Strikingly Imaginative Structures for Housing LA’s Homeless

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If you’ve recently driven the streets of Los Angeles, you’ve probably noticed a striking uptick in the city’s already huge homeless population. Encampments are still centered in downtown’s Skid Row, but many more tents, shopping carts, and makeshift shelters are popping up on sidewalks, in parks, near overpasses, and under and over bridges throughout the city. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority recently reported an 11 percent jump in the city’s overall homeless population, and L.A. officials have placed $1.2 billion bond measure HHH on the November 8 ballot, which would finance 8,000 to 10,000 units over 10 years for the chronically homeless.

In response to this ominous situation, USC’s School of Architecture, located just a few miles from Skid Row, recently launched the Homeless Studio, where 11 fourth year students are rethinking homeless architecture, building temporary, moveable, modular, and expandable structures that are strikingly imaginative, not to mention needed. The best part: students will deliver their finished structures to homeless people around the city, and their final project will become a prototype shelter for a homeless services agency in the San Fernando Valley.

“These guys just went nuts,” says USC Lecturer Sofia Borges, who leads the studio with co-instructor R. Scott Mitchell. She’s referring to her students’ excitement about building varying-sized structures, rather than the typical student models and renderings. The class, which runs until December 7, is sponsored by Madworkshop, a new Santa Monica-based non-profit that funds projects focusing on craft, technology, and innovation. To hone their skills, students don’t just study homelessness and attend talks from experts in the field, they also meet with homeless people from around the city through the help of local agencies like the Midnight Mission and Skid Row Housing Trust.

“This is not an arm’s length exercise,” adds Borges. “You can think that you know what it’s like. But until you’ve been there and seen it you cannot design a compassionate solution.”

Thanks to these meetings students have picked up smart solutions from the streets. These include designs for tents, tarps (which students call “tarp-itecture”), cardboard boxes (known as “cardboard craftsmen”), shopping carts, trailers, and so on.

Jeremy Carman and Jayson Champlain’s temporary, nomadic shelter—a powder blue, rectangular, fiberglass-coated box that expands upward via scissor trusses and contains sleeping and storage space—can be pulled by a bike, like many trailers on Skid Row. It can be set up in about 30 seconds, a big advantage over laborious tents and slapdash solutions. A pull out wood shelf at ground level keeps tenants’ feet off the street. “If you’ve had your head on pavement for years that’s a really great move,” Borges says.
It reveals an understanding of how to incorporate dignity into a design.

“There’s a larger picture here,” explains Carman. “This is meant as the first step on the way to permanent housing.”

Several students built homes with materials they found on the street, another common technique employed by the homeless. Alexxa Solomon, Maria Ceja, and Belinda Pak built a temporary structure using scavenged shipping palettes, Ikea shelves, and plywood. Students employ every inch of their spaces, often for multiple purposes. One home expands its usable space to the roof. Other plans transform from kiosks and carts into full on sleeping quarters. Beds transform into shelves and storage units during the day. Plastic tubs and automobile soft tops act as walls. Chopped up mannequins serve as abstract wall art.

When the class ends students will have to “find their clients,” dispersing these temporary shelters at encampments around the city. Their final group project, whose design is just getting underway, will serve as a template for a temporary housing development for Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, a homeless services agency based in Mission Hills, with branches around the San Fernando Valley. The agency will use the class’s plans, renderings, and full-scale prototype to help fundraise for the endeavor. Preliminary designs show off highly-flexible, prefabricated building pieces, lightweight materials, and generous open spaces. The client is still finalizing a site (officials from the LA Department of Building and Safety are helping with site and code issues), but Borges points out that their solution can be applied anywhere with commercial or industrial zoning.

“Our goal is that nothing we make here stays at school,” she says. One group of students is even launching a crowdfunding campaign to further develop a shelter that expands from a shopping cart into a tarp-covered sleeping and storage space. As LA’s homeless problem continues to balloon, Angelenos and others may start seeing such clever solutions on a regular basis.

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