One Square Ft


One Square Ft

A protest exhibition intended to raise awareness and invite observation, interaction and participation regarding the issue of Berkeley housing.


Physical prototyping / social impact

Our project consisted of fabricating one square foot of space into a model house with an interactive method of examining how the pricing of that square foot has changed locally and nationally across the last two decades. The house also doubled as a comment box, offering space for people to submit their housing stories and experiences to be published through social media. By presenting a context of data with a decontextualized unit of space, we hope to offer a novel perspective on how the spaces we live in are valued. By offering interaction with the data we collected, we hope to draw attention to our local living circumstances and provide a forum for expression and communication about such issues.

Our final video for One Square Ft. Made by: Leeann Hu, Michelle Kim, Alyssa Li, Varna Vasudevan

Our Team

Alyssa Li, Varna Vasudevan, Michelle Kim, Leeann Hu

My Role

User Researcher, Interaction Designer, Design Technologist

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Ethnographic User Research

To understand the problem space, we conducted ethnographic interviews to understand needs, frustrations, and pain points around the topic of housing.

After gaining some initial background understanding into the protests and movements surrounding housing issues, we conducted in-person interviews with a focused demographic to get a better understanding of the needs, frustrations, and painpoints surrounding the topic of housing. We interviewed both undergraduate and graduate students who lived in 4 sectors of housing around the Berkeley Campus - Northside, Westside, Southside, and Southwest - as well as commuters from surrounding cities.

A few open-ended questions to spark conversation:

  • Can you tell me a bit about you current housing experience?

  • Can you walk me through a day in your life, including accomplishing activities like commuting to class/work, doing chores, cooking, buying groceries, doing laundry, etc.? How has your execution of these day-to-day tasks changed between your current and previous housing situations?

  • What are some positive aspects of your housing situation? What are some of your primary concerns?

We then began to synthesize our user research and extract key insights into students’ motivations, pain points, and desires. We clustered main quotes and comments from our research efforts during an affinity mapping exercise, and noticed patterns and themes emerging from our investigation.

The primary concerns and frustrations for students, as deduced from our user research (in order of priority):

  1. Cost

  2. Convenience

  3. Safety

  4. Space

Quantitative Data Collection

We decided to collect some data that would show Berkeley’s rent market trend. Since numbers alone are hard to understand, we compared Berkeley’s data to the national average and that of two other cities famous for their high cost of living, San Francisco and New York.  Because rentals vary not only in price, but also in size, we decided that a better value to compare is rent per month per square feet. To calculate this value, we found the average rent per month of all bedroom sizes in each city, using the same website source whenever possible. The sources we used most often were RentCafe and Zillow. Other sources include: BerkeleySide, SF Rent Board, the New York Times, the US Census, and the Department of Numbers. In calculating the average rent per month per square feet, we assumed that the average square feet for rentals in each city hasn’t changed much over the past years, so we went with the most current values. To account for inflation, we used areppim AG to convert the average rent prices to real US dollars.

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Design Process


Initial Concepts

From our personal experiences and interviews with our friends, we came to see a recurring pattern in the problems that most students have with housing in Berkeley; the cost of rent was the largest issue, but other common ones included safety, convenience, and space. Therefore, we decided we wanted our project to focus on these issue and invite the public to participate in the protest or interact with the data themselves.

We decided to focus on Berkeley, comparing relative cost between time periods (2000, 2010, 2015, present) and locations (Berkeley, SF, NYC, National Average).

We explored with how to best present the data we collected on Berkeley’s rent such as by year, neighborhoods, distance from campus, and by square foot. In the end, we determined that presenting the rent per square foot would be the best way to compare prices not only between years but also between cities in a way that would allow the numbers to take on greater meaning. This led us to play around with how to incorporate this concept of “square foot” in our design.

We allowed this concept as well as our wish for the public to interact with our project to guide us in our brainstorming process. Our ideas were all very ambitious at the beginning. One idea was to create four houses to be placed at four different bus stops or in Berkeley’s four different neighborhoods, each with a voting system where the public can vote for their biggest housing worry. Another idea was to have a central display on campus that would show the public’s real-time voting.  But with the deadline fast approaching, we eventually decided to simplify and combine the more feasible aspects of each design. We eventually designed a house that would allow the public to vote, display their votes, and share their concern. To give viewers an idea of how big one square foot is, the house would be exactly 1 square foot. The house would be on a podium so that it can be elevated to people’s eye-level in order to catch people’s attention. The sides of the podium would display our logo, have data on the side that they can personally interpret, and our poking fun of the Berkeley Rent Board.

From early feedback, we made some edits to our design. Since our design already had a slot for the public to give their own input, we decided that instead of having the electronics be a voting system, to have it display the data in an interactive way through dials that people can play with. To share the public opinion, we decided to also create a Twitter account where the input we receive can be shared.


One Square Ft

To best visualize and compare the cost of housing, we came up with the concept of “1 Square Ft”. In addition, we decided to tape a one square foot box on the ground in front of the podium so that people can experience the size themselves. We also created a one-foot ruler around the base of the house to make it more clear that the house is exactly one square foot. To tie our entire project together, we returned to our main concept of one square foot to create our logo, eventually settling on the simple, easily reproducible design.

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Physical Prototyping

Laser Cutting & More

Laser Cutting

We intended to make a podium to raise our One Square Ft house close to eye-level for easy interaction. For this purpose we used the laser-cut box generator at http://www.makercase.com/ to generate the design for a finger-tabbed wooden podium. We then used the design files with a laser cutter with a 24 x 48” bed to cut and engrave the walls of the podium and house, including decorative and informational elements.

Assembly & Arrangement Part 1

After all the pieces are cut, we assembled the base and walls of the podium and secured the pieces using wood glue, save for the top. We then assembled and glued the walls and  roof the house, save for the front panel.

We faced in a number of challenges in this process, especially with engraving and etching the podium and house. In the end, we built two versions of the house - one of them being a test version.

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For the interaction component which allows someone to compare a 1 square ft rent across different locations and year, we used a microcontroller (a Feather for this example), a breadboard, 2 potentiometers and a 7-segment LED display.

We first set up the electronics by soldering the backpack onto the 7-segment display. We then laser cut and engraved wooden circles which would be used for the two dials - location and year - with the smaller circle as a knob and the larger circle as the base. Due to the continuous motion of the potentiometer, we used magnets between the knob and the base to represent a discrete set of choices.

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Building and assembling the “knobs”

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Final Design

The final concept: a house on podium, at eye level, with 2 dials to represent time and location.

To encourage public participation, we added sticky notes so anyone can share their housing concerns. We also created a twitter account to share these concerns.

With that, it was time to take this public! We marked a square foot of tape on the group in front of the house:

In The Wild



The comments we received were somewhat similar to what we heard during our initial user research, though we note that less than a quarter of the people we observed interacting took the time to leave comments, indicating that we may have to reconsider the method of participation. As it is, cultivating enough comments to create a meaningful public forum or narrative would likely require an extensive amount of public interaction.

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The very meaning of the protest we were staging through One Square Ft hinged on public interaction. To that end, we found that the various aspects of our project demonstrated varying levels of success.

One element that was highly conducive and important to the degree of public engagement was access. For our first instance of public engagement with One Square Ft, we decided to situate it in the open area near  the UC Berkeley campus North Gate from the morning to the early afternoon. During that time, the area saw a fair amount of foot traffic from students, faculty and local residents. Due to the incongruous, non-contextual placement of our exhibit in an open public arena, many passerby took note of it and felt interested and comfortable enough to approach it. It would be interesting to see how different environments and spatial contexts affected the public interactions with One Square Ft.

The success with access led to the exhibit’s success with engagement. The design of One Square Ft demands immediate attention and direct action from the user, so it was important that the people interacting with it approached ready and willing to take a closer look. To that end, we observed that virtually everyone who stopped by the exhibit at North Gate took some time to turn the dials and read the engravings, yet  this level of interaction decreased considerably when we relocated the exhibit to Jacobs Hall, an indoor space. Placing a conspicuous object in a public arena is a statement of intent that naturally garners attention but putting One Square Foot in the more contextual and closed setting of the Jacobs Hall lobby dulled some of its novelty and experiential impact.