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Airbnb will test prototype homes next year

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky. (Eric Risberg/AP)
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Correction: This story has been updated to say that Airbnb will begin testing prototype homes as soon as next year. Previously, the story quoted a Fast Company report that said Airbnb would begin selling homes in 2019.

Airbnb announced Thursday that it will begin testing prototype homes as soon as next year to accommodate the needs of owners or occupants who rent and share living spaces.

The new project, called Backyard, is “an initiative to prototype new ways that homes can be designed, built, and shared,” the company said in a news release. Just as the company changed the way homeowners use their spare rooms, Airbnb said it would extend its thinking to architecture and construction more broadly. Backyard will assess how novel manufacturing techniques, connected devices and feedback from Airbnb customers can be used to design new types of buildings that adapt to flexible living arrangements.

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In a statement, Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia cited United Nations projections that global construction will rise at an unprecedented rate over the next 40 years, amounting to a new Paris being built every week.

“The way buildings are made is outdated and generates a tremendous amount of waste,” he said. “In order to meet the demands of the future, whether it be climate displacement or rural-urban migration, the home needs to evolve, to think forward.”

Airbnb’s announcement provides a partial road map of the company’s ambitions. The company touts more than 5 million rental listings on its platform, across nearly 200 countries. Since its founding in 2008, it has upended the hospitality industry and drawn the ire of local governments around the world who say the service aggravates housing shortages and facilitates illegal short-term renting.

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Last summer, the New York City Council voted to restrict Airbnb and other home-rental platforms, with the goal of preventing landlords and tenants from renting out their apartments to tourists for short stays. Officials there joined other critics of Airbnb, including policymakers in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., who have sought to regulate short-term rental companies.

Earlier this month, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to impose some of the strongest restrictions in the country on Airbnb and similar companies. The measure would prevent property owners from renting out second homes for short stays and would bar them from offering spare rooms or basements in their primary residences for more than 90 days per year when the host is away.

The initiative announced Thursday could augment Airbnb’s home-rental marketplace, adding real estate development to its portfolio, as cities continue to limit the company’s short-term rentals.

Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business said Airbnb has already achieved a significant design victory by changing how people view the home, creating a hybrid of personal and commercial space for rent.

“Today’s Airbnbs are homes that are built for personal use that are somehow being adapted for occasional commercial use, but the next step is to rethink the home so that mixed-use is there from the get-go,” Sundararajan said. Airbnb’s potential for home listings could grow more if living spaces are designed that way from the start.