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January 19, 2019
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affordable housing

Why you need a supercomputer to build a house

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When the hell did building a house become so complicated?

Don’t let the folks on HGTV fool you. The process of building a home nowadays is incredibly painful. Just applying for the necessary permits can be a soul-crushing undertaking that’ll have you running around the city, filling out useless forms, and waiting in motionless lines under fluorescent lights at City Hall wondering whether you should have just moved back in with your parents.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

And to actually get approval for those permits, your future home will have to satisfy a set of conditions that is a factorial of complex and conflicting federal, state and city building codes, separate sets of fire and energy requirements, and quasi-legal construction standards set by various independent agencies.

It wasn’t always this hard – remember when you’d hear people say “my grandparents built this house with their bare hands?” These proliferating rules have been among the main causes of the rapidly rising cost of housing in America and other developed nations. The good news is that a new generation of startups is identifying and simplifying these thickets of rules, and the future of housing may be determined as much by machine learning as woodworking.

When directions become deterrents

Photo by Bill Oxford via Getty Images

Cities once solely created the building codes that dictate the requirements for almost every aspect of a building’s design, and they structured those guidelines based on local terrain, climates and risks. Over time, townships, states, federally-recognized organizations and independent groups that sprouted from the insurance industry further created their own “model” building codes.

The complexity starts here. The federal codes and independent agency standards are optional for states, who have their own codes which are optional for cities, who have their own codes that are often inconsistent with the state’s and are optional for individual townships. Thus, local building codes are these ever-changing and constantly-swelling mutant books made up of whichever aspects of these different codes local governments choose to mix together. For instance, New York City’s building code is made up of five sections, 76 chapters and 35 appendices, alongside a separate set of 67 updates (The 2014 edition is available as a book for $155, and it makes a great gift for someone you never want to talk to again).

In short: what a shit show.

Because of the hyper-localized and overlapping nature of building codes, a home in one location can be subject to a completely different set of requirements than one elsewhere. So it’s really freaking difficult to even understand what you’re allowed to build, the conditions you need to satisfy, and how to best meet those conditions.

There are certain levels of complexity in housing codes that are hard to avoid. The structural integrity of a home is dependent on everything from walls to erosion and wind-flow. There are countless types of material and technology used in buildings, all of which are constantly evolving.

Thus, each thousand-page codebook from the various federal, state, city, township and independent agencies – all dictating interconnecting, location and structure-dependent needs – lead to an incredibly expansive decision tree that requires an endless set of simulations to fully understand all the options you have to reach compliance, and their respective cost-effectiveness and efficiency.

So homebuilders are often forced to turn to costly consultants or settle on designs that satisfy code but aren’t cost-efficient. And if construction issues cause you to fall short of the outcomes you expected, you could face hefty fines, delays or gigantic cost overruns from redesigns and rebuilds. All these costs flow through the lifecycle of a building, ultimately impacting affordability and access for homeowners and renters.

Startups are helping people crack the code

Photo by Caiaimage/Rafal Rodzoch via Getty Images

Strap on your hard hat – there may be hope for your dream home after all.

The friction, inefficiencies, and pure agony caused by our increasingly convoluted building codes have given rise to a growing set of companies that are helping people make sense of the home-building process by incorporating regulations directly into their software.

Using machine learning, their platforms run advanced scenario-analysis around interweaving building codes and inter-dependent structural variables, allowing users to create compliant designs and regulatory-informed decisions without having to ever encounter the regulations themselves.

For example, the prefab housing startup Cover is helping people figure out what kind of backyard homes they can design and build on their properties based on local zoning and permitting regulations.

Some startups are trying to provide similar services to developers of larger scale buildings as well. Just this past week, I covered the seed round for a startup called Cove.Tool, which analyzes local building energy codes – based on location and project-level characteristics specified by the developer – and spits out the most cost-effective and energy-efficient resource mix that can be built to hit local energy requirements.

And startups aren’t just simplifying the regulatory pains of the housing process through building codes. Envelope is helping developers make sense of our equally tortuous zoning codes, while Cover and companies like Camino are helping steer home and business-owners through arduous and analog permitting processes.

Look, I’m not saying codes are bad. In fact, I think building codes are good and necessary – no one wants to live in a home that might cave in on itself the next time it snows. But I still can’t help but ask myself why the hell does it take AI to figure out how to build a house? Why do we have building codes that take a supercomputer to figure out?

Ultimately, it would probably help to have more standardized building codes that we actually clean-up from time-to-time. More regional standardization would greatly reduce the number of conditional branches that exist. And if there was one set of accepted overarching codes that could still set precise requirements for all components of a building, there would still only be one path of regulations to follow, greatly reducing the knowledge and analysis necessary to efficiently build a home.

But housing’s inherent ties to geography make standardization unlikely. Each region has different land conditions, climates, priorities and political motivations that cause governments to want their own set of rules.

Instead, governments seem to be fine with sidestepping the issues caused by hyper-regional building codes and leaving it up to startups to help people wade through the ridiculousness that paves the home-building process, in the same way Concur aids employee with infuriating corporate expensing policies.

For now, we can count on startups that are unlocking value and making housing more accessible, simpler and cheaper just by making the rules easier to understand. And maybe one day my grandkids can tell their friends how their grandpa built his house with his own supercomputer.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:

News Source = techcrunch.com

Celebrity funds from Jay Z, Will Smith and Robert Downey Jr. are backing a life insurance startup

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Ethos, the company that bills itself as making life insurance accessible, affordable and simple, has officially come out of stealth with an $11.5 million investment led by on of the world’s top venture firms, Sequoia Capital, and additional participation from the family offices of Hollywood’s biggest stars and an NBA all-star.

Jay Z’s Roc Nation, the family funds of Kevin Durant, Robert Downey Jr. and Will Smith all participated in the new round for Ethos, and Sequoia Partner Roelof Botha is taking a seat on the company’s board. Because nothing says star power like a life insurance startup.

The life insurance market is one that’s been attracting interest from venture investors for a little over a year now. Companies like England’s Anorak, HealthIQ, Ladder, Mira Financial, France’s Alan, which is backed by Partech Investments (among others), Fabric, and Quilt, are all pitching life insurance products as well.

Ethos is licensed in 49 states, which is pretty comparable to the offering from providers like Haven Life, the Mass Mutual-backed life insurance product.

What has made the life insurance market interesting for investors is the fact that consumers’ interest in it continues to decline. Whether it’s because no one trusts insurers to actually pay out, or because Americans are putting their faith in the anti-aging technologies from funds like the Longevity Fund, folks just aren’t buying insurance products the way they used to.

So when investors see the numbers of users of a formerly ubiquitous product decline from 77% in 1989 to below 60% in 2018, the assumption is that there’s room for new companies to come in and provide better service.

Scads of investors have taken the same bet, which makes Ethos a marketing play as much as anything else. In the company’s press release it touts the fast, easy, and inexpensive process for getting a quote.

The initial process requires only four questions to et a quote and a ten minute survey to get a policy (in most cases). The company says 99% of its applicants don’t need a medical exam or blood test to get a policy.

What may have been most interesting to investors is the pedigree of the company’s co-founders. Peter Colis and Lingke Wang have both worked in the insurance industry before. They previously co-founded a life insurance marketplace called, Ovid Life

“Life insurance is critical for families, but the process is broken for those who want and need it,” said Peter Colis. “We are consumer advocates, intensely focused on expanding life insurance accessibility to the millions of US families who have college debt, mortgages​, spouses and children​ to care for, and who want to be financially empowered to live their lives without worry.”

Ethos founders Lingke Wang and Peter Colis

News Source = techcrunch.com

Shared housing startups are taking off

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When young adults leave the parental nest, they often follow a predictable pattern. First, move in with roommates. Then graduate to a single or couple’s pad. After that comes the big purchase of a single-family home. A lawnmower might be next.

Looking at the new home construction industry, one would have good reason to presume those norms were holding steady. About two-thirds of new homes being built in the U.S. this year are single-family dwellings, complete with tidy yards and plentiful parking.

In startup-land, however, the presumptions about where housing demand is going looks a bit different. Home sharing is on the rise, along with more temporary lease options, high-touch service and smaller spaces in sought-after urban locations.

Seeking roommates and venture capital

Crunchbase News analysis of residential-focused real estate startups uncovered a raft of companies with a shared and temporary housing focus that have raised funding in the past year or so.

This isn’t a U.S.-specific phenomenon. Funded shared and short-term housing startups are cropping up across the globe, from China to Europe to Southeast Asia. For this article, however, we’ll focus on U.S. startups. In the chart below, we feature several that have raised recent rounds.

Notice any commonalities? Yes, the startups listed are all based in either New York or the San Francisco Bay Area, two metropolises associated with scarce, pricey housing. But while these two metro areas offer the bulk of startups’ living spaces, they’re also operating in other cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle and Pittsburgh.

From white picket fences to high-rise partitions

The early developers of the U.S. suburban planned communities of the 1950s and 60s weren’t just selling houses. They were selling a vision of the American Dream, complete with quarter-acre lawns, dishwashers and spacious garages.

By the same token, today’s shared housing startups are selling another vision. It’s not just about renting a room; it’s also about being part of a community, making friends and exploring a new city.

One of the slogans for HubHaus is “rent one of our rooms and find your tribe.” Founded less than three years ago, the company now manages about 80 houses in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, matching up roommates and planning group events.

Starcity pitches itself as an antidote to loneliness. “Social isolation is a growing epidemic—we solve this problem by bringing people together to create meaningful connections,” the company homepage states.

The San Francisco company also positions its model as a partial solution to housing shortages as it promotes high-density living. It claims to increase living capacity by three times the normal apartment building.

Costs and benefits

Shared housing startups are generally operating in the most expensive U.S. housing markets, so it’s difficult to categorize their offerings as cheap. That said, the cost is typically lower than a private apartment.

Mostly, the aim seems to be providing something affordable for working professionals willing to accept a smaller private living space in exchange for a choice location, easy move-in and a ready-made social network.

At Starcity, residents pay $2,000 to $2,300 a month, all expenses included, depending on length of stay. At HomeShare, which converts two-bedroom luxury flats to three-bedrooms with partitions, monthly rents start at about $1,000 and go up for larger spaces.

Shared and temporary housing startups also purport to offer some savings through flexible-term leases, typically with minimum stays of one to three months. Plus, they’re typically furnished, with no need to set up Wi-Fi or pay power bills.

Looking ahead

While it’s too soon to pick winners in the latest crop of shared and temporary housing startups, it’s not far-fetched to envision the broad market as one that could eventually attract much larger investment and valuations. After all, Airbnb has ascended to a $30 billion private market value for its marketplace of vacation and short-term rentals. And housing shortages in major cities indicate there’s plenty of demand for non-Airbnb options.

While we’re focusing here on residential-focused startups, it’s also worth noting that the trend toward temporary, flexible, high-service models has already gained a lot of traction for commercial spaces. Highly funded startups in this niche include Industrious, a provider of flexible-term, high-end office spaces, Knotel, a provider of customized workplaces, and Breather, which provides meeting and work rooms on demand. Collectively, those three companies have raised about $300 million to date.

At first glance, it may seem shared housing startups are scaling up at an off time. The millennial generation (born roughly 1980 to 1994) can no longer be stereotyped as a massive band of young folks new to “adulting.” The average member of the generation is 28, and older millennials are mid-to-late thirties. Many even own lawnmowers.

No worries. Gen Z, the group born after 1995, is another huge generation. So even if millennials age out of shared housing, demographic forecasts indicate there will plenty of twenty-somethings to rent those partitioned-off rooms.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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