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Symbium Tool to Plan ADUs Available Anywhere in California

Previously programmed with state and local regulations in nine cities, a free online application to guide homeowners through building ADUs on their property now includes 12.6 million parcels.

Symbium accessory dwelling unit screenshot
In a bid to make it easier to add housing to a tight market, the San Francisco startup Symbium has extended its free website for planning and designing accessory dwelling units to cover the entire state of California.

The latest version of the online application called Symbium Build, announced in a news release, allows homeowners anywhere in California to enter their address and work with an interactive parcel map that’s been programmed with the state’s ADU regulations, along with the local jurisdiction’s ordinances and zoning laws. Given instant information about whether an ADU is allowed, how big it can be and where it can go on the parcel, the user can then sketch an ADU on the property or drag and drop designs that have been uploaded by architects, calculate costs and learn about next steps to get the project approved.

Symbium Build was available in nine California cities before now, used mostly by homeowners but also by a few city planning departments to help answer questions from citizens, according to CEO Leila Banijamali. The company has raised at least $7 million in funding, according to Crunchbase, and Banijamali said it has sold subscriptions to advanced versions of Build to a few city departments; but the company is less focused on a business model right now than on getting as many people as possible to use the application. To do that, she said, her staff spent much of the past several months on the “gargantuan task” of coding 12.6 million parcels, from 58 counties and 482 cities, into the application so anyone in California could use it.

When preparing to do so, the company sent a survey to 19,000 homeowners in California who had built ADUs in the last year, asking them what they needed or wished they had before starting their projects. Banijamali said survey responses pointed to three major bottlenecks: understanding regulations, understanding costs and getting help at the counter of a city planning department early on in the feasibility stage, because that was cumbersome and time-consuming. Banijamali said prior to the citizen survey, the company also asked cities what they need most right now, and the answer was clear.

“Cities have been telling us: citizen-facing tools, citizen-facing tools, citizen-facing tools,” she said. “That’s high priority for almost all cities right now, and the pandemic forced all cities to take their planning departments, their permits, their licensing processes all online and rethink how they interact with their citizens … who are demanding instant responses to their planning needs.”

Now that Build is widely available, the company is figuring out what it has learned from codifying state and local planning codes with respect to ADUs, and what to do next. Banijamali said the company surfaced a lot of inconsistencies between city and county laws or parcel data, for example, which have been passed on to local governments to address. If enough people use Build, it might also lay the groundwork for future regulatory streamlining in the residential construction space.

“One of the problems that makes it so difficult for these types of tools to get built is that every jurisdiction has different terminology for what they call different zones,” she said. “There’s very little consistency from jurisdiction to jurisdiction when we’re talking about zoning and planning, and tools like this can create standardized processes and terminology that will set a new standard for city governments to create policies and regulations that are portable, where residents for other jurisdictions can understand what their rights are across the border from city to city or state to state.”

Banijamali said Symbium would like to expand nationwide with Build, but she sees implications beyond ADUs for the concept at the heart of the application. It’s called computational law: the process of translating laws and regulations into computer-speak, so computers can work with them like any other variable. Besides standardizing regulations, Banijamali said computational law could make it easier for public officials to predict the impacts of a new regulation or policy before voting on it.

“Having regulations in computable form makes it possible for municipal regulators to analyze the implications of existing versus proposed regulations by computing how many properties would be affected, either positively or adversely,” she wrote in an email. “How many would comply or fail to comply? What would be the impact of the regulation? … This is important as local governments, (the California Department of Housing and Community Development), and other organizations such as the Association of Bay Area Governments work on regulatory changes, model codes and proposals.”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.