By Nash Hurley
Creating a sustainable legacy for America’s Car Culture
As part of our larger Network Communities research, we have been investigating gaps in the existing marketplace — between what we produce today and what these networked communities will need. These will be the products and the services that will allow people to seek value and create economic opportunity in new places outside of the traditional city centers.
If I have learned one thing this year, it is that “should” is a horrible motivator, and any product or service based on telling people they should do something is a recipe for failure. From density to diet to diapers — telling people that they should do something does not produce results. Should has not decreased our ecological footprint, lessened our weight, or emptied our landfills.
We need to see things differently in order to do things differently. We need to accept who we are, what we have done, and where we want to go. Let’s begin.
We are Americans. For a long time we have organized our built environment around our evolving car culture. As a consequence, we have not only built massive public highway systems and vast fields of parking lots, but we have also enclosed an enormous amount of private, residential garage space.
We are moving towards more distributed models for work. Liberated by technology, more of us will have options for where to live and how to work. Gone are the benign debates over open-office or closed-office, replaced by much higher-stakes gambles of centralized headquarters or work-from-anywhere distributed real estate investments. But what does work-from-anywhere look like? And who is going to pay for it? Does it mean expanding the frontiers of our suburbs, adding buildings to our backyards, working by ourselves in our dining rooms? I hope not, if we can see things differently.
The answer might be right in front of us. American garages are one of the most reliably creative work spaces in the world. Disney, Apple, Amazon, Mattel, Google, and Microsoft, — not to mention countless rock bands — all started in American garages. Their magic is simple. They empower creatives to come together in small groups and share ideas. They give us permission to be messy while we figure things out; and they are almost universally accessible with direct access to the outside. However, so far, they are not a big part of our vision for the work-from-anywhere future. I would argue that garages, and other underutilized spaces like them, need to be if our Network Communities is to become a reality.
The limitation of our foresight may be due to an understandable mental block and three readily solvable problems. The first problem is one of storage — as Americans we have a lot of stuff and we need a place to put it. Because of their size, garages have historically met that need well. The second is one of climate — most homes in America are located in climate zones that require significant heating or cooling for large parts of the year. (It may not be a coincidence that many of the garage spaces that figure prominently in our Fountainhead-like, corporate origin stories also happen to be located in favorable climates.) The third is a problem of regulation. Many jurisdictions require a garage space or two for each home, while also requiring that the garage is not used for habitation. They are designate spaces for stuff not people. This is what your neighbor means by his “illegal”garage conversion that he is so proud of. His home improvement is in violation of your local planning department’s zoning ordinance that requires a garage space. Habitation may not be inherently a harmful act. It just goes against your planning department’s expectations for how you, the property owner, should use that space and they are concerned about the ramifications if everyone were to use it in ways that differ from their standard — specifically what this might mean for the stuff that is normally would be stored in your garage ending up on your front lawn.
While zoning code can be intimidating, or at the very least deathly boring, our mental block might actually be our biggest hurdle — especially outside of the garage startup culture of California. There is a term for this, which is “functional fixedness,” where a person can only see the use of something one particular way; but garages, like most parts of our built environment, have a rich and varied history of uses. If we can see a spectrum of their historical uses, perhaps we can also begin to understand a garage space is just as equally valid as a creative work environment or storage container or as a car shelter. Going back a hundred years, when garages first entered the lexicon of American space types they had a very specific purpose — to keep cars running. They were first and foremost a work space, a space for mechanics to operate, because at the time, cars were typically open-aired and they broke down all the time. Specialized services like neighborhood mechanics and gas stations had not yet come into being. Your personal garage was a vital part of the operation of your car. Today that is not the case but we still have the space dedicated as if it were and those habits have an impact. We have inherited a built environment where more than 66% of American homes have some sort of a garage. This means that if you have a reliable hard-topped car that you can park outside, you also have approximately 200sf-600sf of already-built, creative, swing-space in your home.
With more flexible expectations of our garages in place, we can focus on the logistical problems of making garage space a building block of our work-from-anywhere future. To begin, freeing our garage space from the tyranny of storage is relatively straightforward — just compare the dimensional specifics of American garages with what humans actually need from their collaboration space.
Conveniently, American cars are quite large. This has resulted in the average American garage also being quite large — ranging from 10’-0” x 22’-0” for a small one-car garage to 24’-0” x 24’-0” for a generous two car garage. (We will skip discussing three-car garages.) In terms of human workspace needs, a space optimized for collaboration for a group of say four people would be smaller, squarish — measuring only 10’-0” x 12’-0”. So, looking at the needs of people and the dimensions of our existing garage stock, we can anticipate that least a 10’-0” x 10’-0” residual space (and oftentimes two to three times that) in addition to a new creative workspace within our garage footprint. Said another way, your new work-from-anywhere creative space does not need to take over your whole garage, it just needs to provide enough space for you and your colleagues to come together — your garage band of workmates, if you will, and that it likely to leave you with plenty of space left over to store your stuff.
We are not the only ones seeing the opportunity of underutilized spaces in America. In November REEF announced a $700M infusion of capital to advance their play to drive more value into existing parking lots by focusing on neighborhood needs and well-designed experiences. Just this last week, the startup Stuf shared their seed funding to turn the forgotten corners of our basements into positive cashflow for building owners. Residential garages are one more opportunity for people to get more value out of something that they have and as a culture we have deployed at scale. The dimensional reliability of both our garages and collaborative needs make them particularly responsive at scaleable, productized solutions, what we have been calling The Garage Pod. We see these pods as a unique and particularly cost-effective opportunity to support our evolving work-from anywhere world — remembering that it is about giving people a healthy space to come together, collaborate and share ideas.
Getting into specifics, the Garage Pod has highly-insulative walls, a plug-in radiant heater and a perimeter trickle vent that provides year-round comfort and access to 100% outside air. It is more oversized furniture than architecture — providing just the right amount of creative space while acting like a cozy sleeping bag for focus work. As a product, a Garage Pod also represents a culmination of a lot of decision-making which we can be a helpful lubricant for open, honest conversations with your local planning department. They want to ensure people will be safe and that they are approving uses that will lead to a vibrant built environment in their jurisdiction. Trust and reliability will be critical to creating new agreements with your local planning departments for how to use our garage space. Ultimately, your local planning department will need to become comfortable with garages as occupied spaces. Your neighbor’s illegal renovation cannot scale and therefore cannot yield the economic opportunity that we need at scale.
And there are good reasons for planners to get comfortable — with abundant outside air, direct access to sidewalks and a reduced need to engage with public transportation and elevators — a Garage Pod may be one of the safer options in our new work-from-anywhere normal.
As for who will pay for the bill, I am optimistic for how a product-based solution can also help employees and employers begin a grownup conversation of who will pay for the future of work space in a work-from-anywhere world. If remote work is a transfer of real-estate costs from employer to the employee, as some would suggest, then the Garage Pod offers the opportunity for a hybrid model where perhaps the employee provides the land, and the employer provisions the equipment, in this case the Garage Pod, to create an effective, holistic work environment.
As for why we should be looking for underutilized spaces first and building new spaces second, I think it is important to remember that over the course of my lifetime, Americans have nearly doubled the amount of space per person in our homes. While we are bigger, we are not that much bigger. I ask that before we expand our urban and suburban ecological frontiers further to support an unknown future of work, before we turn backyards into buildings, that we take a beat and try to see things differently. Acknowledging what we have already built may just allow us to find a very sustainable legacy for one of our least sustainable attributes — America’s car culture.
Nash Hurley is the founder and principal at researched-based architecture consulting practice, Vital, based in San Francisco. Josh Emig is an independent consultant working on multiple projects to help companies think about and deliver innovative products in the built environment.
Goat, Leslie. “Housing the Horseless Carriage: America Early Private Garages.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture Vol. 3, 1989 — link
Henderson, Katie “11 famous garage startups that now rule the world.” Business Pundit. July 16, 2016 — link
Meisenzahl, Mary “Starting in a garage is crucial to the origin story of many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Here are the modest beginnings of 5 tech companies worth billions today.” Business Insider. Apr 1, 2020 — link
Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “Two-thirds of all Housing Units Had a Garage or Carport in 2017.” FOTW#1058, December 3, 2018 — link
Perry, Mark “New US homes today are 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973 and living space per person has nearly doubled” link; synthesis of “CHARACTERISTICS OF NEW HOUSING” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2015 — link