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Inside the modular home inspired by dumpster living

“What we have here is a solution,” says founder

Photos by Patricia Chang

Austin-based startup Kasita’s micro, 352-square-foot prefabricatited modular apartments are, in all likelihood, the best thing to ever come out of a Texas dumpster.

Once upon a time, Kasita founder Jeff Wilson was dean at Austin’s Huston-Tillotson University, where he made headlines in 2014 for his sustainable living experiment living inside a 33-square-foot modified dumpster for one year.

“It was an experiment in being part of the one percent—as in, one percent the size of the average American home,” Wilson tells Curbed SF.

Although this sounds like a stunt, the experiment did yield tangible results, sending Wilson away with the nickname “Professor Dumpster” and with ambitions to design and market the ultimate sustainable tiny apartment.

“We could end up with a house under $10,000 that could be placed anywhere in the world,” he speculated in comments to The Atlantic in 2014.

The modular home that Wilson parked in San Francisco’s Mission Bay last Friday, in a bid to attract the curious eyes of potential San Francisco buyers and builders, is not so modest: Kasita’s pre-made apartments start at $89,000 for a studio unit that variously measures between 352 and 370 square feet, depending on the method used.

So, why would Wilson leave the relative comfort and security of academia in favor of what he calls “the least secure position in the world” as head of a startup?

“Largely because the whole situation was fucked,” he tells Curbed SF.

By “the whole situation” he means the housing crisis.

“Something had to be done about it,” Wilson continues. “We’re dealing with a real problem here, not just making an app for something that your mom used to do for you like a lot of these companies.”

Kasita began selling homes in 2017. Benji Miller, director of operations, estimates that they produce roughly one unit per week right now. He also says approximately half of the company’s backlog orders are California-based.

The Kasita concept is that a single unit can be plopped down to serve as a single home all on its own—probably as a backyard in-law or cottage, zoning permitted—or that developers may stack the modular homes into multi-family building designs.

Miller says the company considers four- to five-story buildings ideal, noting that at around 75 square feet it starts to become more challenging and expensive to keep the structure sound. He estimates construction time at about half that of standard means.

As for the tiny apartment interiors, a Kasita home is essentially a portable showcase of modern apartment aesthetics, with the modular, encased quality of the unit giving the impression that NASA is getting ready to fire contemporary design trends into space.

Each home is also wired so that Alexa or a similar home assistant can operate the lights and appliance with a single command.

But the real pitch is the efficiency of the layout, which turns the claustrophobic-sounding 350-plus-foot specs into something that seems larger and more humane through its tall 11-foot ceilings, large projecting windows, and elevated spaces that break up the boxiness of the design while also providing underneath storage.

Although it’s healthy to be skeptical of micro-home entrepreneurs who come to town with promises about how it’s “really not so small once you’re inside,” the truth is the interior of a Kasita really is surprisingly comfortable relative to the capsule-like exterior.

“We had 25 people in here this morning and it didn’t even feel uncomfortable,” Wilson bragged on a Mission Bay tour of the micro-unit.

Even the bathroom can accommodate four standing people simultaneously—should it need to, for whatever reason.

Prefab homes seem like an attractive idea for housing-starved Bay Area metros. But more often than not, cities fail to actually bite when the offer is made. In 2015, CityLab pooh-pooed Kasita as “a solution search of a problem.”

But more sympathetic outlets like Forbes hailed the homes as an answer to the “mobility-starved void in the dead center of one of the largest segments of the U.S. economy.” And Wilson remains confident that the Bay Area will turn up for Kasitas in the near future, as both technology and growing necessity develop.

“Building single family homes in downtown San Francisco isn’t going to solve anything,” he says. “What we have here is a solution.”