06 January 2011

Outsourcing The House

You probably don't have a cook, a butler, a live in maid, a stable boy, or a live in gardener. It isn't unlikely, however, sometimes pay someone to cook food for you and deliver it to your table, to mow your lawn, to clean your house, to plan your child's wedding, to press your shirts, or to maintain your car. The personal services industry employs many people, but today, those people are organized as independent contract small business people who provide the same service to many customers, rather than as household servants.

Suppose that you take that idea one step further. Suppose that in addition to outsourcing the work of people who work in your house, you outsource the house as well. We're already seeing this happen, and the trend is likely to continue.

Outsourcing the Workshop, Shed, Basement and Attic

One of the first instances of outsourcing household space was the safety deposit box which is a substitute for a household safe.

Many gun clubs offer safe storage of firearms intended for hunting or target shooting or as collector's items, away from your home, an increasingly relevant consideration in an area where many dorms and public housing don't permit them, and where prudence and state and local laws and ordinances require safe storage of firearms or impose liability for failure to safely store firearms. This obviously doesn't make sense for a firearm kept to defend one's home against intruders, but many firearms aren't intended for that purpose and many people have multiple firearms and don't need all of them to be in their home at once.

There is a whole industry that sells storage units to people who lack basements or sheds or attics or unused closets to hold their infrequently used stuff. These used to be limited to glorified garages (and many offer RV parking as well), but now there are climate controlled storage units and units specially designed to handle special contents like wine collections. Who hasn't seen one of the "PODS" parked in front of someone's house to be filled, taken away, and then retrieved (possible at a new and different house) later? What if there were a business that had mini-PODS that were tucked away with your out of season clothes that sent you a reminder card at a date you set when you thought you might want them again?

There are already several off site file storage companies, and "cloud computing" which stores data and computer program resources at some remote Internet accessible location is becoming commonplace, even for household users.

Down the road from my office is a place that rents workshops and studios for people who don't have their own.

Reading, Office Space and Study Space

Many new developments have community mailboxes rather than mailboxes attached to individual houses. One could imagine a neighborhood "reading room" that would be sort of a mini-library, with a full compliment of newspaper and magazine subscriptions, coffee and teapots, and a small stash of trashy reading - many campgrounds across the American West have that kind of space.

My own office, while fairly conventional, includes use of a break room, reception services, copying machines and scanners, fax machines, a lobby and conference rooms that are shared by the suite, and if I wanted to have a home office while not having real estate nice enough to meet with clients, I could arrange to have a "virtual office" with all of the services except the room devoted exclusive to me - those would be available on a reservation basis for a certain number of hours a month. Most virtual offices are oriented towards small businesses (and this also avoids some of the hassle of trying to take a home office deduction for tax purposes).

One can imagine a virtual office oriented towards students instead. More of more neighborhood library branches now have study rooms and community rooms where people might otherwise have gathered in a living room or large home office, that receive heavy use. University libraries have long had study carrels, but as studying and research become divorced from physical books, it wouldn't be too surprising to see a place that offered study carrel rentals by the semester together with a few hours a month of group study rooms time minus the library in the future. The neighborhood study rooms could have tutors on staff to help answer questions, actively encourage the formation of homework groups and writer's critique groups, have small stores that sold school supplies and snacks, and offered Internet access and affordable subscriptions to academic journal databases or virtual libraries. These kind of spaces might be particularly attractive to students in online high school or college programs, and to non-traditional students who need to get away from a chaos of a home full of children and all sorts of household activities and attention demands. Perhaps these kinds of centers could be natural outgrowths of branch college campuses, community colleges, or franchised tutoring businesses.


The outsourcing of the guest room and entertaining areas has probably not yet run its course.

Once upon a time, birthday party's at home were very common; now there is a whole industry built on creating usually indoor "play spaces" for children's parties complete with separate rooms for eating cake and opening presents on one hand, and racing around having fun on the other.

Coffee shops and bars aren't just places where you buy coffee and beer, they are to a great extent outsourced parlors and living rooms.

Many restaurants offer private rooms for meal gatherings.

While there have been hotels where out of town guests can be housed, and where one can rent rooms for events, this really hasn't penetrated the "house outsourcing" market yet. When I was in law school, a lived for a year in the law school dormitories called the "law club." This had, in addition to a sharing dining area, a mail room, and a shared recreation area, a suite of guest rooms where visiting friends and family could stay. This would be a natural addition to a subdivision of not so big houses, alleviating the anxiety of people who feel the need to own a house based on their peak need, rather than their usual need. For example, a senior citizen's development might be much more attractive if residents knew there were places in the complex where their children and grandchildren could stay on holiday visits. In existing neighborhoods, converting an existing property into a guest house or bed and breakfast for out of town family and household guests might offer more intimacy and walkable access to your host's home than sending guests off to a Holiday Inn or Motel 6, and thus be a more socially acceptable option for space constrained families. In fact, a number of new high rise developments combine condominiums and hotel rooms in the same building.

There is also a small but growing niche of places where one can entertain guests and hold parties that are separate from full fledged hotels oriented towards business conferences and large weddings where many guests are staying overnight, particularly as fewer people have natural and easy access to church halls, civic club halls and country clubs. Some condo complexes and apartment buildings in Denver have them. Since one of the factors that often drive people to purchase large houses is the desire to be able to hold large parties a few times a year, the availability of respectable entertaining venues, perhaps as part of a homeowner's association, perhaps as part of a "virtual office" or "time share" style subscription service, or perhaps through simple rentals, might make it more palatable for people who want to hold occasional big parties to live in smaller houses.

A Japanese style innovation that we might see is some variation on the rented karaoke room. While many American cities have karakoke bars where you can belt out your favorite tune in front of a large room full of strangers, fewer have private rooms where you and a half dozen of your friends can do that in greater privacy. And, similar sized entertainment rooms, outfitted a deluxe home theaters or multi-player deluxe videogaming rooms (with media rentals included and concession service available), for example, might also be hits.

The Yard, Workshop and Garden

Next to my children's school is a community garden where people with little or no lawn of their own can grow vegetables or flowers in a little plot down the road.

The "patio home" concept where single family homes share a communal front yard tended by a homeowner's association is also increasingly common. Some resort communities have private parks and beaches to provide residents with the benefits of a place to throw the kind of parties that one would ordinarily throw in your back yard in a single family house with a beach without the expense and waste of having one for every property when most go unused most of the time. The concept of urban residential neighborhoods like my own Washington Park is that each homeowner has a tiny lot, but in exchange the neighborhood has a premier park that everyone shares.

Rather than having a home gym, people join neighborhood health clubs or go to neighborhood recreation centers (incidentally, some even have showers that you can use when you have plumbing problems). Many homeowner's associations and condominium complexes have small community pools and exercise rooms.

What about the dog house? Lots of people in urban areas live in places that don't permit pets, but have or want pets. There are kennels, of course, but those are expensive and a lot of the cost goes into staff to provide care for the pets while their owners are absent. What if there were a kennel-like structure with a nice dog park within a short walk from a no-dogs apartment complex? Dog lovers could keep their dog there, talk their dog on daily walks, feed their dog themselves, and perhaps the structure would even have little rooms a bit like library study rooms where you could relax, watch TV, read a book, or have a coffee in the company of your dog, before or after work. It wouldn't be the same as having your dog in your own home, but it would be the next best thing. Similar arrangements already exist for people who live in the city but want to have horses.

The Sick Rooms

It isn't uncommon for someone who lives in a house without a ground floor bedroom or bathroom to experience a short term injury or illness that limits their ability to move around the house. Perhaps a broken leg, perhaps simply being very weak for a while.

Sometimes, a stay at home parent needs to recover from surgery or being sick or is pregnant and on bedrest, and doesn't need any special caretakers or hospital equipment, but does need to be genuinely relieved from the temptation to do any household chores or childcare while resting and recovering.

Sometimes, someone learns that they have an infectious disease, TB for example, and needs to stay away from a vulnerable elderly person or infant or other person with a weak immune system. Perhaps a child visiting frail grandparents comes down with the measles on Christmas vacation.

These conditions may all be ones where family members and friends and perhaps daily or less frequent nurse visits are all that one needs as caretakers, but staying at home is not a great option, and a hospital stay would be absurdly expensive for such a minor condition. It would be a shorter term alternative to an assisted living facilty or senior housing complex.

There are motels near most hospitals with a multistate draw (e.g. Mayo Clinic and National Jewish) that cater to this medically needy customers, but few closer to home that market themselves and are designed to meet this need niche.

This might be a niche for short term recovery room suites, a bit likely weekly motels but with the immobile and ill who need rooms that are accessable and antisceptic on short notice in mind. There might be room service available and a referral service for "home nursing" services.

Of course, hospices and nursing homes have already been brought into use for high intensity need cases.

Sharing Toys and Tools

The idea of outsourcing things that you need infrequently to avoid having to buy things based on "peak use" has applications in households beyond the house as well. Lots of people buy boats, ATVs, RVs, motorcycles, pickup trucks, cars with more seating capacity than most families usually need, specialty tools, snowmobiles, and the like that they may only use a few days or weeks a year. But, those things take space to store, often need to be maintained every year even if you don't use them much, and spend a lot of time sitting idle. Rental options exist, but they can be pricey because they are extracting large profit margins from people who don't regularly use those items, are in a place where their plans demand that they have them, and have only a choice between buying or renting. Rental operations also have a fairly high risk that the items will be stolen or damaged, because the renters are engaged in one time transactions and have no emotional stake in taking care of the equipment.

But, what if you were part of a "recreational toys and household tools co-op" that provided members with use of these items at cost (be offering annual rebates if there were any profits, in proportion to patronage), had a substantial deposit and credit check up front to make individual transactions for members go more quickly, trusted members a little more so that they would need less paid employee or volunteer services, and turned the relationship between the firm renting the stuff and the person renting it into a longer term, more warm and fuzzy one (what they call in the literature the "warm glow"). What if the co-op had multiple locations and you could get what you needed at one location and drop it off at another?

Denver's bike rental program is an example of the concept in practice.

Limits To The Trend

We haven't, and probably never will, go as far as some societies in this direction.

For example, public baths, while common in some parts of the world and developed at a time when many homes lacked them, are unlikely to make a comeback. The public Laundromat while still in existence is also fading away with increasing affluence and the appearance of affordable laundry machines that both wash and dry clothes further reduces the space constraints involved.

Sex hotels and capsule hotels also seem unlikely to come to a place near you anytime soon. But, the house outsourcing trend surely isn't entirely played out either.

1 comment:

Michael Malak said...

"Rather than having a home gym, people join neighborhood health clubs or go to neighborhood recreation centers (incidentally, some even have showers that you can use when you have plumbing problems). Many homeowner's associations and condominium complexes have small community pools and exercise rooms."

That's stretching the example to make your point to the breaking point -- you've turned it all the way around, in fact.

While you listed many good examples of outsourcing, there are also many examples of insourcing. And one of the prime examples is the home gym replacing the membership-based gym (or YMCA of yore).

Also, the hot tub is replacing the community recreational (i.e. non-lap-use) pool.

And, of course, the home theater has replaced the movie theater.

These trends are more pronounced in the suburbs where the cost per square footage is less.

But the most pronounced insourcing affects everyone regardless of square footage -- the Internet has elimnated the need to run out and buy a newspaper or magazine, or go to the library, and now with social networking, even to some extent to go out and socialize.

There have been great shifts in the uses of a home in the past century or two -- and not all strictly either "in" or "out" sourcing.