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Small Firm Forum (1.5 LU) – Saving DIY Spaces in Oakland and Beyond

Since the adoption of shipping containers in coastal cities throughout the industrialized world, artists, makers and other creatives have occupied and improved industrial buildings for living and working purposes. Many have improved their buildings outside the mainstream permitting and construction process–hence the name “DIY spaces.”

Oakland is home to approximately 200 DIY buildings, most having been built without benefit of building permits, despite the existence of an effective live-work building code since 1996 (written by Tom Dolan). Since the tragic Ghostship fire of 2016, such spaces have come under increased scrutiny, and–like buildings all over the world–their existence is threatened by code enforcement officials.  Anticipating the existential threat to this vibrant cultural phenomenon, Safer DIY Spaces formed in the weeks following the Ghostship fire after numerous spontaneous community meetings attended by hundreds.

Offering basic life safety improvements–fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and lighted exit signs, as well as basic code consultations, DIY has visited well over 100 spaces, advocating with the building department, landlords and insurance carriers for continued safe occupancy. Operating with grants of $500,000 over the last three years, SDS has stabilized the majority of these buildings at totaling about  a million square feet at a cost of approximately 50 cents per square foot (NOT A MISPRINT). 

The Mayor’s Executive Order was issued about a month after the fire, in which she directed staff to only pursue enforcement action on spaces with imminent live safety hazards. While it often appears that the code compliance department did not “get the memo” Safer DIY has managed to stabilize occupancy in the vast majority of the 150 buildings it has assisted.

The fact remains that to bring these buildings up to today’s live-work code–including Title 24 energy compliance, sprinklers, seismic retrofit and other life safety improvements, the price tag will typically be in the mid-to-high six figure range per project. After the fire, the city convened a committee to look at building code and other changes that would accommodate the communal live-work mode favored by artists today, i.e. large [10-20,000 sf with one kitchen, a couple of bathrooms, lots of bedrooms and large common workspace (and sometimes assembly space)]. We are now working with a code consultant (WC3 in San Ramon) to improve the existing live-work building code with an eye towards affordable solutions.

Tom Dolan will be speaking on March 5th about Safer DIY Spaces and will be sharing the work product of a class he taught in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley focused on next steps for DIY. Included will be a video and power point presentation.

Safer DIY Spaces is a small organization with a paid executive director (David Keenan), two mostly-volunteer  architects (including Tom Dolan) and a paid bookkeeper. There are occasional volunteer opportunities and, of course, donations are always welcome. 

Learning objectives:
  • Become familiar with the DIY housing type, which are typically created without permits, which function in a self regulated manner, and which provide a portion of the affordable housing stock.

  • Learn about the challenges of allowing non-conforming DIY housing to remain and become legal, and the effort to gain city acceptance that includes some necessary changes to city code standards.

  • Learn how DIY housing supports the local community of artists, how it allows these artists to live in an area known for high housing costs.

  • Learn about the effort one group, Safer DIY Spaces, to effect the changes needed to retain DIY spaces in a safe and viable manner, and the role some architects may have in it

About the speaker:

Thomas Dolan is an architect and urban designer who has been practicing in the East Bay for 35 years. His career began with the invention of a new building type, the live-work courtyard community. He has since designed hundreds of live-work units and scores of multifamily & mixed use projects. Since the Ghostship fire he has devoted about half of his time to working with the DIY community to stabilize and ultimately legalize naturally occurring affordable live-work communities as Cofouner of Safer DIY Spaces and Vital Arts.


Mar 05 2020


12:00 pm - 1:45 pm

Local Time

  • Timezone: America/New_York
  • Date: Mar 05 2020
  • Time: 3:00 pm - 4:45 pm

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