Words:
Oliver Wainwright

The way we live could change fundamentally as tech giants like Airbnb harvest our data

Next time you leave a comment about your latest stay on Airbnb, you could be influencing the future of housing. Following the well-trodden path of tech companies working out how to monetise the vast amounts of data they have collected about their users, Airbnb is moving into house building.

‘With a decade of accumulated knowledge about how people travel, live, and share their spaces,’ the firm said recently, ‘Airbnb has a unique responsibility and global opportunity to improve the way we build and share homes.’

The holiday rental company’s co-founder, 37-year-old billionaire Joe Gebbia, is an industrial designer by training, and has flirted with architect collaborations in the past, designing a prototype holiday home with Japanese architect Go Hasegawa in 2016. But now he has established Backyard to focus specifically on what the future of the shareable, rentable, flexible home could look like.

‘We began with a simple question,’ he elaborates. ‘What does a home that is designed and built for sharing actually look and feel like? … Can a home respond to the needs of many inhabitants over a long period of time? Can it support and reflect the tremendous diversity of human experience? Can it keep up with the rate at which the world changes? Can we accomplish this without filling landfills with needless waste?’ Can people share their homes, he might have added, without pricing people out of their own cities, as Airbnb has been accused of doing?

Gebbia has assembled an eclectic team to work on these questions, from interaction designers and architects to roboticists, mechanical and hardware engineers, material specialists and policy experts. Designs have yet to be unveiled, but there are hints that the company is working on an off-site manufactured, modular system. This has been the holy grail of many architects and contractors for decades, but has never reached the economy of scale needed to make it viable. With Airbnb’s billions, might the production-line mass-bespoke dream become a reality.

In what it rather sinisterly calls ‘continuous awareness’, WeWork has installed sensors throughout its spaces to determine how they are used

The flat-rentals website isn’t alone in using its data to start shaping how we live. Co-working giant WeWork, which now has more than 250,000 freelancers around the world, recently also set up a housing arm, WeLive. Taking the millennial loneliness epidemic as its key marketing point, WeLive claims to ‘challenge traditional apartment living through physical spaces that foster meaningful relationships’. From mailrooms and laundry rooms that double as bars and event spaces to communal kitchens, roof decks, and hot tubs, it is a model of co-living that seeks to extend the shared lifestyle of student halls into adulthood – for a price. A WeLive studio in New York starts from more than $3,000 per month, and the company has now submitted plans for its first site in London, in the top floors of Make’s Provost & East building on the corner of Old Street roundabout, aka the Silicon Roundabout.  

In the next frontier of understanding user behaviour to help inform their future designs, WeWork has gone beyond mere digital surveys. In what it rather sinisterly calls ‘continuous awareness’, the company has installed sensors throughout its spaces to determine how they are used, monitoring frequency, timing and duration to understand what makes a space successful. Comparing the system to Facebook’s likes or Amazon’s buying patterns, it says that this ‘datafication of physical space’ will help to calibrate the next generation of buildings for optimal performance. ‘Imagine a conference room that can tell you how it feels,’ writes one of WeWork’s product researchers, ‘and that can provide long-term analysis of the room’s usage over time.’ Be careful not to monopolise your living room so your kitchen feels left out – in future, your home might have feelings too.


Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at the Guardian. Read him here every other month and at ribaj.com. 


Afterword: Kitchens have eyes

It seems every tech company is keen to get in on the housing action. In response to Silicon Valley’s astronomical rents and house prices, Google is spending $30m on modular factory-built housing for its employees, while Facebook is building a ‘village’ of 1,500 homes for its staff. Will their homes be watching too?