Perspectives October 22, 2019

Designing Housing in a State of Crisis: Chapter Two

By Yan Krymsky

Earlier this month you read about how we in the L.A. Studio decided to be part of the solution to the homelessness crisis in our county, where over 59,000 people are living without permanent shelter. After meeting with local service providers and touring as many of their facilities as we could, we came to recognize that a lot of the housing built for low-income and homeless populations is built with a triage mentality. We can definitely sympathize with this point of view. Resources are limited, and we all have a responsibility to use them in a way that provides shelter for the greatest number of people. But this is also the place where we saw the best opportunity to contribute. We believe that everyone should have a beautiful place to live. It’s our business to be inventive, solve problems, and create places based around user experience. This approach is what we’re trying to bring to housing and facilities that serve our most vulnerable L.A. residents.

It didn’t take long to see that the wide range of conditions that are leaving people without a home requires an equally diverse suite of solutions. In response, our energy has been directed at innovation in housing—not just in prefabricated and new housing models like tiny-home villages, but also in furnishings. In next week’s post I’ll be detailing our role in what became the City’s A Bridge Home program, but this week I want to tell you about DOME, a modular sleeping unit we began working on after visiting several interim-housing facilities. I jump ahead because our team is at a critical point in the development of DOME, and the story of how we found ourselves designing a product is a window into how our approach to housing is evolving.

We noticed that the beds and storage were built of metal or looked like they may have once been used in a college dorm.

We got the idea to design a better bed for interim housing while Miguel Rivera, the L.A. Studio’s supportive-housing leader, and I were driving home from a tour of Union Station Homeless Services, an interim-housing facility in Pasadena, and talking about what we saw on that tour and several others we had recently taken.

The first thing we noticed was that there didn’t seem to be any furniture specifically designed for shelters and interim-housing facilities. Beds and storage were built out of metal or looked like they may have once been used in a college dorm. Knowing just how competitive manufacturers are in the healthcare and workplace markets, we were surprised that there didn’t seem to be anyone producing specialized furniture for interim housing. In this kind environment, with its high volume of use and low prospect for maintenance, where infection control and pest infestations are a constant concern, how could it be that there wasn’t a single product being developed to address these needs? Could we talk to companies like Steelcase and Herman Miller to see if they had interest in developing furniture systems for interim housing?

The other takeaway that became clear as we toured more facilities is that each operator has a different view on the balance of privacy and security. One facility preferred 6-foot-tall partitions and even allowed residents to hang sheets between them. They told us that greater privacy reduced conflict between neighbors. Another operator preferred 4-foot-tall partitions, so that if there were an incident, security could easily spot the problem and respond quickly. Some facilities offer individual beds with partitions, others group beds in pairs, while still others prefer larger groups of six to eight. Almost every facility we toured approached the sleeping areas differently. However, they all share the same challenges, and that gave us hope that we could develop a flexible solution that could benefit everyone.

PATH Shelter
Some of the facilities we visited allowed residents to hang sheets between their sleeping areas.

Miguel actually did call Steelcase, Herman Miller, Nemschoff, and even Ikea to see if they were interested in partnering with us to develop a furniture system for interim housing. At that point we were already working with the L.A. City Bureau of Engineering on the Bridge Home project and knew that we would need these products very soon. Before long, we were in a room with members of Steelcase’s development team.

We asked ourselves again, What can we do to help right now? So we started with the bed, and then we thought, There’s more to this unit than just the bed. You have lockable storage. You have some kind of partition. What about lighting? A plug-in charging station? The Bridge Home program will allow couples and pets. How can we accommodate?

The big question was, Can we make something to give people staying in these facilities more privacy without sacrificing security and at the same time give the operators the flexibility to adapt to seasonal surges?

We thought especially about privacy. Humanizing the experience of the people who live in interim housing or sleep in shelters had been our priority from the moment we reckoned with the City’s need to maximize beds as quickly as possible.

DOME Iterations
We started with the smallest footprint possible to save space for more beds. Different bed and storage orientations were tested to achieve the most efficient humane layout providing privacy, security, and comfort.

The first DOME prototype came out of the Innovation Incubator program, a company-wide initiative that supplies microgrants for employees to conduct their own research projects. Mohsen Ghanbari, a project designer in our L.A. Studio, and I started to develop the ideas we talked about in our charette with Steelcase. Early on, we focused on cost, space efficiency, and a lot of functionality. It was the Swiss Army Knife of beds, full of hinges and complicated mechanics. We were creating a durability and repair nightmare, not to mention all the narrow gaps that could exacerbate issues with bed bugs. Eventually we simplified the design into a cabinet-and-partition system: a kind of Murphy bed–meets–steamer trunk. And this became another pivotal moment in our approach, because at this point we realized that what we had was a unique product—a new type of furniture rather than a furniture system.

Once we began to think of this as a sort of sleeping cabinet, we knew we had to get a manufacturer’s input, and that’s when we started the dialogue with Shield Casework. They do a lot of medical and sports casework: cabinets, lockers, shelving, storage. It’s very durable, the only stuff that can survive in a hospital or in an NFL locker room. I had worked with them previously on something similar that was related to student housing, so I knew this kind of challenge would be right up their alley. I reached out to the president of Shield, Stephen Hopkins, and we started talking about how to pull off something like this. They signed on, and we flew out to their main manufacturing facility in Kansas City, Missouri, to workshop the idea. It was there, working with their designers and engineers, that we made the final adjustments and came up with the “slice of bread” idea, removing the last hinged partition and opting for conventionally built drywall spline. Shield has been an incredible partner and helped us find the right balance between cost and quality throughout the process.

And that’s what got us to where we are today with DOME Unit, the stackable modular furniture product we designed specifically for interim and emergency housing. Shield is  building our second prototype and will ship out of Kansas City to L.A. next week.

Each DOME unit consists of an extra-long twin bed with space for storage underneath, a 6-foot-tall lockable wardrobe that doubles as a partition, an outlet, and a step light to illuminate the aisle and reduce the need for overhead emergency lighting at night. An optional fabric canopy can be added to fully enclose the unit for operators that favor greater privacy for residents. There is room to get dressed and even keep a medium-size pet. All the components form a single unit that is rigidly connected to the next unit with a metal bedframe. There are no left- and right-handed units—no loose parts to get lost—and the unit stacks for efficient storage and shipping.

The “Slice of Bread”
Each individual DOME unit requires two wardrobe ends, or “slices of bread,” that are anchored by an extra-long twin bed in between. The wardrobe unit is 6 feet 2 inches wide by 6 feet high with a 2-foot depth.

There is still design work to be done, and we are committed to bringing the cost down further before DOME starts to make its way into facilities around the city. Once we have the prototype in L.A., we’ll circle back with the providers and some former residents to get their input.

But I think we’re getting this visceral enthusiasm from people steeped in all the challenges of this crisis because DOME immediately communicates our answer to the question we’ve asked from the outset: Can we make a very tough time in someone’s life a little easier through thoughtful design and innovation?

Yes. DOME Unit is not just this straight utilitarian box. There’s some thought about how it looks and how it sits in the space. It sends a message that people care. This isn’t just about putting people in beds as quickly as possible, but also about attention to detail and experience. We want it to feel residential, not institutional. That’s why it’s built like a cabinet.

It’s the privacy, the material, and the configuration that are the real humanizing interventions.

Privacy: Optional Fabric Canopy (Cardboard Mock-up)
Operators that see privacy as a way to prevent altercations or provide more comfort can opt for a model with fabric canopies that enclose the unit.
Material: Solid-Surface Sheets and Plywood (Prototype)
The solid-surface wrapper gives the unit a clean, high-end feel while the birch-plywood door gives it a tactile quality that makes it feel residential.

A lot of thought went into the layout and possible configurations of the units at varying scales of community. A Bridge Home is much more inclusive than typical interim-housing programs in the way that it accommodates couples, pets, and personal property. DOME responds in kind by providing units with greater privacy for couples. Layouts are clustered so that people can stay together in the communities they may have already established when living in encampments. We’ve heard from the County that they are actually starting to bring people in in larger groups now, and DOME can support that strategy.

DOME Layout
Configuration: Cohorts and Aisles
An operator can stand in the aisle and see down the whole configuration of units without compromising the privacy of any individual unit.
DOME Layout

And that brings me to one last aspect of DOME’s innovation: the life cycle.

Compare DOME and its possible configurations to the maze of beds in that plan we told you about last week, the one that launched us into homeless housing in the first place.

You can see clearly from that plan that when people are confronting an emergency, it is really hard to think beyond the urgent needs of the immediate situation. We typically end up spending the energy and resources we have on something that gets discarded after one use. With DOME, we didn’t want to make another piece of throwaway furniture that’s going to end up in a landfill.

This isn’t the first time L.A. has had a housing crisis. We went through all this in the nineties as well. We are designing DOME to be reused either again in this capacity or for some other use. There are definitely going to be more uses for DOME.