Conventional thinking is biggest roadblock to housing the homeless

June 29th marked the beginning of the San Francisco Homeless Project, an effort where 70+ Bay Area media organizations are putting their attention on our city’s ongoing and tragic homeless situation. One of the biggest questions the project is posing is how do we as a city provide the housing necessary to effect real and lasting change for our chronically homeless citizens?

For the last several years, Panoramic Interests has been developing a modular housing system and development model that represents a major step in answering this question. Using our system, we can rapidly add the number of dwellings necessary to house our city’s homeless populations. Most important, we can do so within the economic, political and geographic constraints the city imposes.

Who are we and what are we doing?

Panoramic Interests has been developing in San Francisco and Berkeley since 1990. In 2013, we introduced our CITYSPACES® buildings. These infill developments — sometimes called micro-apartments — were characterized by their compact unit designs and rigorous attention to aesthetics, functionality and size.

Our 38 Harriet St project’s four stories were put in place in four days.
38 Harriet St interior.

Our initial CITYSPACES® project, 38 Harriet Street, featured twenty-three, 295 square foot micro-apartments. The project opened us up to the promise of prefab construction. Units were prefabricated off-site and then erected on-site in four days. By employing prefab, we shortened the overall construction time from twelve to four months while improving quality of construction, inside and out.

Harriet taught us that we could produce high quality affordable prefab units. But we realized that in order to achieve the level of affordability and functionality necessary to house the homeless, we had to push harder. We had to make construction processes even more efficient, and we had to further optimize the dwelling design, size and space.

MicroPAD (Prefab Affordable Dwelling)

After several years of research, experimentation and development, we’ve created a prefab dwelling type and building system that provides affordability, scalability and livability to truly impact the city’s homeless situation.

We call it the MicroPAD®.

The MicroPAD prototype unit.

Less but better

Its design was inspired by European and Japanese hotels as well as American extended stay hotels. In effect, the MicroPAD® is a 160 square foot, self-contained, fully furnished residential hotel room.

It comes with a bed, desk, armoire, gear wall, as well as a private bath and food preparation area, with an undercounter fridge. Every detail has been tested and vetted to maximize the comfort and habitability of the dwelling and make it as easy as possible for someone to move in (slightly larger, fully accessible units with roll in showers are also available).

On left are two fully accessible MicroPAD units with roll in showers. On right are three standard MicroPAD dwelling units.

MicroPAD® units have nine foot tall ceilings and abundant natural light provided by oversized, operable windows. There is a 24/7 heating and ventilation system that provides fresh air. All of these elements combine to produce a light, airy and comfortable living experience despite the dwelling’s small size.

Solid steel walls and unibody construction make the dwellings incredibly strong, and able to withstand hard use. The independent, individual design of each unit isolates and controls:

  • Flooding: Built-in secondary drain to contain plumbing mishaps.
  • Fire: Individual sprinklered units and two hour fire ratings ensure fire safety.
  • Odors: 24/7 fresh air exchange and ventilation.
  • Insects: Steel demising walls prevent spread of pests.
  • Noise: Double-wall construction and air spaces between units provide engineered soundproofing.

These measures combine to protect all the other units in the building and keep maintenance costs lower.

How we build a MicroPAD building

The construction of a MicroPAD® building is like that of a conventional building in many ways.

The walls, ceilings and floors of each MicroPAD unit are made of seamless 3/8" steel.

Among other things, the sitework, foundation, utilities, elevators, facade, roof, and tenant improvements are all done the same way. (In fact, the costs of the work done on-site is generally twice that of the modules.)

The MicroPAD® modules are built in a factory, then delivered to a site where they are stacked like LEGO blocks. The interior of each unit is largely finished at this point but there is still much work to be done. Individual plumbing and electrical connections must be made.

The facade, roof and common areas are built and finished onsite.

Other building systems like elevators must be installed as well. Life safety systems must be tested, inspected and commissioned.

Once the foundation and site work are completed, the MicroPADs are stacked on top of each other.

MicroPAD® buildings can be built over existing parking lots and other structures.

For example, if a city had a parking lot in a suitable location for housing, Panoramic could build a concrete podium above the lot that would serve as the foundation for a multistory MicroPAD® building; doing this would leave almost all of the parking below unaffected. Similarly, cities could retain ground floor use for other purposes like retail, offices, services, etc., while building a MicroPAD® building above.

MicroPADs can be built over existing parking lots, preserving the ground floor for parking or other uses.

Standardization and mobility

Pre-fabricating the MicroPAD® modules, we are able to achieve significant cost savings over conventional construction. But we go further.

Unlike many prefab housing modules that require oversized trucking equipment and expensive, escorted land transport, MicroPAD® units are sized to use the standard, worldwide intermodal transportation system. They can use existing shipping, rail and trucking systems without any special accommodation, which further reduces expense. (NB: In their unfinished form, MicroPAD® modules resemble, but are not, shipping containers.)

Because of the inherent strength of their modular steel bodies, units don’t require conventional building frames and can be stacked up to ten stories tall in a matter of days. Once units are stacked, the building can be wrapped in any number of exterior treatments to match the designer’s taste.

Building sizes can range from 30 to 300 units, depending on the zoning and other restraints.

The exterior of a MicroPAD building can have any number of treatments depending on designer preference and neighborhood context.

The net result of all these efficiencies is development time that is 40–50% shorter than conventional construction and total project costs that are 25%-40% less.

This savings allows us to build without federal and state subsidies, and gets us building today rather than five years from now.

MicroPAD and the homeless

In his recent article, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Kevin Fagan says that the typical supportive housing costs $400,000 per unit to develop.

Panoramic can provide fully furnished MicroPAD® units to the city for 40–50% less.

If the city would provide a place to build a MicroPAD® building, Panoramic Interests would build the building at its own expense, charge the city nothing and offer a ten year master lease with turnkey units for $1,000 a month — half the cost of a conventional master leased supportive housing unit. We could also put these buildings up in half the time it takes to build a conventional building.

What’s stopping us?

In Fagan’s article, he explains that we as a society have the money, the land and even ways of handling community objections — three of the more common barriers to developing supportive housing. With homelessness being ranked the city’s number one concern, we even have the will. So what’s the hold up?

More than anything, it’s convention that is thwarting the efforts of innovative developments like MicroPAD®.

The city and the development community are still trying to apply the old development model to create new homeless housing. It’s not working. Because of conventional development’s high costs, it is not working with the city’s economic realities.

There has also been resistance to prefab construction and development — mostly from organized labor — who see it as a threat to their trade.

As Fagan points out, we can build more supportive housing going the conventional route. But because the cost is so high, it’s unlikely we will be able to provide the targeted 2,500 units needed to house the city’s 1,500 chronically homeless citizens plus an additional 1,000 units to get ahead of the curve. And it’s even more unlikely those conventional units will be built with speed necessary to affect change anytime soon.

We can’t have it both ways. We can’t provide housing at the level of affordability and speed needed to house our city’s homeless while using our old and conventional approach of building and financing.

We need a new approach. We need a new design. We think the MicroPAD® is both of these and one part of the solution.

A MicroPAD® unit is currently on display at 1321 Mission Street, San Francisco CA 94103.