just an alternative form of hotel, as Rob Price suggests in Business Insider.
Samara’s ambition is to take the Yoshino Cedar House model – a listing run by and for the benefit of a community, designed as a shared space – and roll it out to similar struggling rural communities around the world to boost localised tourism and reinvigorate economies. Essentially, it seems Airbnb would build its own listings. “Given the size and scale of the Airbnb community, the areas to explore are limitless,” says Gebbia. So could they include cities?
Many websites reporting on Samara – from Fast Co to Mashable – have announced that Airbnb is branching out into urban planning.
As it stands though, Samara’s work is firmly targeting a rural context. Over email, a representative from Samara says they “aren’t contemplating” an urban version of the Yoshino Cedar House right now, but as a studio they are focusing on how people will live in communities in the future.
“Urban planning is one of the many concepts we will think about, but it isn’t the only one and calling Samara an urban planning outpost misses the mark.”
Other experts seem to agree, judging by their reactions to the stories being circulated. “It’s a stretch to call this urban planning or urban development,” tweeted The Washington Post’s Emily Badger; “It’s just not urbanism,” agreed architecture critic Alexandra Lange. If the model scales, it will be interesting to see whether rural communities will come across the same issues for local residents presented by Airbnb in cities. This new approach demonstrated in the Yoshino house, however, seems to answer critics by ensuring the process directly benefits the local community (in theory, at least).
Translated to a city level, the concept would surely require self-contained neighbourhoods in order to work properly: who exactly would look after the houses, who would benefit, and how would the local boundaries be drawn? The notion of a community centre doubling as communal housing with rentable rooms, however, seems potentially promising as a new co-living model in cities.
So far, this is no urban planning; I somehow doubt we’ll see Airbnb-designed cities any time soon.