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Making tiny shelters from recycled materials

At $5,000, the design is affordable and customizable

Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, how architect David Lopez used feedback from students to modify a shelter originally designed for Haiti so that it might work to address homelessness in the U.S.

David Lopez wasn’t looking to modify his refugee shelters when he presented the project to 200 teenagers at Baltimore Design School. He’d developed the shelters two years earlier with a group of students from the Maryland Institute College of Art; after a trip to Port-au-Prince to observe the efficacy of the variety of emergency shelters deployed following the devastation of 2010’s earthquake, Lopez and his class had built their own, $2,000, easily deployed structure. Once classwork was done, he’d spent a year talking to relief agencies, working to get the prototype—which could be assembled in just 12 hours—into the world. When financing proved sticky, the project stalled.

Six months later, Lopez, founder and principal of Baltimore firm Led Better, was invited to speak to the then-new design-focused public middle and high school.

“It was the most compelling group of questions I received,” Lopez says. “In a number of situations, students came from troubled areas of town. They regularly saw dilapidated shelters and rowhouses and homeless people in their communities. They said, ‘don’t we spend more money than that on the homeless now?’”

“They saw some of these vacant lots in their neighborhoods, areas where rowhouses had been torn down,” he explains. “Those vacant areas were sort of no-man’s land. You could sense that they were presupposing: isn’t that a place where we could create these as opportunities? What about vacant land in my neighborhood—could this work there? They saw empty space as opportunity.”

Lopez got to work. The shelter he’d initially drawn up had been composed of a system of floor palettes, a galvanized metal frame sheathed in plywood, and an exterior mesh skin into which recycled local materials could be woven. The double wall provided natural ventilation, a must in Haiti’s climate, and a similar double roof of corrugated metal and plywood minimized the sound of weather outside. Inside, the structure was simple—two rooms, a few wooden shelves, and a fold-away table.

Now, spurred on by the students, he looked at providing insulation, and how the exterior “skin” he’d initially envisioned could offer a way for each shelter to fully integrate into the varied contexts and neighborhoods in which they were placed—to look less like a temporary solution and more like a natural outgrowth of an urban context.

“I like the idea of seeing these pop up in forgotten areas within the city, and developing a culture of habitable circumstances for those that struggle to find comfortable sheltering options through the city agencies,” he says.

While the concept of using tiny houses to address homelessness is not new—see this feature on ten exemplary projects around the country—many such homes cost $50,000 and up, whether that cost is carried by a foundation, a city government, or an individual or group of donors. (Mobile homes, for reference, tend to cost $37,000 and up for a single wide.)

Lopez proposes a temporary shelter, inexpensively produced, and adapted to regional requirements with a mutable cladding made of recycled, regionally available materials. Though his design is significantly simpler than tiny houses or even the prefab apartment pods that may go into production in San Francisco this winter—most notably, it offers no interior bathroom or kitchen—he has a price point to match, around $5,000.

With even minimal insulation, such shelters aren’t as much of a stretch as they may initially appear for temperate U.S. cities, like Sarasota, where homelessness has soared. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 annual report, nearly one third of homeless individuals were considered “unsheltered.” And as more and more cities criminalize camping or sleeping outside—the number of cities with municipal bans increased 50 percent between 2011 and 2014 alone—finding inexpensive ways of offering temporary shelter becomes increasingly urgent.

The interiors of Lopez’s shelters would remain largely the same, though customizable by any resident. Rather, it’s the exterior skins where Lopez hopes residents would make the shelters their own. He envisions the exterior cladding as, in addition to offering ventilation utility, a way for a shelter to blend in with its community and make use of the material waste within a city, using building rubble, concrete in decay, or regionally-popular materials “like brick in Baltimore or wood in Seattle.”

“Using material waste as skin for shelters is transferable to any city that’s going through age and change and has broken-down buildings,” he explains. And such a task could even, he suggests, generate jobs for shelter residents. “It turns into an economic engine and develops job opportunities. Certain people harvest the waste… and then people develop the skills to turn that material into the skin for a building.”

More important, perhaps, is the way that a dignified, personalized building skin could create out of a temporary shelter the semblance of a home. “The reason it came up,” he explains, “is we’d noticed that the shelters that had been built for two to three years wound up [being used for] five to six years. They’d been built out of plywood and painting, which is fine, but it offers no cultural narrative.”