See Portland’s New Tiny House Designs for the Homeless

Portland Oregon's Tiny Houses for the Homeless Designs POD Initiative

Is Portland paving the way for a new generation of tiny house villages for people experiencing homelessness? Tuesday’s City Hall unveiling of the “POD Initiative” designs for “sleeping pods” for houseless people is the best momentum we’ve had in some time. Where the initiate is headed is anybody’s guess, but it’s made some pretty interesting progress so far. Here’s the low-down on what we know based on Tuesday’s event, and our partner Shelter Wise‘s involvement in the initiative.

The “POD Initiative”

In brief, the City of Portland invited the design and creation of a prototype “sleeping pod” that could be replicated into a village of 30 tiny buildings to house 30 individuals in need as a group. There are a lot of players involved, but the major ones are the City of Portland itself, the Center for Public Interest Design, a division of Portland State University’s School of Architecture, and the Village Coalition, “a network of advocates, activists, and houseless villages and individuals.” The Village Coalition counts among its members some current residential camps like Dignity Village, Right2DreamToo, and Hazelnut Grove, as well as non-profits like Sisters of the Road, the Rebuilding Center, and City Repair.

Portland Oregon POD Initiative Tiny Houses for the Homeless Design Unveiling
Mark Lakeman from Communitecture introduces Portland Mayor Charlie Hales

Mark Lakeman of City Repair and design firm Communitecture acted as emcee at yesterday’s design unveiling, where the 14 submitted designs were unveiled to the public and the process was explained. The timeline is pretty quick: the initial design charrette kick-off for each team’s sleeping pod design was on October 1st. Each team is constructing a working example of their design that will be ready for display in Portland’s North Park Blocks THIS WEEKEND on December 9-11th.

Lakeman introduced Mayor Hales, who referenced a fire at a tent camp that very morning in pointing out that “innovative housing that’s managed is so much safer” than the alternative. Hales said he knew the idea of using small housing to aid in the city’s fight for housing justice had momentum when he spoke at last year’s Build Small Live Large Summit, which PAD proudly sponsored and contributed to. Hales remarked that he was surprised at the large size and high energy level of the event. A year later, people stayed involved and that energy moved the conversation forward.

Sleeping Pod Designs

The design requirements called for the teams to create affordable, durable, movable housing units that were “not quite homes” yet did receive approval from the City’s Bureau of Development Services to act as legal residences. They don’t have kitchens or bathrooms, and likely would be clustered around centralized services. The designers were tasked not just with designing a small, attractive and affordable space, but with conceiving of the pods as one unit of a community. Each team’s rendering of their completed design showed the pods in their villages, inviting interaction between residents and their greater area.

The designs came from an interesting mix of parties: major architectural firms like SERA Architecture, SRG Partnership/Howard S. Wright, Holst Architecture, and LRS Architects, student groups from Portland State University, Lakeman’s firm Communitecture, and a uniquely tiny house experienced-design from Shelter Wise, Tiny Nest and Mods PDX, helmed by Derin Williams from Shelter Wise.

Shelter Wise Tiny House for the Homeless Design Bunkie
Shelter Wise and Mods PDX’s Bunkie Design. Photo via Oregonlive.

Having built tiny homes on wheels professionally for years, Derin had a different point of inspiration than large architecture firms. Derin’s design for “Bunkie” emphasized a strong, sturdy tiny house design that uses materials readily available at chain stores like Home Depot. For a construction cost of around $3,000, Bunkie offers a sociable and rain-protected covered porch, a desk space with storage, and a simple sleeping loft. The design minimizes construction waste, and uses paints and finishes that release low or no volatile organic compounds into the air inside the space – an area of particular concern in a tiny space. Built on skids to be moved by a forklift, rather than the typical tiny house on wheels that’s built on a utility trailer, Bunkie is tough and repairable if the move is a little shaky. A street artist has also volunteered time to paint a large, colorful art piece on the white metal barn siding on Bunkie’s exterior to give the design some extra flavor.

Shelter Wise Tiny House for the Homeless Design Portland POD Initiative
Derin from Shelter Wise hard at work on the Bunkie prototype.

The designs from each team are worth perusing – The Oregonian has a slideshow of each one. Each team emphasized a different goal or attacked the problem in a slightly different way. We’re particularly fond of Communitecture’s design for a “tiny duplex” that splits the maximum square footage of the space into a residence for two individuals instead of just one. Each team donated their time, expertise and effort to the project, which hopes to, “Increase understanding and tolerance of houseless individuals, and reduce the number of “sweeps” in which groups are displaced from their community and village.”

Communitecture's Sleeping POD "Duplex". Photo via Oregonlive.
Communitecture’s Sleeping POD “Duplex”. Photo via Oregonlive.

What’s Next

The big picture vision for the pods is to replicate the display models into actual villages of 30 pods per village….which is tricky. Getting approval from the Bureau of Development Services is a pretty big hurdle to have jumped, but finding a site for the villages will probably be the make or break issue. While most people support the idea of creating safe, stable transitional housing for people without homes, business and neighborhood interest groups have a tendency to fight the reality when it comes to their neck of the woods. Earlier this year the Southeast Industrial Business Council fought to keep the Right2DreamToo Camp from moving to a vacant lot in inner Southeast Portland. A wide range of business interest groups and neighborhood associations also threatened to sue Mayor Hales earlier in the year over his “safe sleep guidelines” that legalized overnight camping in public areas. They dropped the lawsuit when Hales rescinded the pilot policy.

Portland Oregon Tiny Houses for the Homeless Designs
Interested folks showing up to peruse and support innovative housing!

Portland would seem like a natural fit to lead the way in using small, mobile home designs as a way to provide humane housing for people experiencing homelessness. Yet even with a city-declared “housing emergency” and a ridiculous amount of local tiny house expertise, we haven’t had much to show in this area since the formation of Dignity Village sixteen years ago.

Mark Lakeman referenced the pioneering Dignity Village in his inspiring opening and closing remarks at yesterday’s event. Calling the initiative a “declaration of involvement,” Lakeman explained that prettier designs won’t solve the city’s housing problems but that they may be a way to galvanize public support for transitional housing so that it doesn’t fall at the hands of business and neighborhood groups every time. “We need the rest of the culture to show up,” Lakeman emphasized.  “Local power will provide the solution, not just to this challenge but to every other.”

How to Show Up!

If you’re wondering how to support the POD Initiative, here are a few ideas:

  • If you’re in Portland, go see the houses this weekend at the North Park Blocks! Both because it will be super interesting, and because the local media will definitely be there, and it helps to have supporters on hand. Here’s the Facebook event for the demonstration weekend with details as they become available.
  • Learn more about the initiative in general at the Center for Public Interest Design site and on City Repair’s site.
  • Support or get involved with the great non-profits helping make this happen! Check out City Repair, volunteer at Sisters of the Road, and support the Rebuilding Center!
  • No matter where you are, if your community is trying to make space for houseless people to find temporary homes, be a voice of support. The voices of fear and opposition tend to be loud, monied and organized, but when enough individual people show up to meetings, make phone calls and take surveys to make their voices heard, they can change the conversation. YOU can change the conversation. Show up with your feet, your dollars, your heart and your voice.

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