Seattle embraces modular designs by local architect
Two-time City Council candidate Stuart Emmons will get his wish to see modular housing built for the homeless.
Only in Seattle, not Portland.
The architect who didn't get past the primaries in 2016 and 2018 and who made fighting homelessness his key issue, has been designing, and getting built, modular housing for years.
He finally had two pilot projects accepted in King County in August.
The Modular Congregate Shelter
One pilot project is a Congregate Shelter for 72 people experiencing homelessness, the other is a Modular Micro Dwelling Unit project that will build 20 of Emmons' ImHomeToo units.
King County Executive Dow Constantine, in the role of city manager, said King County is pioneering modular housing to provide more options to those seeking temporary shelter as well as a permanent place to live. King County believes modular is a way to provide shelter and housing for homeless that will be less costly and faster to construct.
The two projects are designed to be moveable, and can be popped apart like Legos and moved to another part of the city. Whitley Evergreen of Marysville, Washington, was recently contracted for $4.5 million to build the modules for both projects. Third Place Design Coop is the in-town land use architect. They do the site works and Emmons designs the buildings. Portland's Walsh Construction has been selected as the general contractor for the Congregate Shelter.
The Whitley Evergreen plant is an hour north of Seattle in Marysville. Emmons has previously worked with Whitley general manager Alan Duer and team member Kendra Cox, both of whom worked at Blazer Industries in Aumsville, Oregon, who built Emmons' modular Kah San Chako Haws in Portland. Emmons favors building modules locally. He cites the example of a recent modular homeless housing project in Seattle, which was to have been built in China and funded with $1 million from Paul Allen's Vulcan Real Estate, that was shelved due to regulatory issues and other challenges.
"It was tabled due to cost overruns. They were flying regulators from Olympia to Shanghai to inspect the modules, it wasn't working," said Emmons.
The Modular Congregate Shelter will be a "low bar to entry" facility, come as you are. Pets are welcome. A survey in King County showed that 20 percent of people sleeping rough said they weren't in a shelter because they couldn't bring a pet. Clients can also bring partners, people will not be turned away if they use substances, and there will be storage for their belongings.
"The shelter is designed to get people stabilized, counsel them and find them housing. Hopefully, in a month people transition out to housing. You have to have housing on the backside of shelters, or we don't gain ground on ending homelessness."
Emmons told the Business Tribune that the units pencil out at about $65,000 per person. The shelter will have nine dorms, each for about eight people, a configuration that Emmons believes is a good model for shelters.
The Modular Micro Dwelling Units
In addition to the shelter project, Emmons is designing a project including 20 of Emmons' ImHomeToo units, single dwelling units with kitchenettes and bathrooms. The ImHomeToo unit is a culmination of years of research and testing by Emmons, and a step to a modular dwelling unit.
In modular home building, like any manufacturing, building multiple identical units brings down the cost per unit. "You need a manufacturer and a decent architect, and a design that is repetitive and easy to manufacture."
Emmons worked at Blokable, which builds stackable micro apartments, where he says he continued his research into manufacturing efficiencies. His goal is to build a unit in two days.
The rent "in Portland dollars" will be $450 a month. "With disability checks and social security, we always thought $450 was a reasonable number to get to. Almost anybody with counseling can get to four-fifty."
The city of Vancouver did a pilot of 52 units. Now they have 4 projects on line with two in construction, with a goal of 600 units. "Those are the quantities we need to think in," he says.
"There's no reason Multnomah County or the City of Portland can't do something like this. King County has had $5 million earmarked for a modular shelter for a couple of years. It's not an enormous amount of money," said Emmons. He says pilot projects take leadership, which is what he found in Dow Constantine. Public investments in pilot projects can catalyze both public and privately funded projects in the future to get many more people sheltered and housed. People like Paul Allen of Vulcan Real Estate have already come forward, and locally, Homer Williams got Tim Boyle to invest $1.5 million toward Williams' homeless shelter in the Pearl District."
In addition to private investors and companies, there are plenty of foundations, such as the Hilton, which he says are dedicated to making a difference in homelessness. They just need to be given ideas of what to do.
Emmons believes the way Portland government RFPs (requests for proposals) are written, they stifle innovation. They always start new projects with a clean slate and miss out on many of the lessons learned from previous projects. "You do a pilot, then with the second and third generation you take it to scale. That's what prototyping is all about. If you don't have subsequent projects, it misses the benefits of doing the pilot project."
"If Portland and Multnomah County commissioners had a desire for it, RFPs can be written to encourage innovation."
He added that Seattle is showing more leadership than Portland on this issue.
"In King County they're building what we talked about seven years ago. If you show a proof of concept, people will be open to it. They just don't want to throw their money down the toilet. When people write a check, they want to see something within a year."
"I return to Portland on the train from Seattle every week and walk from Union Station to Burnside to get the bus to my place. The human condition on this route is shocking. Several weeks ago, I even saw a dead body on the sidewalk. That's my fuel, I've never seen so much human misery. How can we as a 'civilized' society accept this? People need to get into safe, warm and dry place that provides them dignity immediately."
The Emmons way
Stuart Emmons has had modular homes built at Blazer Industries in Aumsville, Oregon.
In a factory under controlled conditions, bathrooms and kitchens were installed, and paint and carpeting were added.
Units were assembled like Legos, and the electrical and plumbing lines hooked together in a few hours.
Emmons designed the nine-unit Kah San Chako Haws modular affordable housing project for the Native American Youth and Family Center in East Portland. Units ranged from 375-square-foot studios to modest 835-square-foot two bedrooms. It also was built by Blazer.
Emmons designed a 265-square-foot mini-studio apartment for homeless singles called ImHomeToo, with a living room and bathroom. It was priced at about $40,000 per unit out of the factory in 2013 dollars, fully furnished down to the light bulbs.
To cut costs, it had a microwave and refrigerator instead of a full kitchen.
Emmons also was on the design team for the MicroBlok in 2017, a 21-square-foot micro unit designed to house people experiencing homelessness.
Emmons wrote "The Portland Home Project" in 2018 — a plan to get people off the street compassionately in two years, and 75 percent of people experiencing homelessness into housing in four years.