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SoMa Design Firm Says: the Heck With Buildings, Just Give Us Offices

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Modular units can be plunked down anywhere, assembled in weeks, and rented on the cheap

Development in San Francisco can be the equivalent of a Biblical tribulation, so what if landlords and tenants could forego the process of actually building office space and just have it appear on available land in a couple of weeks?

That is Campsyte's idea: First, locate a landlord with some vacant or underdeveloped property and a willingness to play ball. Then, plunk some converted shipping containers (always popular with the DYI workspace crowd) onto it and fix it up into a respectable working environment. Finally, lease it to businesses who are suffocating for workspace in San Francisco’s punishing commercial real estate climate.

The notion was something of an accident, says Campsyte CEO Dennis Wong. His design company, Aetypic, had outgrown its offices, but had trouble finding a bigger place. One day, Wong looked out the window and noticed a perfectly good parking lot next door without a soul parking in it. "I thought, why can’t someone just put something there?" says Wong.

The idea of delivering new offices without the grind of truly building them is undeniably appealing. Whether it will catch on remains to be seen, but the demand for a cheap and easy solution to office space shortage is clearly there. Office rents hit records highs last October when we beat the previous dot-com record of $66 a square foot by 71 cents. That quarter’s Colliers survey dubbed overall commercial vacancy in San Francisco only 6.1 percent.

Campsyte put one prototype unit on the market last week at 9 Freelon Street, a short alley near 4th and Brannan Streets, two blocks from AT&T Park. It’s a three-level, 320-foot construct for $150 a day or $4,500 a month; that works out to $14 per square foot. You have to dig the shipping container look, of course, although they did spruce it up with reclaimed wood and reused storefront glass.

The design is modular, just preassembled container rooms stacked together like kids’ blocks. Construction took only six weeks. The permitting is temporary, although Wong has a much larger planned workspace that’s working its way through the planning process right now. If approved (there’s one more design review left), he anticipates the entire thing can be assembled in about three months.

It's a bit of a quick and dirty solution. But if it works, there are probably a lot of people who will pay to stack one up for themselves.