A home, for the homeless, for the holidays

With the approach of festivities, and a chill in the air outdoors, our thoughts at this time of year often turn to the less fortunate. Many of us open our checkbook or volunteer at a soup kitchen—fine ways to do a good turn. In Los Angeles, a group of budding builders have hit upon another way to help one down-and-out segment in particular: the homeless. This fall, some architectural students rolled up their sleeves to design and build creative temporary shelters on a limited budget, using pallets, plywood panels, truck camper shells, and other found materials. And that was just the start.

“Architecture isn’t just for those who can afford it,” one of the students told the USC News. “It can be something that creates social good and changes the way people live their lives.”

Moreover, their experience proved that innovation doesn’t always mean leveraging the latest technology. Sometimes it means relying on human ingenuity and making the most of what you’ve got.

Growing crisis, unique solutions

An estimated 47,000 people are now homeless in Los Angeles County. Shelters are full, with waiting lists up to two years long.

The crisis motivated a new collaboration between the University of Southern California School of Architecture and Madworkshop, an architectural education nonprofit. The result is USC’s Homeless Studio, a hands-on course that wrapped up its inaugural semester last week. In it, eleven fourth-year students didn’t just meet with homeless residents, activists, architects and city officials to gain perspective on the complex problem; they also drew up plans, scavenged for scrap wood, swung hammers, and produced their own real-world shelters.

“This is not a typical course,” said Sofia Borges, the USC professor and acting Madworkshop director who co-taught Homeless Studio with fellow faculty member R. Scott Mitchell. “Normally, architecture students don’t build anything, let alone something for a marginalized population.”

The course featured three distinct phases. In the first, the students had two weeks to design and fabricate five mobile and expandable sleeping quarters, with a total budget of $500. The structures aimed to fulfill basic needs: security, privacy, shelter from the elements, and portability.

For example, students built one shelter by modifying a shopping cart: A wooden platform stashed in the bottom can fold out to create a space to sleep on; poles fold out of the main basket and lock in place to create a frame over which a tarp can be draped. (See image below.)

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Photo courtesy of The Homeless Studio: Brandon Friend-Solis

Another shelter is a lightweight box towed by bike. The students welded a steel frame on top of a wooden platform, covered it with fiberglass coating, and rigged the lid with expandable trusses to make a roof. They attached casters on the bottom, so the unit rolls. (See image below.)

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Photo courtesy of The Homeless Studio: Brandon Friend-Solis

What students called the “origami” shelter was a plywood box, again on casters, that opens up with sliding polycarbonate sheets, folded in overlapping fashion not unlike an armadillo’s shell. (See image below.)

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David Martin – who along with his wife, Mary Klaus Martin, founded Madworkshop – tests out the origami shelter. (Photo courtesy of Homeless Studio: Brandon Friend-Solis)

Next, under the direction of artist Gregory Kloehn, the students built tiny houses—structures that were also mobile, but substantially roomier. The challenge? They had to assemble them entirely out of scavenged materials. Oh, and they only had one week, for the scavenging and the building.

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Photo courtesy of The Homeless Studio: Brandon Friend-Solis

In part to raise awareness of the homeless crisis, Borges and Mitchell reserved USC’s central courtyard for use as their outdoor workshop (right). “That was the most public place we could be in,” said Borges, “and we spent days just filling it with trash,” including a truck camper shell, refrigerator doors, milk crates, shipping pallets, discarded Ikea furniture, cast-off roofing shingles, and lots and lots of secondhand plywood. “The larger university community had to watch us turn that trash heap into tiny homes for the homeless over the course of that week.”

Given the parameters, the students crafted some imaginative and resourceful tiny homes, as you can see below:

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Photo courtesy of The Homeless Studio: Brandon Friend-Solis

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Photo courtesy of The Homeless Studio: Brandon Friend-Solis

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Photo courtesy of The Homeless Studio: Brandon Friend-Solis

The results of that work, distributed by Kloehn to local homeless people, will afford a measure of dignity to some human beings who’ve struggled to attain that commodity for a variety of reasons.

For their final project, drawing on what they’d learned, the students worked with the Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission to produce concepts and renderings (below) for Homes for Hope, a modular 30-bed shelter for senior women. The Mission is now raising funds to site and build the shelter.

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Renderings courtesy of Sofia Borges, Madworkshop

The way forward

Of course, the shelters built by the Homeless Studio are intended to be temporary, and even the Homes for Hope would serve as transitional housing.

More permanent fixes are required in cities with red-hot housing markets that price out the impoverished. Namely, building more affordable housing. Fortunately, one such project is on the way in super-charged San Diego. Atmosphere is a 205-unit low-income project being erected by Suffolk and slated for completion next year.

But the inventive shelters built by USC students this fall will help those in need now. Borges said that the Homeless Studio carries special resonance for her: Borges’ late brother lived on the streets for years. As architects, she said, “Our work typically focuses on clients with large budgets, when we could be sheltering those most in need, which to me has so much more value.”

And after a semester working to shelter the disadvantaged, these soon-to-be-minted architects will bring to the field a more vivid awareness of their plight, as well as a stretched-out kit of skills and solutions.

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at PKennedy@suffolk.com. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

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