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October 3, 2012

This seven-part blog series profiles a new prefab development in San Francisco's SOMA neighborhood—a LEED Platinum-targeted building containing 23 "micro-studios". Built in a California factory in a month and assembled on-site in just four days, these 300-square-foot units are paving the path to a new approach to prefab—and to small-space city living. PART ONE: Project Conception.


 

 

The rise of prefab in the U.S. over the past several years has been sparked by great design, sustainability, and the promise of speedier, more efficient construction methods. The next wave of prefab, according to Zeta Communities, a San Francisco design-build firm, and Panoramic Interests, a Berkeley-based developer, will be driven by growth in cities, multifamily urban infill, and transit-oriented development. "The reality of prefab is that the true benefits of manufacturing—cost, time, consistency, lower waste, higher quality, greater energy efficiency—are optimized with scale," says Shilpa Sankaran, cofounder of Zeta Communities.
 
In 2008, Patrick Kennedy and Cara Houser of Panoramic Interests conceived the idea of developing a unique housing option for students and twenty and thirty-somethings. They projected increasing demand for smaller spaces that were super-functional, sustainably built, and stylish—and which promoted the concept of the surrounding city as a communal living room and kitchen. After prototyping the project for a Berkeley site, Panoramic decided to build on a small, constrained site in San Francisco, which they saw as a better testing ground for their ideas. They refined their micro-unit concept to fit into San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood fabric with units around 300 square feet each. Here's a peek into the early stages of the project.

Here's the original project site in Berkeley, California, which was intended for student housing. Later, the developers purchased a site in San Francisco, anticipating a higher demand for micro-units in that city—where, after all, 41 percent of the population are single people living on their own.
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This is an early rendering of the rear elevation of the Berkeley project, designed by Taeko Takagi, Zeta Communities’ in-house architect. Like the final version, this was conceived as a prefab multi-unit building.
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Early conceptual renderings of the units ended up pretty close to the final version, and included plenty of storage space and convertible built-in furniture.
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This photo shows one of the first to-scale physical models produced, showing how the built-in furniture would work.
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Panoramic Interests developed this 160-square-foot prototype unit, which they installed in a warehouse in Berkeley. A MIT graduate student lived in the prototype for three weeks and provided feedback that shaped the final design.
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Her requests included a slightly bigger and wider space, to better accommodate visitors; a bigger sink that would fit pots and pans; a larger "adult-size" fridge; and an enclosed bathtub/shower (versus the Euro-style tiled bathroom with open shower the developers installed in the prototype). All these suggestions made it into the final design.
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In the end, the developers decided to build on a 3,750-square-foot lot at 38 Harriet Street in San Francisco's SOMA district. The street is narrow and alley-like, so the developers knew they'd need to come up with an innovative design to maximize the use of the lot.
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The site, sandwiched between two buildings in a transitional area within SOMA, has an eclectic mix of old and new buildings—and some fancy new neighbors, including the new Twitter headquarters. Stay tuned next week for a Q&A with the project's developer and builder.
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Here's the original project site in Berkeley, California, which was intended for student housing. Later, the developers purchased a site in San Francisco, anticipating a higher demand for micro-units in that city—where, after all, 41 percent of the population are single people living on their own.

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