Roam is the first global co-living and hospitality operator focused on remote work, and it's where SDO has its roots. Founded in 2015, Roam re-purposes struggling boutique hotels and applies a unique limited service operating model.

We oversaw the initial site analysis, redesigned the properties and their interior, developed a unified operating structure, and trained the local operating teams and vendors.

Locations London, San Francisco, Tokyo, Bali, Miami, Madrid
Timeframe 2015 - 2020
Status Completed
Roam San Francisco Facade.
Roam Miami Bed.
Roam Bali Entrance.
Roam Properties
San Francisco, Miami, Bali

Starting with a Medium Post outlining the founder's vision, we took a deep dive into the history of residential real estate.

Most of the innovations that shaped the idea of modern living are nearly a century old: the first suburban homes were built around 1923, the Frankfurt kitchen, which cemented gender roles and the bed-, bath- & living-room split, followed in 1926, and it was the New Deal in 1930 that made the 30-year fixed-rate the default mortgage.

After 1945, for the first time in history, the majority of people in the West lived in single family homes. These spaces were an opportunity to express identity through coffee table books and automobiles in driveways. It was an era of aspiration - for the corner office and shopping malls, all connected by newly built multi-lane highways. Fast forward to the 2020s: millions of knowledge workers are going remote, living around the world, working from coffee shops and coworking spaces. Commerce has migrated online and our mobility is undergoing massive changes.

So, why has residential real estate been slow to adapt to those trends and how do we do better?

Concentric Circles of Privacy

Equipped with a better understanding of the cultural, socio-economic, and legislative history, we started from first principles to develop a new topology:

Given the target demographic, the absolute privacy of individual bed- and bathrooms was sacrosanct. But what about workspaces? Are residents better off with 30 in-unit work corners or would access to private focus rooms, larger meeting spaces, and shared onsite coworking be a better approach? This same logic applies to recreational spaces. What’s better: 30 average small areas or a mix of areas for private, intimate encounters, and larger gatherings - everything from libraries and secluded patios, art studios and workshops, to dining halls and event spaces.

We were initially hesitant to aggregate kitchen space until we started to explore what kind of commercial kitchen studio we could build with the budget of 30 kitchenettes, and seeing ways to operate an excellent experience without it descending into chaos.

Roam Density Strategy.
Crammed Work-From-Home Corner in Your Apartment, or On-Site Coworking?
Instead of lower quality fragmented build-outs, we centralized certain functions at a much higher quality

Now came the question of how to execute. Ground up building would take too long and be too asset heavy for a venture capital stack, and existing residential developments were architecturally unsuited for this approach.

But there was an asset-class already out there that fit perfectly: boutique hotels. Often developed by groups without a background in hospitality, boutique hotels tend to run into issues when the high costs of a full-service model are spread across a small number of rooms. It's a competitive industry, filled with highly individual and beautifully designed assets. Given that we decided early to focus on operational standardization without streamlined aesthetics, the diverse looks were actually a benefit - people care about how a place works, and prefer interesting unique designs over standardized brand languages.

Learning from the History of Residential Hotels

As with most ideas, we weren't the first to think of this, so we took another look at what worked and what didn't work historically:

Why did the hotel living approach, popular across all demographics in the first half of the 20th century, plummet to being a marginal idea? What role did communal housing play in the emancipation of various groups? Why did the commune movement fail so badly?

Roam San Francisco Dinner Preparations.
Roam Miami Weekend Lunch.
Social Contract
Why having no manifestos or rules works better

Most groups, from membership clubs to coliving operators, try to streamline their offerings by appealing to a narrow group and codifying expected behavior in everything from manifestos to club rules. Besides a general unease with extending social media filter bubbles to the physical world, we also saw it as an interesting design challenge to create places that work for a wide range of people, behaviors, and beliefs.

If successful in creating spaces where you could regularly bump into people you'd rarely meet otherwise, and have a solid foundation to explore your differences in opinion and shared humanity, we could provide an experience that's increasingly rare but, if successful, is also incredibly rewarding. This by itself would sustain the business better than any marketing budget.

Deciding early on to forgo any manifestos, house rules, or cultural guidelines, has been core to Roam’s success.

Roam London Kitchen.
Roam London Cooking.
Roam Tokyo Kitchen.
Self Evident Simplicity
Not a single extra button, no toasters with 12 defroster modes - everything is quality and where you expect it, but still highly localized

Translating this theoretical approach into its practical implementation was probably the most rewarding part of the project. Deep down we're all still all very close to our ancestors, wanting to stand on a hill and see where the antelopes and lions are, born with an original sin of too small of a frontal cortex and too small of an amygdala.

This often overlooked requirement for people to feel comfortable meant a strong focus on lines of sight and auditory barriers, the general layout of buildings, in their initial selection all the way to their adaption. All sites featured either independent buildings, or multiple stairways, careful incorporation of vantage points, the possibility to get an overview of what's happening where, and to get from A to B by consciously joining or avoiding people.

The ability to get to your personal space with ease, even in more constricted spaces like the Central London site: seeing who is in the coworking area, but not having to talk to anyone as you pass by, because it's behind soundproof glass - depending on how you feel in that moment. To grab a coffee early in the morning without having to make it all the way to the publicity of the commercial kitchen studio. Bali also was a prime example: the various buildings surrounding the central pool area were connected by multiple skybridges and stairwells, while the rooftop areas allowed a good sense of who was where, if in public, and small front porches with frosted window elements gave a feeling normally associated with small towns. There's a lot of discussion around wellness in residential, but we found that those more basic elements did significantly more than random amenities.

Signs as a Sign of Failure

This approach of not enshrining rules for guests also extended to the physical spaces: whenever local teams felt it necessary to post a sign telling people to do x or not do y, instead of doing so they filed a corresponding internal ticket which became a design issue to resolve. It was never the guest's fault, it was a lack of good design.

Based on the initial specifications and constant learnings, we worked with the Roam team to develop a list of roughly 400 items, from furniture to small utensils, their exact features and placement, making sure that everything served a clear purpose without being confusing, difficult to find, or hard to use. And because they were mostly functional specs, they allowed for local aesthetics and variation.

The kitchen studio is again a good example here: learning from decades of professional kitchen experience, everything was structured by cooking functions, from prep to sauté, areas for cold items like salads to baking, with all the respective tools and utensils clearly in sight, and every appliance simple and intuitive - including commercial dishwashers making sure that cleaning was a breeze.

This allowed Roam to reduce the housekeeping workload to two 30 minute resets, at the beginning and end of a single morning shift, while keeping the spaces pristine throughout the day - being messy would have simply been more effort for anyone than just keeping things tidy and friendly.

Roam Sourcing Platform.
Roam No-Code Operating Platform.
Roam Property Sourcing Platform.
Technology Platform
Custom core, no-code for global customer facing teams to iterate and optimize quickly

After the product and experience was defined, it was time to find the right technology layer to support ongoing operations.

Traditional hotel property management systems, in addition to often being relatively bloated and inflexible, don't support extended stays of months or years well. Residential PMSs on the other hand can't handle short stays. After carefully considering the complexity, we decided to commission a custom core repository that supports the sourcing as well as operation of assets.

After the sourcing and management teams secured a new property, the system would handle central functions like inventory, availability, and staff scheduling. Crucially though, we didn't recreate the vast functionality of a PMS internally, but used APIs to connect the core platform with third-party tools.

This allowed us to pick the best vendor for each task, for example Guesty handling 24/7 1st level email and phone support, freeing the team to focus on high-touch services, various algorithmic channel managers to optimize pricing and distribution among a wide range of booking sites, or procurement and staffing being aware of current and projected needs.

No-Code as Central Element for Success

This approach, which was fairly new in 2016, used platforms like Zapier, Airtable, or Twilio, and allowed the teams on the ground to refine and improve the customer experience without having to wait months for programmers to implement new functionality - just to realize it would have to be changed again.

Random example: guests landing in Asia would often have no or only expensive data coverage, so we made sure they'd get a SMS with the most crucial details right after landing, and would get an almost instant response over the same channels, 24/7, in case they had any questions.

Putting the power of building and optimizing technology in the hands of the people interacting with guests every day, while standardizing the best ideas and practices across the entire portfolio, made the Roam experience truly unique and highly tailored.

Roam London Stairways.
Roam London
Victorian Stairway Restoration
Roam Tokyo Welcome Kit (Credit: Roam / Kenta Hasegawa).
Roam Tokyo
Welcome Kit & Bonsai Adoption
Roam Tokyo Bonsai Guide.

All those elements taken together, from deeply thought through topologies of well-being to applying just the right technologies, empowering local teams to adjust everything to their unique circumstances while providing guests a reliable experience without feeling all-the-same: these principles and a myriad of special touches by dozens of team members on three continents are what created the Roam magic.

Without even aiming to be a hotel company, Roam properties joined the top 5 hotels in competitive markets like Miami or San Francisco within less than a year, validating that people are looking for new residential and travel experiences.

Roam is currently shifting it's business model from venture backed operator to being fully vertically integrated, and we're proud to be working with them on the next generation of their properties and everything they offer.

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Team SDO New York
Services Feasibility Study, Overall Concept, Branding & Identity, Tech Platform, Site Selection, FF&E/OSE, Sourcing, Staff Training, PR
External Partners Alexis Dornier