The Accidental Developers of Airbnb

THESE WALLS CAN TALK

Dan Moran is someone who likes to be one with nature. The chiropractor from Gasquet, Calif., is a practitioner of permaculture—a system of agricultural and social design principles centered on simulating natural ecosystems.

A few years ago, Moran took his permaculture projects to a new level by building four cabins deep in the forests of Northern California, about a 45-minute drive from the nearest small town. The site is up on a hill and there are no other buildings, road signs or artificial lighting there. “The idea was focused on sustainability and community and living with nature,” he says.

Moran’s partner Jane suggested sharing the cabins with others by renting them out on Airbnb. “I told her, well go ahead and list them. Nobody’s going to drive out to the middle of nowhere,” says Dan. “The first few people that came out, I said, ‘You know there’s nothing to do out here, right?’ But I guess that’s why they came out. And I’ll be darned if over a 1,000 people have come in two years.”

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Dan Moran’s “A-frame” rustic off-grid cabin.

Online portals such as Airbnb have helped make people like the Morans into developers of sorts, turning their creative accommodations into tourist destinations. This has given them additional income to fund passion projects. For example, the Morans have used the Airbnb income to grow apple orchards and build a mosaic tile greenhouse on their property. The couple lives on the premises as well.

“We stay in whichever cabin is open,” says Moran. “If all of them are rented, we stay in a tent or in the greenhouse.”

At first, most of the visitors to the cabins were locals from California and Oregon, but word has spread about the unique spot that is way off the grid. “People are inspired by this type of venture,” says Moran. “Jane has an entire wall of little notes and letters of appreciation that visitors have written. It’s very validating.”

“We didn’t have as much of a social life out on the mountain, but now people come from all over the world,” he adds. “They’re always interesting people. It’s really a joy having them.”

A Whimsical Destination in Atlanta

One of Peter Bahouth’s fondest childhood memories is of the primitive treehouse that he built outside his home in Syracuse, New York. “It was basically a board on a five-foot tree,” he says. “But that’s where I learned the meaning of the word sovereignty.”

As an adult, Bahouth has made environmental issues the focus of his career. He has been the Executive Director of Greenpeace, the Turner Foundation and the U.S. Climate Action Network. In 1996, he purchased a home in a wooded area in Atlanta’s popular Buckhead neighborhood.

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The view out the window of Peter Bahouth’s treehouse.

Bahouth had about an acre and a half of land, which included beautiful trees next to his home. “I didn’t really quite know what to do with the space, but I wanted to get out in it more,” he says.

He thought back to his childhood sanctuary and, in 2000, engineered a plan to build three connected treehouses on his property. They would be upgraded versions of the one he had as a kid. “I had a bigger allowance than I did when I was eight,” he says with a laugh.

Bahouth made a checklist of features that he wanted, including a bed that rolled out on a platform so he could sleep out in nature when the weather permitted and comfortable spaces to sit and chat with friends. The three houses—which he named Mind, Body and Spirit—took six months to design and six weeks to build. They were connected by wooden bridges.

For 12 years, these treehouses were Bahouth’s little secret. “There weren’t even many neighbors that knew they were here,” he says.

Bahouth had no plan to rent the treehouses until he read an interview in The New York Times with Brian Chesky, a co-founder of Airbnb. “He said the thing that’s most desirable for people who want to rent unusual places is treehouses,” says Bahouth. “So I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got great treehouses—I wonder what would happen if I put them on Airbnb.’ So I tried it.”

He didn’t think many people would go for it, as many out-of-towners come to Atlanta on business or to visit friends. “But what I’ve come to realize is that people come here from all over just to stay in a treehouse,” he says. “The last two weeks we had a couple of wedding proposals here. One woman brought her husband on their anniversary—he had no idea where he was going until he got here. It’s kind of amazing.”

Will the Peer-to-Peer Economy Last?

Like Moran, Bahouth uses the Airbnb income to fund a side project: 3-D photography. Despite his success as a renter, he doesn’t consider himself to be a real estate developer. “I have these treehouses and they’ve provided income that I didn’t have before, but I didn’t build them with a development mentality,” he says. “I just built them for myself.”

“The peer-to-peer economy where we get to interact directly with the consumer seems to be one of the solutions to the problems of the world.”

Online portals have created new business opportunities for regular people with unique ideas. As more people use this technology, it does beg the question of where this peer-to-peer economy is headed. For now, it’s growing fast, both in terms of buzz and metrics. Folks like Moran are drawn to the portal’s do-it-yourself ethos.

“The peer-to-peer economy where we get to interact directly with the consumer seems to be one of the solutions to the problems of the world,” he says. “It’s very philosophical for me.”

Despite the early success, the future is uncertain, and there has been some pushback to online portals. Airbnb is valued at more than US$25 billion but also is facing regulatory issues in cities like New York, Portland, Ore., and Amsterdam. Moran understands his cabin rental business may not be a permanent gig, but he’s taking it all in stride.

“I don’t know where things are heading—maybe this will last only a few years,” he says. “But it’s been really great for us, and Airbnbers love it, so I’m running with it.”

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