Berkeley developer sees future in small, smart homes

The prototype SmartSpace nestled in a secret Berkeley location offers all the essentials for an urban dweller -- and no more. Photos: Tracey Taylor

In a top-secret location in Berkeley, Patrick Kennedy is showing a reporter around a tiny living space — so compact in fact that, at 160 sq ft, it is the smallest apartment one is legally allowed to build.

“It is how small you can go without causing psychological problems,” jokes Kennedy, who, through his company, Panoramic Interests, is responsible for developing swathes of Berkeley. His projects include the Gaia Building on Allston Way, the Berkeleyan Apartments on Oxford Street, and the Touriel Building on University.

The “bijou” apartment in which we are standing, with its trompe l’oeil view of the Bay Bridge, is the prototype for the SmartSpace, a largely prefabricated, furnished space that, when multiplied and stacked together like Lego blocks, creates a fully fledged apartment building.

The SmartSpace comes with a sofa that doubles as a bed, a desk that doubles as a breakfast counter, a window bench that, at a pinch, doubles as a spare bed, a diminutive bathroom, and a surprisingly large amount of storage space.

Working with local company Zeta, Kennedy is developing two such buildings in San Francisco’s SoMa and Mission neighborhoods.

And Kennedy hopes to bring them to Berkeley too. He is bidding to build one 300-plus bedroom project for UC Berkeley. Kennedy believes these sustainably built, economical units would be perfect for students.

Housing developer Patrick Kennedy hopes to build SmartSpaces for Cal in Berkeley

Or for any modern city dweller for whom home need not mean much more than where you wake up and go to sleep.

“They distill the essence of urban living in that they are efficient, esthetically pleasing and easily duplicated,” says Kennedy of the units.

The apartments will not offer parking — the assumption being that downtown residents will rely on public transit and/or bikes. The San Francisco units will rent for $1,595 a month.

The tiny apartment has a decent amount of storage space

The fact that the unit is prefabricated — once the units are stacked together, all that needs to be added is the “skin” to make it an apartment building — keeps costs and building waste down. To emphasize the point, Kennedy remarks that Jesus, a carpenter if  you recall, would likely feel at home with the balloon framing method most homes are built with these days.

“Traditional ways of building means you start from scratch every time,” he says. Case in point, Kennedy has worked with most, if not all Berkeley-based architects over the years designing new projects. For SmartSpace, he sought the input of many local firms, including Ratcliff Architects, Trachtenberg Architects, Kahn Design Associates, Lowney Architects, and Mikiten Architecture.

An MIT student lived for three weeks in the Berkeley-located model in order to test it out, and it is very much a work in progress. Already, the 2.0 version has incorporated upgrades such as an extra seven feet of space, a reconfigured bathroom and the addition of a washer/drier.

Although the focus of the SmartSpace roll-out is currently San Francisco, Kennedy is hoping to be able to be back on his usual stomping ground soon.

“I’m homesick to work in Berkeley,” he says. “It’s a regulatory thicket in San Francisco. Also, Berkeley began embracing the concept of high density living 10 years ago. It’s a city that has gotten the gospel about urban infill.”

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  • Greg

    Dang.  My assumption was that this is but a dry run for that project.  Does this mean demo unit isn’ t on that site?

    Do you know anything about the state of the project on the corner lot?

  • Christopher Mei

    This are perfect if you don’t have a lot of stuff. Perfect for saints like Francis, Luis Obispo, etc.

  • TizziLish

    For general feedback, when I first read the story, I totally got the “trompe l’oeil view of the Bay Bridge”. That excellent writing choice prompted me to take another look at the photo, helped me think a bit more closely about the staged model.  It made some sense to me that the developer would use a painted view to give the model the sense of having a view. It also caused me to wonder about actual windows in a building comprised almost entirely of 160 sq. foot homes:  how  could it be very cost effective AND have real windows?

    The writing choices you made, Tracey, made it clear that it was not a real view.  And the choice of a painted view for his model is interesting. Real estate selling models are built to sell something, right? Kennedy is selling something and I bet he placed this story as part of his marketing. This story’s placement might be how people with money and influence build their influence. Is this propaganda, marketing, news, influence-building? Is the whole concept a trompe l’oeil view?

    I wondered, also, when I read the story the first time earlier today, what it might be like to live in a space with no windows, no meaningful access to even a sliver of natural light. Is that part of the human future?  I get how a real estate developer could make some money building tiny homes in places with very expensive real estate. The idea of such tiny homes is intriguing as well as full of portent.

    I think this concept and its underlying economics and “sustainability”, not to mention quality-of-life for people living in such places,  raise some very interesting questions, most of which would be meaningfully answered long after Mr. Kennedy has negotiated zoning exemptions, scored favorable development deals from the cities he works in, built and then sold his product, made his money and moved on, leaving the consequences of his score for the community to live with for generations.  It seems very meaningful to me that Mr. Kennedy developed the buildings in Berkeley the article credits him with but the article does not state that he sold those buildings, took his money and ran, changing the shape of Berkeley for present and future residents whilst scoring big time for himself.

    I am certain there would be a profit opportunity for a well connected real estate developer if he has the money and influence (or the money to buy that influence — politicians seem to come cheap when developers in Berkeley & everywhere seek zoning favors) to con city staffers and politicians into letting him build 160 sq foot homes. But profit to a guy like Kennedy is not really the conversation that the community should be having.

    Mr. Kennedy is a very slick real estate developer. Not a philanthropist. Not even a long-term landlord invested in the quality of life in the properties he develops. He uses money to buy and/or grow influence, develops his deals, makes his money and moves on. In a way, what he does it equivalent to a trompe l’oeil view. He’s selling fake views but real people and real cities will be stuck with the consequences of 160 sq foot homes.

  • Veloasia

    No you shouldn’t, nobody really reads, or thinks anymore but freely spout off. I feel for you journalists.

  • Francella

    Dreams to help the homeless or low income wage earners, or even seniors is good reason to create these tiny, smart homes, but whats wrong with this picture is not the trompe l’oeil painting but the price. We need affordable housing.Hasn’t this guy Patrick Kennedy made enough money on his current projects? Greed has got to go!

  • N

    Okay I re-read it and see the “top secret location” Ooooo how intriguing. Oh, and I also see the “trompe l’oeil” — sorry i missed that, but it’s not everyday a featured rental or piece of real estate tries to conceal its location with a “trompe l’oeil.”

  • N

     No kitchen but an in-unit washer and dryer?? In a 160 sq. ft. room???

    So all these rooms packed into this building have in-unit washer/dryers? (something most regular apts. in Berkeley don’t have, btw)

    So much for the small carbon footprint/simple living idea.

  • N

    The point is that the company is NOT going to maximize its profits because nobody would be dumb enough to pay this price for a 160 sq. ft. room.

  • N

    Aside from the ridiculously high rent amount that no sane person would pay for a room without kitchen access, the other odd thing I noticed is that they have IN-UNIT washer/dryers. In 160 sq ft rooms. Without kitchens. Kinda kooky.

  • N

     Yeah, but the best part is that there’s no kitchen but…….. IN-UNIT washer/dryers! LOL. So much for “SmartSpace”

  • N

     Yeah, it would be a good idea if they were priced at, like, half of what the rent is (1,600/mo!!). Or maybe a quarter of that considering there’s no kitchen access. 1,600/mo. tells me someone’s being greedy.

    Plus, no kitchen but an in-unit washer/dryer? I mean, seriously, wth. A washer/dryer in all these units defeats the whole purpose of a sustainable “SmartSpace” building. More like StupidSpace.

  • stinker

    I clicked to see more pictures.  All I see is a picture of a dude and a cabinet space. 

  • Haselstein

    So the maximum occupancy would be one person? 

  • Abdelrahman Mahmoud

    where would one sleep :D

  • Dan D

    This is almost exactly what I pay for a studio in the East Village, Manhattan and it’s almost exactly the same size. No fake (or real) view to speak of, though.

  • Sean42807

    Japan has had this since the 70’s. This is not something new.

  • Charles_Siegel

    It is for people who want to eat in restaurants but don’t want to do their laundry in laundromats.

    I can imagine lots of people fitting that profile. Lots of people enjoy restaurants.  No one enjoys laundromats.

  • Toni Mester

    Your profile is a speculation. The problem in Berkeley is that nobody is doing any comprehensive housing market analysis. The current COB Housing Element mixes policies with bean counting, which leaves the developers to do their own analyses. I talked with one developer the other night at the Planning Commission who told me that he had to enquire at the sales desk of a new development for a demographic of their leasees, which was not forthcoming. The other problem is that design review has no teeth but is simply advisory to ZAB and their meetings are not noticed. So there’s no comprehensive design leadership either. As a result we have lovely buildings like the Bachenheimer, which you and I both admire, and that cold oversized Quansot (sp?) hut on Center Street called The Arpeggio, which has gone into foreclosure.

  • EBGuy

    It looks like the 2711 Shattuck units are around 260 sq.ft. per unit (100 square feet more than the model featured in the article).  I noticed an airstream trailer on Google Maps at 2711 Shattuck; perhaps that is their model (or they use it for inspiration!)
    Greg, you will have a nice neighborhood….. some day.  Good to see the renderings for that corner lot; wondering if it will get built as well.

  • serkes

    I love the idea!  The rental market will clearly speak to what people are willing to pay for rent.

    It reminded me of my stay at The Pod Hotel a few years ago when attending a conference at Rockefeller Center.

    It was a very small room with bathroom/shower down the hall.  I think they may have had lights in the room so I could tell if the bathroom was occupied.

    For my purposes it was perfect – great location (near a subway stop – no surprise there) and I really loved the courtyard and roof deck.

    The $/sq-ft was probably higher than a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria .. but I was looking at the total nightly cost rather than cost/sq ft.

    To get an idea of how small … and well done a unit can be … check out the Oakwood Apartments in Shinjuku.  The bathroom was amazing work of engineering and design … and as Mike Rosenheimer would say, even had a fluffer-buffer.  The units were 21 Square Meters (about 225 sq ft … or 40% larger than the 160 sq ft Bijou unit in this article)

    As far as the view …. referencing “a top-secret location in Berkeley” and seeing “tromp l’oeil view of the Bay Bridge” were sufficient clues for me to realize that it was a photo. My guess is that unless you select a cruise ship inside cabin, code likely requires an window which opens.


  • Greg

    Ahh, good catch on the square footage.

    This is also your neighborhood, correct?
    ‘Nice’ is relative.  It is already the nicest neighborhood I’ve ever lived in.  The planned projects will just serve to make it ‘nicer’ in my opinion.

    Personally I really like the renderings for that corner lot project.  From what I found online about the current owners my *guess* is it will not be built unless another developer decides to take it off their hands.  Obviously I’m hoping that happens.

  • serkes

    Berkeley’s Sainted Streets are likely all zoned for single family homes.

  • serkes

    Only the one which choose to remain “In a top-secret location” for now.


  • Haselstein

    But it was a hotel. And these are hotel rooms. SROs. In my humble opinion, what Berkeley needs more is family-size apartments. With kitchens, so people can prepare meals. 

  • Annie

    Sick. Developers have taken the tiny house movement as a chance to profit by cramming as many people as possible into a property for huge per unit prices. The same thing is happening in Vancouver. Big ticket prices for a jail cell sized space.

  • serkes

    The Pod Hotel was indeed a hotel.

    I recall the Shinjuku had a kitchen.  It may have been built as condos or apartments.


  • HHH

    The article says $1600 is for the apt in SF, not Berkeley.

  • peakchoicedotorg

    It’s not “sustainable” to eat all of your food in restaurants using food grown in different time zones or countries.

  • Tonic50

    Buy the cool book Tiny Homes:Simple Shelter by Kahn if you want to see unique tiny spaces with lots of creativity, light and low cost.  At the Builders bookstore on 4th Street where Kahn signed books on Thursday. The locations and fotos are beautiful.  It gently asks the question–What do I need to be happy, and how can I create that space in a harmonious manner?  Just plain fun to see what people came up with.

  • Syd

    I would probably live in one of these tiny apartments if the following were possible: a kitchen with at least two burners and a real oven instead of a washer/dryer, the chance to change what appears to be the same type of uncomfortable futon/couch that my mom owns (works great for a couple of nights sleep, but that’s it), space for a bike, and no more than $1200 for the rent. I’m currently living in grad student housing that is a studio around 170sq ft. It has everything I need except the oven for $1000 per month in Central London.

  • Syd

    Or a shared laundry room in the building.

  • Kirstendirksen
  • I wish I could “like ” this 1,000 times!  I love living small, but I really hate to think this would be a “have to” for anyone.  Loved your last paragraph. Great summation.  Wish I could be that articulate.

  • The pricing is utterly ridiculous. Some people are saying that’s a good price for 160sqft, but do you realize that not all of it is USABLE? You’ll probably be getting less than 100sqft of usable space in these prefabs, if that. Granted, it’s a good idea to have small living spaces; It allows for more rental units in cities where the native residents are being crowded out by transplants. But make them affordable, at least. 
    I remember that only 10 years ago I was living in a 2 BR apartment in Berkeley on King st near Prince for $610/mo. And only 5 years before that, living in a studio apartment on Oak st. and Buchannan (the big brick one) for $325/mo. To all those damn hipsters who NEED to live in SOMA: Shut up and look around the rest of the city. You can live in the Sunset, the Richmond, Excelsior, Daly City, Civic Center, Lower Mission. Ever heard of those places? Well, they’re a lot cheaper to live in, and probably safer, than your stupid “loft” apartment in SOMA which have been price-boosted just for your hipster income bracket.

    I was born and raised in SF, and am kind of sick of people whining about how much the rent is. The outsiders caused it to go up, and they’re keeping it up by insisting on living in certain areas because it’s “cool” to have an address there, even if it’s nothing more than a closet. Suck it up.

  • Jacob Lynn

    You’re getting very excited about this… but I suspect the trompe l’oeil view is only in the sample unit, and that the real apartments will have real windows of exactly the size that you see here. I believe that this is in fact the law.

  • Jacob Lynn

    If the apartments aren’t worth $1600/month, people won’t live there. This isn’t magic. It’s just another option for people who would prefer that small spaces be an option. And somehow “profits” has become a bad word.

  • Earthartist

    this is beyond ridiculous. this is the developer who also said all of his units were 100% “accessble” in Berkeley years back and lost on that one too, all a fabrication. 160 sq ft for 1600. a mo is the greed speaking VERY LOUDLY, the needs to shelve this stupid, unhealthy and opportunistic idea, or go live in one of them himself! try it on for size dude!

  • Amylturnbull

    CubixSF had difficulty selling these–will renting be different? I’m moving to San Francisco and I know it’s tough finding an affordable place to live but $1,500 is about $500 more than I feel comfortable spending for a place to live. I love the idea–I just wish it was cheaper! 

  • Joe2squeeeze

    $1600. a month. Smoke some more from the Greed Pipe! Sure the view is nice but I bet you adore looking at your fat wallet over ant scenery. It 160 sq. ft. Get real !

  • Utopia217

    Giving any project to Kennedy is a major mistake. All of his buildings leak. Our seven unit building has spent north of $200k fixing leaks to this day with another $50k this year.–By-RICHARD-BRENNEMAN

  • probusybody

    trompe l’oeil DOES need to be made more obvious, even in over-educated Berkeley. Times change…

  • bruxe

    I kind of agree… that amount of rent is staggering …

    … but it costs $160,000 to build one of these, if this guy is to be believed, according to another one of his videos. That means that $160 would require at a minimum 100 months of rent at $1600 to pay off for a landlord … plus of course maintenance and profit.

    If it is borrowed money, figure you have to pay double so the payoff period is 200 months or 17 years before break-even. I agree these are expensive, but unless the government gets involved and invokes eminent domain or does something out of the box … how else are they supposed to afford to pay for doing this?