Until the fall, Tim McCormick, a former product manager in the technology industry, spent years living in a converted one-car garage in Palo Alto. His home was not much bigger than the new type of accommodations he imagines for residents, particularly those who are homeless or low-income.
McCormick’s idea is houselets, or modular, redeployable, cost-effective houses that could circumvent San Francisco’s notorious red tape known to stall residential development projects for years.
“What I’m trying to do is say there’s room to think about alternatives for housing — how to build them, live in them, finance them,” McCormick said. “Can we widen the conversation here and look at concrete alternatives in a fun and exploratory way?”
Creating houselets that use 8-by-8-foot modules and steel frames that disassemble easily, along with swappable panels that allow for expansion, is what McCormick envisions to help residents find homes in a fast-growing city. According to census estimates, San Francisco added more than 35,000 residents from 2010 to 2013.
The structures that could cost between several thousand and $15,000 to build can also be used as backyard cottages or for events or popup work spaces, McCormick noted.
As individual residences, they could potentially be placed where there is unused land, such as development sites where construction is pending.
San Francisco is embracing small public spaces known as parklets in various neighborhoods, so McCormick says perhaps neighborhoods like the Tenderloin should introduce houselets as well. “When people are on the street, something needs to be done right away,” McCormick said. “We don’t need to wait years to build very expensive buildings.”
McCormick does not have experience in architectural design or any type of training or certification to build homes. His father, however, worked as an architect and planner, which McCormick said contributes to his passion for design.
It also helps McCormick realize that his lack of professional experience could cast doubt on his housing plan.
But, he said, “There is also some room for beginners’ minds in some things.”
McCormick first displayed a prototype of a houselet unit at an art show in October. He plans to showcase a similar installation at the Market Street Prototyping Festival in April, which could potentially be selected to reside long-term on Market Street and serve as a mock-up of such units.
It will likely be modeled after similar low-cost housing units in London, and designed as a platform to depict various housing ideas and models over time, he said.
Tim Colen, executive director of the nonprofit San Francisco Housing Action Coalition that advocates for residential development projects, said microhousing units could benefit the growing number of residents in The City, including the homeless population.
“I’ve never seen one in San Francisco, but why not?” Colen said of introducing houselets.
Such units could be useful particularly because San Francisco is one of the most difficult cities in the U.S. for construction of new development projects, in part due to its extensive appeals process, Colen noted.
McCormick said he does not envision dismantling the current building system in San Francisco, but rather finding short-term or quicker alternatives to help shelter residents.
“You don’t want to just throw the rules out the window and have a slum ... but I think there’s a happy medium between over-regulation that’s leaving tons of people priced out and slum chaos,” McCormick said.