Perspectives 01.13.2020

Designing Housing in a State of Crisis: Chapter Three

By Yan Krymsky
Aerial View

The word is advocate. That’s how our studio understands its role as designers of interim and supportive housing in Los Angeles. We are advocates for people who live in the housing we design. We’re advocating for human experience in a situation where urgency and cost usually dominate the conversation.

That role crystallized through our work on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s A Bridge Home Initiative.

A Bridge Home is what became of the LA Bureau of Engineering RFP that ushered us into the world of temporary housing three years ago. In 2016, Angelenos voted to approve Prop HHH, a City-administered supportive-housing loan program, now in the process of accepting applicants and seeking development proposals. While these HHH funds were being converted into actual beds, the city needed a stop-gap measure to get people indoors and safe. A Bridge Home is that program.

Bridge
At each site we try to take advantage of trees and existing vegetation to configure common space around.

The mayor’s office originally asked each of Los Angeles’s 15 Districts to suggest sites of a size that could house 100 people and keep them sheltered until they could be relocated to a permanent home. The shelters were to be in operation for three years and then taken down. Their goal would be to assign residents to permanent housing in under three months, allowing these interim facilities to serve a larger population. The Bureau of Engineering ultimately selected two architecture firms for the program: longtime supportive-housing designers Gonzalez Goodale Architects and Perkins and Will. Almost two years later, 25 Bridge Home sites are either open or in development throughout the city. We worked on 10 different sites, six of which are proceeding past feasibility studies and into documentation and construction.

Our role is to assist the Bureau of Engineering and the City to achieve its urgent mandate: to build 1,600 temporary-shelter beds across LA quickly and cost effectively. At this point in the program, creating a bridge-housing facility means arranging a given set of prefabricated components on a site selected by the City. It’s a lot less than we normally have to work with, but we do everything we can to improve the experience for the people who are going to be living there. The research and outreach we did at the outset—spearheaded by our senior marketing coordinator, Miguel Rivera—allows us to ask informed questions and make sure we are in touch with a given site’s program.

Kit of Parts

While homelessness in LA is often referred to as a housing “crisis,” it is not officially a state of emergency. That means we must follow an expedited permitting and approvals process for each site. As we complete our documents, we’re also thinking about the user experience and looking for ways to improve conditions within the given constraints.

Here’s what the entire process looks like: A Council District proposes an empty parcel of land, then the Bureau of Engineering assigns it to one of the architecture firms selected for the project. Once Perkins and Will is given a site, we complete a feasibility study by laying out the components to see if they fit and have access for intake, food deliveries, and other services. We test each site by arranging the kit of parts we’ve been given to work with:

  • temporary fabric structure, by Sprung Instant Structure, for sleeping
  • administration trailer, providing intake and caseworker offices
  • hygiene trailers with individual restroom and shower compartments
  • covered outdoor dining
  • pet areas, some of which were funded by the Annenberg Foundation
  • amnesty lockers, to store personal items that aren’t allowed inside the facility
  • storage area

Our first site was a parcel in Koreatown, located within walking distance of a Metro stop. The site came up against opposition from the community, forcing Councilmember Herb Wesson, of LA’s 10th district, to move the project to another location. Since then, most of the proposed sites have been in less populated areas. Pedestrian and service access can be a challenge, and noise and soil conditions have to be considered as well.

After we analyze the feasibility of the site, we wait for the Bureau of Engineering to give us notice to proceed. Once notice is given, we complete construction documents in a period of approximately four weeks. Then the documents go through an expedited permitting phase before the City releases the documents for bid. At this point, the project is ready to build.

Hope Site
Every facility will be constructed with daylit center panels.

Despite the short time we have to complete our work, we bring the full team together for a charette to begin design on each site we are assigned. We’re always looking for new ways to make each facility a more humane and livable place. We try to improve communal space by preserving and planning around existing vegetation. Typically, that will be where we place the dining canopy, the one element we did design: a simple gabled-roof wood structure, constructed out of built-up columns and beams. We also try to increase privacy and cut down on the amount of chain-link fence along the perimeter by placing the long hygiene trailers along one edge of the site. We discuss someone’s first day at the shelter. We walk through service and food drop-off. We analyze sight lines: Can someone on their way to the restroom be seen from the entrance of the main building?

But we haven’t limited our contribution to just working with the Bridge Home kit of parts. Early on, we managed to have a positive impact on the program by advocating for:

  • including community spaces within the membrane structure
  • clarifying intake protocols for potential residents
  • designing components to make the shelters better integrated with their residential communities, including colored slat inserts for the fences, which soften the required perimeter fence and add greater visual privacy.

Natural light is another key consideration. For the main building, the Bureau of Engineering selected a steel-and-tensile-fabric structure made by Sprung Instant Structures, which is basically a massive white tent. There’s an option to let in daylight through translucent fabric panels at the ridge of the structure.  We visited a structure that didn’t use the translucent panels, and it was pretty dark—not a nice space to live in, even temporarily. Imagine a dormitory-style sleeping area with as many as 60 beds in a single space without any access to natural light. We felt strongly that the Bridge Home structures should include the translucent panels and advocated for them when they came under scrutiny.

DOME Unit
DOME is a stackable, modular dwelling unit that provides users with a bed, privacy, and storage areas for their belongings.

We approach the Bridge Home projects with the same attention and creativity that we bring to our other work. We imagine the place we’re creating from the perspectives of the people who will be using it, and we seek out opportunities for innovation.

In Chapter Two of this series, I described DOME, the stackable, modular sleep pod specifically designed for interim housing. The DOME project spun out of the tours we took of interim-housing facilities to prepare for our work on A Bridge Home. It’s the innovation side of our housing platform and another way we could improve the privacy for the temporary residents of the Bridge Home program. We hope that we can persuade the City to adopt DOME as part of the standard kit of parts.

 

 

Thank you to the following team members for their insight and contributions to this project:

Core team:
Norah Altwaijri
Oliver Aus der Muhlen
Leigh Christy
Ksenia Chumakova
Eubie Han
Kevin Holland
Ryan Hollien
Kim Lenz
Yan Krymsky
Lorraine Polanski
Chris Waight