Work in Progress 

Recession be damned, two Oakland entrepreneurs create 21st-century office space.

Folks passing through Oakland's Cleveland Heights neighborhood, tucked behind the eastern shore of Lake Merritt, got their recommended dose of whimsy this fall, with the sudden appearance of a curious-looking wooden structure behind the Leaning Tower of Pizza restaurant. Roughly the size of an SUV, the building — if that's what it was — looked like some outlandish art installation, a cross between a futuristic space pod and Cinderella's pumpkin carriage.

As it turns out, the building is the brainchild of two aspiring local entrepreneurs, architect Tom Biggs and furniture maker Tony Carr, who formally unveiled their creation at a showcase celebration on Saturday, October 10. The duo conceived the pod-shaped structure as the prototype for a souped-up, eco-friendly take on the backyard office shed, which their newly formed company, Sustainsia, will soon begin manufacturing.

Biggs first started playing around with the concept as his client base dwindled due to the recession, leaving him with an excess of unexpected free time. He found inspiration when he considered the many people he knew who were working from home in pretty dismal conditions, including one attorney friend who worked in a backyard Tuff Shed (a sturdy and Spartan-like structure, to be sure, but no one's idea of an attractive or comfortable office).

There are other backyard offices on the market, but Biggs and Carr set out to design a workspace that would be higher in quality and more aesthetically pleasing than the boxy sheds that are widely available as backyard offices. Their unit, which they're calling the "work pod" until they come up with a more permanent name, features French doors, rooftop solar panels, R-30 insulation ("better than your house, probably," Biggs said), a desk area that has room for three 24-inch flat screen monitors, and the potential to convert the whole space into a full-blown home theater with surround sound. The pod's interior is filled with delightful and functional little touches: hidden cabinets, a Murphy table that folds out of the wall, a bench that slides out and turns into a bed. The overall effect is somewhat akin to a sort of Pee Wee's Playhouse for gainfully employed grownups.

"It's great that people work at home — we can save carbon, lower our carbon footprint, and live more sanely," Biggs said. "But there's got to be a way to bring people out of the poor choices that are available when you want to have a unit that's separate from your home."

Carr, whose woodworking résumé includes the benches in front of San Francisco's de Young Museum, explains that the work pod can be thought of not so much as a building but as a sort of "plug-and-play" appliance or as a piece of high-end furniture, with its full portability, beautiful reclaimed woods, and its four steel "feet." The exterior is marine-grade teak, and the interior is made from birch and reclaimed mahogany. It is powered by plugging it into any outlet, using a simple extension cord; it features an abundance of wall sockets and is designed to power the typical array of office machines used in a one-person office.

Or, as Carr put it: "If [you] were a giant, you could pick it up and move it around like a chair, instead of a building, which you would pick up and just destroy."

What's most striking, though, and what has drawn the most attention from passersby, is the work pod's toasteresque outward appearance and design, which, as Biggs noted, is "all about the curve." In order to achieve the curved shape he wanted, Biggs researched and applied techniques from boat building — thus, the shed has "ribs," just like a boat.

"The curves came from a desire to pull people away from the straight lines that workspaces or buildings like Tuff Sheds or other types of sheds are locked into," the architect explained. "Look at what everyone's working in. They're working in cubicles and ... in big rectangular buildings. Curves bring more peace of mind, and they look great."

The curves have a functional purpose as well, Carr pointed out. Part of the work pod's marketing appeal is that, with its footprint of just 96 square feet, installing one doesn't require a permit in most California municipalities. A box-shaped building of that size would feel incredibly cramped, but with its walls curving outward, the "shed" that Biggs and Carr have created feels reasonably spacious.

And what of the economic viability of launching such a business venture during a recession — especially with a tentative $10,000 target per-unit price tag that, one would think, might have potential customers balking?

Biggs and Carr, who have funded the entire project with their credit cards, are banking that there will indeed be a market for their product — even, or perhaps even more so, during a recession. One reason for their confidence? Of all the novel ideas they've heard for how people might use the work pod besides as an office space (a piano practicing room, a pool house, a fishing shack), perhaps the craziest, and most telling, one is this: Several people have approached them and inquired about the possibility of buying a small plot of land, plopping one or two of these work pods on it, and simply living there.

"We're trying to reinvent the whole idea that your house has to be this $200,000-or-more major debt creator," Biggs explained. "This could be a revolution in the way that people can live."

Whether the solution to the housing crisis is really so close at hand remains to be seen. Carr, for his part, has a somewhat more whimsical ambition as well: He dreams of attaching the work pod to various modes of transportation — trailer, fishing boat, railroad car — and traveling around the world in it.

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