It takes a village (and good design) to address houselessness

Portland State University’s School of Architecture’s Center for Public Interest Design (CPID) is a key partner in the [Plywood] POD Initiative that accompanies Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon. CPID director Todd Ferry talks about the project and the importance of good design in creating housing solutions.

What has the experience of recreating the POD initiative within an art museum context been like for you and the students and partners involved
Working with the Portland Art Museum on the [Plywood] POD Initiative effort and exhibit has provided the Portland State University’s School of Architecture’s Center for Public Interest Design with a unique opportunity to further explore how designers can address houselessness in our city through the village model—in a way that opens up the discourse to the larger public. Storytelling has been a crucial part of our work in this area, and having the chance to reach thousands of museum visitors has been amazing. I think that all of the designers who submitted proposals for the exhibit believe strongly in the power of design to create social change, and good design can also challenge unfair or unfounded perceptions about houselessness—a necessary step in creating villages. My students and I wanted to use the exhibit to share some of the voices and perspectives of our project partners, including recognizing the essential contributions we have received from the Village Coalition and residents of Hazelnut Grove, who are true experts on village-making. We’re excited that members of the Village Coalition will be sharing their personal stories and reflections on village living at the Museum’s Miller Family Free Day event on August 20th.

John Yeon pioneered the plywood house concept during another era when housing was a concern for the city. What do you think he would appreciate most about the designs that have come from out of this initiative?
John Yeon was a singular designer with an incredible attention to detail and sense of materiality. I hope that he would appreciate these aspects of each of the designs submitted for the [Plywood] POD Initiative and would welcome the inspiration his work has provided for this effort.

How do you feel that good design can positively impact the neighborhoods affected by houselessness?
Good design is good for ALL. Too often, design services are reserved for the very few who can afford them, when it is frequently those with the least means who could benefit most from good design. The POD Initiative recognizes this and engages the architecture community to explore potential solutions to houselessness through the village model, which recognizes the efforts that many houseless Portlanders have already been attempting to do for themselves. While it is an overwhelming issue to tackle in totality, working at the module of a single pod is an ideal entry point for designers, because it is modest in isolation, but becomes extremely powerful in aggregation. Community is like this, and an inclusive and participatory design process can change the way that a community feels about and relates to their houseless neighbors, as was clearly demonstrated when Kenton welcomed the women’s village into their neighborhood. I think that the quality of the pod designs and shared village facilities were also crucial in encouraging community buy-in to the project. We hope that the Kenton Women’s Village will serve as a model that will be replicated within other communities in Portland. Human beings without homes have to sleep somewhere, so why not design safe, comfortable, and dignified accommodations for our most vulnerable neighbors?

What aspects of the POD designs resonate most deeply with their current or future inhabitants?
It has been a true pleasure getting to know some of the residents of the Kenton Women’s Village and to hear their feedback on their new homes. Just having a safe and comfortable place to sleep and recover from living on the streets has been transformative for the residents. Each pod at the Kenton Village is unique, so we are receiving a variety of feedback, which will be instrumental in helping us when we are designing new pods and villages. This is also true of the [Plywood] POD designs created for the museum exhibit. Residents of Hazelnut Grove reviewed all of the designs and offered valuable insight into issues related to each, such as constructability, storage, village layout, aesthetics, water collection, etc. Ultimately, whether housed or unhoused, people appreciate certain pods for their beauty, utility, and/or playfulness. This is an important component of the effort. Not only to create a library of design prototypes for future villages, but also to capture the imagination on what is possible beyond the bare minimum. When a housed person sees a pod design and thinks, “That is the one that I would want to live in,” that is a huge step toward empathizing and, thus, humanizing the houseless experience.

The PlyPAD by SERA Architects was chosen to be built following a review process that included members of the Portland Art Museum, Hazelnut Grove, Maslow CNC, the City of Portland, and the Village Coalition for its constructability, design quality, and livability. Additionally, it offered strong possibilities for exhibition and staged construction, which is important since the museum will be using it as demonstration project. The PlyPAD will be constructed at the museum on August 20th using an innovative CNC plywood cutting technology developed by our partners at Maslow CNC, which should be fascinating for museum-goers to watch.

Landscape and location were important to John Yeon. Do they play a role in the POD village and POD designs?
The pods are designed to be flexible enough to accommodate a variety of site conditions, but the designers certainly had to acknowledge the climatic conditions of the Northwest when making their material choices and formal strategies for shedding water and maximizing natural light. It is in the design of a village itself when a particular site context can be explored for optimizing its unique characteristics. For example, there is a large stone retaining wall at the Kenton Women’s Village that has become overgrown with moss to great effect, and several of the pods frame a view of this wall for the occupant inside, to rather lovely ends. The reality is that most villages will likely be placed on land that is less than ideal, and it will take a combination of utilizing the available assets on the site and implementing place-making efforts to create a welcoming place to live. At the Kenton Women’s Village, our students in the PSU School of Architecture collaborated with volunteers from City Repair and Kenton neighbors to convert an empty gravel lot into a friendly place with planted trees, grassy mounds of earth, planter boxes, a privacy fence from reclaimed wood, benches, and steps built into the hillside for easy connection to Kenton Park and the nearby MAX light rail station. Now, the residents have begun adapting to the site to their own needs and desires, which is fantastic to see.

What do you hope that visitors on August 20th learn?
I hope that visitors to the Portland Art Museum who view the exhibit and participate in the related activities that day leave with a better understanding of the importance of the village model as one of many paths needed to address houselessness in Portland. I hope that they will begin to imagine how they might support a village in their community and begin a conversation with their neighbors about contributing to this effort. And finally, I hope that visitors see the power of design to make meaningful change in our communities.

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Local architecture firm channels John Yeon for tiny house design

In conjunction with Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon, local architecture firm SERA, in partnership with Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design, designed a plywood pod house that will be constructed on site on Sunday, August 20 during Miller Family Free Day: Exploring Architecture, Building Community.  Lead designer Timothy Bestor talks about the design process.

Have you worked on anything like this before?
SERA Architects has a long history of non-profit work partnering with organizations like the Blanchet House, Central City Concern, p:ear, and the Union Gospel Mission to design buildings that offer help and services to houseless and drug-addicted members of our city.  The original POD initiative was the first small scale shelter that we have had the opportunity to design (and physically build). Through the construction process, multiple relocations, and now occupation of our first POD, we have learned many lessons that we were excited to be able to refine and further explore as part of our PlyPAD submission.  We have since had discussions with other interested parties on how we can expand on the concept, and we intend to continue to be involved in this effort to the fullest extent possible.

What were your design inspirations?
One of our driving inspirations was to solve a few of the problems that we encountered during the original POD project.  The major challenge that many of the PODs struggled with was mobility.  In order to create as much livable space as possible, many teams increased the size of their pods to the 8 ft. x 12 ft. suggested maximum footprint.  This lead to an increase in the quantity of materials required and resulted in heavier PODs.  In addition to weight, the 8 ft. width made it so forklift operators had to wrap straps around and over the PODs during each move, which shifted, squeezed, and damaged various finishes.  As a response to these lessons learned, we decided early on that the best way to address mobility was to design a POD that can be broken into a series of smaller modules.  These modules would be narrow enough to fit on the forks of a forklift to reduce the need for strapping and they would be inherently lighter by being a fraction of the total weight of a completed POD.  After delivery to a site, the modules would bolt and snap together over weather-tight gaskets to form the completed POD.  Other advantages to separate modules is that they can be customized to fit a resident’s desired layout and can be shuffled or expanded as needs change.

After learning of the role that plywood and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) technologies would be playing in the second round of design, we looked at how they are both currently used in construction.  We found the open-source Wikihouse project and were impressed with the interlocking joinery and the scale of projects they were able to create with nothing but interlocking plywood.  After seeing the level of cleanliness and precision that John Yeon was able to achieve with plywood, we were inspired to try to distill the best of all three.  We worked to clean and simplify the interlocking joinery, for use at a smaller scale, and leveraged the precision offered by CNC technology to create a series of sculptural supporting ribs that flow into and form the furniture.  Working with Maslow CNC through many tests and iterations we have further refined the concept and are excited to begin building the finished prototype.

How (if any) was your process different on this project and what excites you about the use of plywood and CNC technology?
The original POD we designed used conventional wood construction, which is ideally assembled on a solid footing and not intended to be lifted, shifted, and twisted.  While our pod only suffered minor cosmetic damage to the siding, there were some nail-biting moments watching some of the forklift acrobatics!  One of the exciting challenges with the introduction of plywood and CNC technology was the chance to innovate and think of ways to use a comparatively lightweight material in a new and elegant way.  We decided to bookend our modules with structural plywood ribs that seamlessly integrate with built-in furniture to add both structure and rigidity to the three-dimensional framework.  These ribs stand proud on the interior of the finished POD and serve as both an expression of the structure and as the point of connection between two modules.  The resulting double-rib is a nod to John Yeon, who often expressed the sandwiched joint between two framed plywood panels in his affordable spec houses.  CNC technology also allowed us to introduce clean, precise curves and allows for the potential replication and mass production of the POD to help address homelessness on a much greater scale.

Were you familiar with John Yeon’s work prior to this partnership? Aside from the use of plywood, are there any aspects of the design that you feel he would have especially liked?
Personally, I was familiar with the Watzek House and the Visitors Information Center, but not with his spec houses or the role he played in celebrating plywood as an affordable, clean, and potentially elegant building material.  During design, the team used this approach of affordability and material simplicity to make critical design decisions and guide the final aesthetic. We feel that he would appreciate this simplicity and clarity of intent as well as the more aesthetic expression of the repeating structural grid of squares that we used in both the trellis and to form the supports in the furniture.  Yeon would often use a series of repeating squares at varying scales to define and enrich a space, for example, the subtle red squares of the guardrail below the flowering wisteria at the pond of the Watzek house and the covered framework of the walkway at the Visitors Information Center.

What do you think that visitors will be most surprised by, or interested in when they attend the build day on August 20th?
Hopefully, on August 20th visitors will stop and interact with the structure and volunteers, ask questions, and give us their feedback.  We think they will be surprised with the scale of the structure and how livable and beautiful these small structures can be; and they will be impressed by the inexpensive technology that Maslow CNC has developed to make CNC routing affordable and accessible to everyone.  Finally, we hope they learn a bit about the initiative and leave thinking about how they can help and participate both directly and in their communities.

What does it mean to you professionally and personally to work a project like this?
The key element to the POD initiative is that it provides meaningful impact at an approachable scale.  Designers teaming up with students, houseless individuals, and members of our city to design and build safe places for a struggling member of our community to live and sleep.  As part of a village, residents receive the comfort and support of a localized community and through the support of other organizations have access to counselling and healthcare to help them take the first important step off the streets.  Personally, it has been a fulfilling journey and I hope to be further involved as the program evolves.  Professionally, the entire team is thankful to be members of SERA, a firm with a long history of socially and environmentally forward thinking and a firm that encourages its employees to take on projects like this.  We hope there are many more opportunities like it to follow.

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