by Steven SculcoAug 20, 2021
What are the minimum essentials for a structure to be defined as a home? It is not just a thought experiment discussed in academia or through research papers. It is also a question that is discussed beyond the realms of the drawing board of the designer and is an important political and social definition, globally. With a growing number of people currently working from home, the importance of the home has become more than a space of respite between working and socialising. However, it is also paramount to remember that while our contemporary circumstance has re-emphasised the importance of the home, the lack of liveable spaces, particularly in urban areas, has been a global issue for much longer. In February 2020, the United Nations passed a resolution on homelessness, deeming it “a serious violation of human dignity”. The resolution also acknowledges the global nature of the problem, which affects people in both developed and developing countries.
Michael B Lehrer, founding partner of Lehrer Architects, has been working to get people off the streets, particularly in Los Angeles. Working with the idea of human dignity as one of the core tenets of the studio’s practice, Lehrer Architects has been working in this sector for the last 22 years. However, it is their latest project in LA that has caught the internet’s fancy. The colourfully painted sheds are one aspect of the complex planning of the Alexandria Park Tiny Home Village. While the vibrant palette may seem like an internet-friendly intervention, the accents are both a visual and logistical expression of the village. Located within the boundaries of an existing city park, the village consists of a main street, individual boulevards and shared formal and semi-formal outdoor spaces. The planning also incorporates the natural features of the surrounding parkland. The project is a humane and dignified design response to a growing homelessness crisis in the city.
In addition to being located in a park, the village is situated at the edge of a freeway. The location was largely unused, the act of repurposing the space adheres to Lehrer Architect’s long-standing philosophy of ‘no throwaway spaces’. In a comment to STIR, Lehrer explains this philosophy in greater detail. “Every space matters. In other words, it is seeing possibility, practical and or emotive, where others don’t or can’t. For us, this is a foundational design precept, the beginning of design as a moral enterprise. As in finance and investment, finding otherwise unseen promise immediately adds value to any enterprise, be it social, interpersonal, financial, urban or architectural. Deep visual understanding and skill (what does the mind’s eye perceive, and when does it perceive it?) can make virtually any space, most interestingly tiny or marginal spaces, impactful, transformative and maybe even beautiful,” he says.
The location was selected based on the city’s mission to utilise spaces that would be passed over by other developers for their size, shape or lack of existing infrastructure. This overlaps with Lehrer’s philosophy of no throwaway space. Finding creativity in the constrained, long, thin oddly-shaped lot, the site became a part of the city’s ongoing effort to create housing for the unhoused. Lehrer elaborates on working with the city agencies saying, “Each site has specific challenges and possibilities regarding the most efficient way to bring utilities to it. This is the nature of site design. Distance and proximity to existing public infrastructure; slope for drainage; minimising grading; cost-effectiveness and longer-term value to the site for subsequent uses, are all part of the calculus."
The studio worked in conjunction with multiple city agencies, architects and engineers led directly by the Bureau of Engineering and Ford Construction to complete the project on time. Lehrer continues to explain the efforts stating, “The city did the significant initial work in vetting and selecting the site; the design and build team completed the design and construction of the utilities. These costs account for a chunk of the overall cost and cost differential between projects. Solving these problems within particularly onerous time constraints is the challenge. In the ideal triad of “faster, better, cheaper”, one will usually give way to the others. While cost and budget are pretty inviolate, speed and quality are prioritised here."
One of the methods employed to build faster was to utilise the 8x8 home units, designed by Pallet. Each unit could be assembled quickly and provides a self-contained, conditioned space for each resident. This is the second Tiny Home Village design by Lehrer Architects. Explaining the transition and the lesson learnt between them, Lehrer says, “The first project was the beta project. The first time that the tiny homes, Pallet Shelter, prototype was deployed in Los Angeles, (we were) testing the relationship between the new typology and the regulations and processes of the city. The second and subsequent projects are learned in that regard. The main difference is simply the different size and shape of the site. That is a basic design truism. Mastering the spatial requirements of each tiny home is a significant learning. Valuing the leftover areas between units as newly found outdoor semi-private spaces is a lesson. Becoming smarter, with smaller budgets, about animating the campus with colour, and or planting, and furniture like umbrellas is another. The mantra always is “how do we achieve excellent outcomes using the least resource?” Excellence and least resource being inviolate goals".
Animating the village, which can house 200 people, is one of the features that has caught people’s attention. Using primary colours, the studio wanted to build a relationship between the homes, the occupants and the spaces in between them. Instead of simply assigning colour tones at random or through a plan or section, the studio used a cinematic design approach. By rolling a 3D camera down the main street of their architectural model, the studio strategically picked which homes were to be painted. This works on multiple levels as it avoids the possibility of the colour-scape being read as a code. It also takes into consideration the experience of walking across the neighbourhood and ensuring a colourful visual experience. While there is a significant area of the village that has shared facilities, one of the ways the occupants are given a sense of autonomy is by making individual cabins lockable. The sense of privacy is meant to facilitate their journey to permanent housing. A streamlined and efficient arrangement of prefabricated modular units makes up the collective dining and gathering space, pet play areas, showers, restrooms, laundry, pest control, storage for incoming residents’ possessions, and assistance with accessing city services.