Perspectives 10.07.2019

Designing Housing in a State of Crisis: Chapter One

By Yan Krymsky

Los Angeles County is home to the largest unsheltered homeless population in the United States. The largest concentration of that population lives a few blocks from Perkins and Will’s studio in Downtown Los Angeles. The struggle of the man sleeping on the bus stop at one end of our block and the woman asking for change at the other is just part of our daily lives. In 2017, our studio decided to become part of the solution to the crisis in our city, and that decision has led our design practice to experiment with exciting and inspiring new expressions of our firm’s social purpose.

There was a moment, though, when we almost decided not to go down this road, when we almost decided not to rise to our mandate as designers. And that story—the story of how we turned the philanthropic mindset our studio has always had into an integral dimension of the work we do—started with a plan.

More precisely, it started with this plan:

A diagram issued by the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering

This little diagram was tucked into the RFP issued by the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering a couple of years ago for an interim-housing facility on a city-owned property. As one of the architects on the Bureau’s pre-approved bench, we were invited to propose a plan to convert the vacant floor of the existing Department of Transportation building into a homeless shelter for men and women together. You can see it resembles a basic office plan, only instead of rows of cubicles, it’s a sea of beds.

I’ll be honest, we struggled with the density, the inherent lack of privacy, and the lack of daylight or views to the outside. Few of us were familiar with interim housing and even fewer had worked on a project like this. That said, Miguel Rivera, our senior marketing coordinator, was already out in front of the issue. Drawing on his early training as a landscape designer, he had been exploring how the L.A. studio might get involved by attending Downtown community meetings and observing first-hand how our city was addressing the crisis.

With Miguel’s on-the-ground insight and our design instincts, we looked at this plan and thought, What can we do to make this a more humane experience? Can we do some kind of pod or modular sleeping thing? Miguel and Ryan Hollien, one of our senior designers, went out to see the building. They entered through a designated first-level entrance that the residents would use and then were guided by flashlight into the warehouse space: rows of unused cubicles and old office equipment lay on the unfinished ground. At the end of the tour, they asked about population, the number of beds, services. Were there plans to bring in daylight? The answer was no.

The space had been vacant for almost 20 years and it showed.

As much as we wanted to get involved, we just had really mixed feelings. Between the plan and the site visit, we knew this was going to be a really oppressive environment for people. We weren’t sure whether we wanted to be involved in something that led to this.

So we tabled it for a minute and gave it some thought. And when we went back to the plan and really looked at it, that was the moment. Our perspective suddenly changed. Our moment of truth as designers was when we realized, This is an emergency. That’s why this plan is like this.

Because you don’t do this in any other circumstance. You just don’t do this. We don’t do this. Everything we learn about, everything we try to do as architects goes against this. Our work is about light and views and privacy and social interaction. All of that was absent in this plan.

And once we had made that mental shift, we went all in. Miguel dug up similar work our Seattle studio had done and began seeking out strategic partners and setting up tours of their facilities to learn how they operate and what the residents need. We did submit a proposal to that RFP and got short-listed. By the time we went in for the interview, it had changed in scope to become Bridge Home, the mayor’s interim-housing program. Two years later, we’ve now worked with the Bureau of Engineering on seven sites, two of which are in construction, others in various stages of design.

Bridge
One of the seven Bridge Homes we're working on

What’s more, going all in meant we were nowhere near the end of our story. Once we started digging into Bridge Home and learning all about the interim-housing market, its players and stakeholders, and its state of design, we immediately started working on other solutions.

Only by looking at that plan in our nerdy architect way were we able to confront just how real our city’s emergency is. Only then could we say to ourselves, Yeah, we absolutely do want to do this. And we don’t want to just do this. We want to do a lot more than this. 

Corazon del Valle
Early renderings for permanent-supportive housing in San Fernando Valley

The reality is our city has a population of nearly 60,000 people who live without a permanent home. They are scattered all over Los Angeles County, which is a really diverse landscape: It’s a dense, urban condition. It’s suburban. It’s even less dense than that in many places. Once we started having conversations with shelter operators, community members and leaders, and the organizations that develop interim housing, it didn’t take long to realize that no one is ever going to design a silver bullet to address this emergency. It’s going to take an all-of-the-above approach to get anywhere.

So that’s what we’ve started to do. We’re working on the widest possible range of housing typologies, including interim housing and permanent supportive housing. We’re even looking at models that have had success in other West Coast cities, like “tiny home” villages. Within each of these approaches, we’re exploring innovations in prefabrication, specialized furniture, and new materials that will make these places more comfortable, more dignified, and easier to operate.

Over the next few weeks, chapter by chapter, we’re taking you through our work, from a stackable mobile-housing product called DOME Unit to a tiny home village concept we’re still developing. Each project has deepened and enriched our studio’s design practice and connected us with our city in personal and eye-opening ways.

Today is World Architecture Day. The theme is “Housing for All.” What better time to start telling the story?

Beacon

Our Homeless Housing Arsenal

Bridge Home Project

This City program is what became of that original L.A. Bureau of Engineering call to turn the vacant floor of a DOT building with no windows into the plan for a cubicle sea of beds. The mayor’s office asked every district in Los Angeles to suggest a site that could house a hundred folks and keep them sheltered for three years until permanent housing is in place for them. Our role is figuring out the best way to configure a given set of components on a given site. We’ve now made it our business to shape the program and advocate for the experience of each place.

DOME Unit

DOME Unit is our interim-housing mission writ large. Early on in our research and conversations around Bridge Home, we identified the need for a humane furniture system, and the first prototype emerged from Perkins and Will’s Innovation Incubator program. Not so much a furniture system as a stackable piece of furniture, DOME is designed specifically for interim-housing typologies. It balances privacy for the individual, safety for the collective, operational flexibility for the site, and long-term functionality for the provider. It also drew us into a generative partnership with Shield.

DOME
Corazon del Valle

Corazon del Valle

Clifford Beers Housing, an organization that builds permanent supportive-housing, saw how invested we are in responding to the LA housing crisis and asked us to partner with them on a pursuit to build low income and family units in a San Fernando Valley neighborhood, Panorama City. LA county selected the Clifford Beers / Perkins Will  team out of almost a dozen proposals siting the design quality of the submission as a big part of the selection committee’s decision. When we took our 120-unit hill-town concept to the community, they asked for higher density. The project is now a 180 units of family and supportive housing.

Casa Verde Concept Study

You might call these tiny homes DOME 2.0. A group in the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) had a far-out plan to work with the police and a community activist to develop a site to house formerly incarcerated homeless veterans. That plan has stalled, but we’re continuing to develop a prototype that, unlike most tiny homes, conforms to housing codes. We’re looking for partners. We’re bringing the cost down. We’re talking to the mayor. The goal now is creating the first tiny-home village in Los Angeles.

Casa Verde Tiny Homes