These 14 architect-designed dwellings won't solve homelessness, but they provide inspiration as well as shelter
Today an estimated 3,800 people in Multnomah County are living on the street or in temporary shelters, giving Portland one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation.
These aren't just abstract statistics. We can all see the tents and sleeping bags dotting our parks, sidewalks, highway underpasses and vacant lots.
Maybe giving 14 of those homeless people shelter for the night doesn't put much of a dent in the problem, but to visit the collection of one-person dwellings recently designed and built by teams of local architecture firms and Portland State University architecture students— as part of the POD (Partners on Dwelling) Initiative — was to come away inspired by the capacity of local designers to solve problems and demonstrate our shared humanity.
Touring the 14 dwellings in a parking lot outside Pacific Northwest College of Art earlier this month, I appreciated how nearly every one emphasized a different type of good design. Holst Architecture's entry was the most simple and beautiful, taking inspiration from A-frame cabins dotting Oregon's forests and coastline. Full of natural light, its triangular exposed wood structure gives the dwelling's interior an almost spiritual feel, recalling masterful Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. SERA Architects' entry felt the most spacious, with a front porch and awning unfolding off the side of the house. LRS Architects added extra insulation, making their little dwelling the quietest. Scott Edwards Architecture thought to put a solar panel on top, powering a light bulb inside. Communitecture actually doubled the density of their entry by creating a very livable duplex out of their roughly 10-foot-by-10-foot square dwelling.
The POD Initiative was initiated by the PSU Department of Architecture's Center for Public Interest Design, a nationally-renowned, first-of-its-kind program for serving the needy through design, be it here in Portland or in developing world locales like Haiti and India. In partnership with the nonprofit Village Coalition, a homeless advocacy group, the PODs design teams took time to meet with homeless clients and learn their needs through an October charrette with residents of the Hazelnut Grove encampment. The office of Mayor Charlie Hales and the Larson Legacy charity also got involved, providing financial support for materials and space on city-owned land for the completed shelters.
The idea isn't just to get people off the street (although that's reason enough). As Todd Ferry, a member of PSU's architecture faculty and a CPID research associate explained, the hope is to "change perceptions of houselessness, and spark a community-wide conversation about alternatives to traditional temporary housing."
These dwellings are not luxurious. They lack plumbing, heat and electricity. They're not much bigger than tents. But unlike the ill-advised effort earlier this year to literally warehouse hundreds of homeless people in the vacant Terminal 1 industrial facility, or IKEA flat-pack refugee shelters (an example of which was erected next to the PODs for comparison), these dwellings seem to give something more than the minimum.
That's the power of good design: not simply to erect shelter over our heads but also to inspire and embolden us, not just to insulate from the cold but to give us reason to rise anew each day.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell, among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or online at: portlandarchitecture.com