By Jacob Bourne
Local prefab developer, Panoramic Interests, revealed its CitySpaces MicroPAD on October 31 at 9th and Mission Streets in San Francisco. The furnished 160 square foot unit will be on display until November 15, marking the beginning of a tour to mobilize interest around the new product, which is designed for stacking into buildings geared for flexible living spaces that support homeless populations. With the Bay Area’s high building costs, Panoramic asserts that the off-site prefabrication assembly cuts construction costs by 40 percent, potentially expediting the creation of housing for those in need.
“More than anything this came out of the demand for it,” said Michael Thomas, director of business development, Panoramic Interests. “There are about 6,700 homeless people in San Francisco. The production of housing for the homeless has been zero.”
Patrick Kennedy, founder of Panoramic Interests has spent the last 25 years developing multifamily residential with a focus on small spaces such as student housing in Berkeley. The company’s first project was a prefab modular building at Harriet Street in San Francisco. Although the Panoramic seven-member team still has some legacy projects in the pipeline, the MicroPAD endeavor has now taken much of the focus.
The vision for the MicroPAD prototype is to become part of a six-story building situated with strong access to social service providers and public transit. The unit has a seismically sound, non-combustible steel construction and provides a self-contained living environment with a bathroom, sink, shower, living area and windows. The design prioritizes natural light exposure, filtered ventilation and features pest, odor and sound barriers. Once a site is chosen and the units are stacked onto a concrete podium, a social service agency will step-in, set-up supportive spaces such as a job training area, and be in charge of the overall operation of the building.
“Everything is up to code and really durable,” offered Thomas. “It’s high quality and people are going to be surprised at how nice a small space can really be. This is the perfect thing for us because of our expertise in modular and small spaces. No one else is going into this other than non-profits, and it’s hard for non-profits to do things quickly. The dream would be to build 10,000 units.”
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director at Coalition on Homelessness, based in the Tenderloin, sees many positives to the MicroPAD initiative, and echoed the importance of creating this type of housing quickly.
“I think it’s really worth pursuing,” Friedenbach commented. “We have thousands of people without homes and there’s not nearly enough coming online, so that adds some urgency to moving this forward in a way that works.”
Friedenbach mentioned that she’s already heard favorable reviews about the design of the prototype, especially regarding the capacity for strong air circulation, however she anticipates some opposition from labor unions as the units will be produced in China instead of locally.
Another hurdle will be finding an appropriate site for the building. Right now Panoramic is searching for parcels in San Francisco and Oakland and has identified a City-owned parcel near Cesar Chavez and Highway 101, currently used as a parking lot by the Department of Public Works. The issue is that City land is not commonly allocated to private developers, but because of the nature of the project, Panoramic is hoping for cooperation from City Hall.
“In terms of financing, it would be great if they’d buy their own land,” said Friedenbach. “They want to take City land, own the land and have the City pay rent. We don’t want our public lands used for profit. If they are willing to buy the land and rent it to the City and make a profit — though not quite as much — that would work better. Another option is that the property can stay in a public trust and they’d just develop the building and the deal ends there with no ownership.”