The post-Covid need for transformable living space
A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with Ori CEO Hasier Larrea.
This Sidewalk Talk Q&A is part of a series of conversations with leaders at Sidewalk Labs incubated and portfolio companies.
For many city residents, the idea of using robotic furniture to transform and expand one’s living space used to sound like a luxury. But after Covid-19 hit, making the most of home spaces became a necessity.
“The typical person living in a small apartment in New York, before the pandemic, they could end up rationalizing the idea of living in a tiny, dysfunctional shoebox,” says Hasier Larrea, CEO of transformable space company Ori. “All of a sudden, all of that changed. And what we are seeing, and this is key, is that people are starting to expect more from their spaces. Spaces need to be more, and that’s where we come in.”
The pandemic has accelerated demand for Ori’s line of products, including the Pocket Office and the Cloud Bed, and paved the way for a future where square footage need no longer come at the expense of physical space. Larrea spoke to Sidewalk Talk editors Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk from his 600-square-foot, Ori-equipped apartment about the company’s mission to make the built environment more sustainable and affordable.
Watch a video of our conversation above or read an edited transcript below.
Vanessa: We are joined today by Hasier Larrea. He is the CEO of Ori, a Sidewalk Labs portfolio company that creates transformable living spaces to make smaller city homes more comfortable and affordable. Ori’s products include a cloud bed, a pocket office, and a transformable studio suite. Hasier, thank you so much for joining us.
Hello, Vanessa. Hello, Eric. My pleasure to be here.
Eric: Hasier, thanks for joining us. Can you talk a bit about Ori’s mission and why you thought right now is the moment to pursue that mission?
It’s interesting, because our mission statement has been very consistent since we spun the company out of MIT, and that mission statement is to empower people to live large in a small footprint. And the inspiration for that mission, that statement really, or the ethos let’s say, comes from two terms that you guys at Sidewalk are really familiar with, which are sustainability on the one hand and affordability on the other.
At the end of the day, we are seeing a world that is urbanizing, and if we want to have more and more people in the world, we need to start thinking about density, but ideally without the bad things of density. How can we keep the good things of density without the bad things?
So the way we look at sustainability — we got a lot of inspiration from architects like Bjarke Ingels, who talks about hedonistic sustainability. It’s a concept I like a lot, this idea that the right thing can also be the cool thing. And that’s what we think about when we say living large in a small footprint. It doesn’t need to mean compromise.
And secondly, when we think about affordability, actually we get very inspired by a lot of your work when you talk about affordability by design and how can we change the paradigm of thinking about our spaces? One of my favorite quotes, from a Spanish physician, says that changing the answer is evolution, changing the question is revolution.
Eric: I love that.
So that’s how we like to think of our spaces. How can we change behavior and how can we change the paradigm of how spaces are designed? So sustainability and affordability really do empower people to live large in a small footprint.
Vanessa: I have a sneaky suspicion that there’s actually an Ori product right behind you, and I was wondering if you could show our viewers and listeners here a little sneak peek of what is this Ori product and how does it work?
Absolutely. Good catch there. This is my apartment actually. I live in a one bedroom, 600-square-foot apartment with my partner here in Brooklyn. As a good entrepreneur, as they say in entrepreneurship, you have to eat your own dog food. So I have not only one but three Ori products at home.
The one here in the background is the Ori Cloud Bed. And even though it’s a one bedroom apartment, we technically have two full home offices. The living room becomes a full home office, and then the bedroom, which is this one, becomes a home office also during the day. Every time I wake up in the morning, press a button, and then the space that is taken by the bed becomes a big large office that you can see.
The powerful thing about the Cloud Bed is that, when you think about it, we are surrounded by space killers, literally, and the bed is the biggest of the space killers. It’s good when you use it, but then for the rest of the day it’s just taking up this massive space, which takes a lot of, again, money, because at the end of the day a bedroom in our cities is becoming more and more expensive. So what if you could just make it disappear?
And you don’t even have to make your bed. I did make it because I thought I might be demoing something today. But the point is that your bed can be a mess. You can press a button, and at any time, it just goes up.
Vanessa: This reminds me, Hasier, you joined us for our Affordability by Design podcast. And in that podcast, we talked about the Murphy bed. But now with the Cloud Bed, you get the same thing with more sleekness in the design and more ease and convenience.
And that’s an important point to highlight, because space transformation is an old concept. Things like the Murphy bed are more than a hundred years old. The problem is that when you think about small spaces, you need to start thinking about interactions and transformations that happen on a daily basis or every morning, every afternoon, and that’s where a lot of these manual, cumbersome solutions fail. People living with those solutions, they transform a space once, twice, three times a month. What we want to do with these things is bring some level of effortless transformation, and also magic, into the equation, so that I transform these once, twice, three times a day.
Eric: And what types of populations are you finding most responsive to your products? I know you work mostly with developers right now, but presumably they’re showing their tenants your different products. Which populations are connecting?
You’ll be surprised, because many people assume that this is just like a young professional living in a studio type solution. And of course, it is a big demographic group that is very attracted to these solutions. But at the same time, you see a lot of empty nesters. They don’t want to live in the suburbs anymore. They don’t have kids. They want to live close to the city center where the social activities are. They don’t want to go to the traditional concept of a retirement home.
And then even families. When you think about the typical couple with a kid that rents a two bedroom apartment, and then the kid takes one of the bedrooms and then the parents get another one, and now both parents are working from home, the necessity for turning that bedroom into an office is very acute. You start seeing how the concept of augmenting or multiplying a space, it really affects everybody across different demographics.
Vanessa: I would imagine that you’ve seen a lot more interest since the onset of the Covid pandemic, because a lot of people are working remotely who weren’t previously. One of your products is a pocket office. Can you talk about that product and how it’s helping people accommodate new living situations?
To your first point of the pandemic, it’s definitely been an accelerator. The typical person living in a small apartment in New York before the pandemic, they could end up rationalizing the idea of living in a tiny, dysfunctional shoe box, because they would say, “Look, you know what? I’m most of the time in the office. I never eat at home.” All of a sudden, all of that changed. And what we are seeing, and this is key, is that people are starting to expect more from their spaces. Spaces need to be more, and that’s where we come in.
One example, the pocket office, which was a product that we already had in mind even before the pandemic, but of course the pandemic made us accelerate all our product development, is this idea of: what if we could create that office outside of the office kind of a story, or almost like an office den that you created when you need it? And then when you don’t need it, it just disappears. From a functionality standpoint, you have this amazing office where you can put your money towards a beautiful background for all these Zoom calls that we’re having. But then from a psychological standpoint almost, once you’re done with work you press a button and your office literally disappears.
There was this article this week about us actually in Australia, of all places, where there was a quote from a clinical psychologist. And he was talking about how people living and working in the same room with the office and the bed side by side are actually having trouble with sleep, and their sleep is getting disrupted because you’re associating a place for relaxing with work and intensity. What these systems can do, it can completely change the space so you can change from one activity to another, and how you can go through your daily habits, which I know everybody’s struggling right now with work and personal life at home.
Eric: It’s like your commute is the amount of time it takes the space to transform. It’s like 10 seconds.
Exactly. I mean, funny to say commute, because if you think about it, when you think about how do we adapt to spaces today, it means we walk from room to room to get to a different environment or a different activity space. That idea requires much more square footage, which is very expensive. It’s not affordable. So what we are saying is that this space should be, almost loading like an app, like you press a button, and your space loads for your next activity. And of course, you can do that in much less square footage.
Vanessa: Hasier, what are the biggest challenges that you think that you’re facing in terms of greater adoption of transformable spaces and technologies? Are there technological barriers? Is it behavioral barriers? What do you think?
I mean, the biggest barrier is that we are trying to change real estate. And I think that says it all, because as you know, real estate is an industry that in some senses, it’s a bit of a dinosaur industry, where it’s hard to penetrate with technology and disruption. At the same time, the needs are becoming much more clear these days, so that’s where we’re starting to see some very healthy traction.
The way I like to describe it to my team — I like analogies — it’s almost like we need to climb these two massive mountains. The first mountain is the developer belief mountain, which is the idea that at the end of the day, you have a bit of a chicken and egg problem, because most real estate developers are going to be very excited and interested, but they’re going to be asking like, “Okay, give me case studies. Give me data, data about ROI.” Those are the three letters they care about, return on investment, so give me data of other buildings. But of course, you need buildings in order to create that data. So that’s where we’ve been lucky to find like some very innovative developers, in many cases local smaller developers, but also some of the bigger players too, to start climbing that mountain, and we’re very excited about all of the collaborations that we’re announcing lately.
The second mountain is basically the consumer tenant mountain. And that’s not so much about selling to consumers, because we don’t do that today. But it’s the idea that selling systems or technologies to a developer is just half of the story. Then you need to make sure you educate tenants that are going into these buildings into how it is to live in these spaces. We know that when people try it, they love it, but it still is something new. So how do you really educate people on what is the value of these solutions in their way of looking and touring apartments in places like New York, Boston, San Francisco, or even places like Boise, Fort Worth, which are also markets where we are right now?
Eric: Last question and we’ll let you go here. Thinking big, what do you think of when you are thinking about the housing of the future, that transformable space of the future, and how it can improve people’s lives?
I think I go back to the beginning there. To be provocative, I think all of us could live in half of the space that we live in today, but without compromise. People assume that, “Oh, I’m going to live in less space. That’s less functionality and compromise.” I think that does not have to be the case. I think we can live in a smaller space with the functionality of a much bigger space.
So again, to be provocative, the average studio in the U.S. right now is more than 500 square feet. Think about a 250-square-foot super efficient studio that feels much bigger than 500 square feet, or a 400-square-foot one bedroom and a 500-square-foot two bedroom where technology allows you to make that space feel twice or three times as big.
Our hope is that people will make the choice — not our hope. Our conviction is that people will make the choice of living in those spaces, not because they have to, but because they want to. And it reminds me a lot of what Tesla did in electric mobility. Most people don’t buy a Tesla car because it’s the best, most sustainable option. They buy it because it’s the coolest, best car out there. That goes back to this idea of hedonistic sustainability, which again, is a Bjarke Ingels concept, but this idea that we can empower people to live large in a small footprint. We can increase quality of life, sustainability, and affordability all at the same time.