Design to tackle homelessness – DesignCurial

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With 150 million people without homes worldwide, Kay Hill looks at some of the solutions on the table to tackle homelessness


Words by Kay Hill

The figures on homelessness are stark. According to UK government statistics, 4,677 people were sleeping rough on a single night last year, while the BBC estimates that the total number experiencing the indignity of rough sleeping over a year comes to nearer 28,000. It isn’t a problem unique to the UK: there are more than half a million rough sleepers in the US – 60,000 in Los Angeles alone – not to mention millions of refugees and victims of natural disasters around the world. The traditional response, whether it’s on the streets of Detroit or the refugee camps of Darfur, is to resort to tents, but many in the design world believe there are better solutions.

Australian architect Sean Godsell first became aware of homelessness when he lived in London’s Notting Hill during the 1980s. ‘The steps down to the tube station were crowded with homeless people trying to get some shelter and warmth overnight,’ he recalls. Today, his native Melbourne ‘has become an epicentre of homelessness’. The first thing he would like to see is an end to so-called “hostile architecture” – the sharp studs on ledges, sloping benches with metal dividers and all the other tricks that his colleagues are persuaded to use to drive homeless people out of sight.

‘We need to think about compassionate infrastructure,’ he says. ‘We have to look first at catering for it rather than curing it. You can’t brush homeless people under the carpet. When you’re working on constructed urban infrastructure it’s disturbing how often the brief includes making sure the homeless can’t gather or sleep there. It’s pretty ruthless and not exactly creative. It doesn’t take a big amount of imagination to try to accommodate the needs of the displaced.’

Melbourne-based architect Sean Godsell entered his Park Bench House into an architectural competition for the ‘best house’ to draw attention to homelessness. Despite its cost-effective simplicity, he says that councils have been too risk-averse to accept the design. Image Credit: Hayley Franklin Melbourne-based architect Sean Godsell entered his Park Bench House into an architectural competition for the ‘best house’ to draw attention to homelessness. Despite its cost-effective simplicity, he says that councils have been too risk-averse to accept the design. Image Credit: Hayley Franklin

Over his career, Godsell has designed a number of simple ways to do just that – for example, sheltered sleeping areas for homeless people designed into street furniture, such as benches and bus shelters. He even entered his Park Bench House into the Australian Institute of Architects Best House award to draw attention to the issue. ‘What is a house anyway? That’s a really interesting thing for architects to address,’ he says. ‘Talking to homeless guys, they can’t believe that anybody cares about them at all. Their focus is on how they are going to get a meal and survive each day. That’s not the experience most architects have ever had. The first part of the solution is to get into their shoes.’

The wisdom of the crowd is simply to build more houses – but Godsell disagrees: ‘The problem of the ghetto and the slum spring from attempts to solve the problem with low-cost housing. Architects need to be mindful of that when they try to find the panacea for homelessness.’ However, he is frustrated that simple, low-cost solutions like his own seem never to be accepted by ‘risk-averse’ planning authorities.

Locals in Essen, Germany, were horrified at the prospect of a homeless shelter for 199 residents in their town, but Tobias Bünemann, associate partner at RKW Architektur+, says his firm’s well-designed building has given dignity to the occupants and built bridges with the community. Image Credit: Marcus Pietrek Locals in Essen, Germany, were horrified at the prospect of a homeless shelter for 199 residents in their town, but Tobias Bünemann, associate partner at RKW Architektur+, says his firm’s well-designed building has given dignity to the occupants and built bridges with the community. Image Credit: Marcus Pietrek 

Norwich-based company Extremis has come up against similar problems with its Hush emergency shelter. Company CEO Brian Smith explains: ‘Part of the ethos of the business was we should have as little impact on the valuable resources of the planet as possible, so it’s made from 100% sustainable materials such as softwood. After its 12-15- year lifespan as a shelter it could be burnt to keep warm. Its whole life cycle is designed to support people.’

The 20 sq m shelter has a unique folding mechanism that means it can simply be opened up and used, with no tools or foundations necessary, and it is built under licence in the relevant country, using locally employed labour and resources. ‘A huge amount of British ingenuity has gone into it,’ he says.

Locals in Essen, Germany, were horrified at the prospect of a homeless shelter for 199 residents in their town, but Tobias Bünemann, associate partner at RKW Architektur+, says his firm’s well-designed building has given dignity to the occupants and built bridges with the community. Image Credit: Marcus Pietrek Image Credit: Marcus Pietrek

But Smith is disillusioned at the low takeup, with only a small deployment in India so far. NGOs seem to prefer plastic and metal shelters that have a shorter lifespan and poorer eco credentials, but are cheaper to supply. ‘A trial unit in the UK has survived the weather for three years and we could solve the problem of homelessness tomorrow, but it’s getting the political will to make it happen that’s the problem,’ he says.

While companies struggle to get approvals for unconventional shelters, the UK’s relaxation of permitted development rules to allow free-for-all office-to-residential development has led to a rush of what has been scathingly called ‘human warehousing’. Terminus House in Harlow, Essex, is a prime example: a grim, high-rise 1960s office block, converted without needing planning permission into 198 studio flats and 24 two-bedroom apartments. Filled mainly with desperately poor families rehoused by London boroughs, formerly homeless people and ex-offenders, crime in the area soared by 45% in just 10 months after it opened.

Xystudio’s shelter near Jakowice in Poland has won numerous awards. The single-storey building with a wave-formed roof uses recycled natural materials to create a calm atmosphere. Image Credit: One Light StudioXystudio’s shelter near Jakowice in Poland has won numerous awards. The single-storey building with a wave-formed roof uses recycled natural materials to create a calm atmosphere. Image Credit: One Light Studio

While the government plans to relax planning rules yet further, against the advice of RIBA, a report commissioned into the effects of these conversions, released in July, found that only 22% of homes reached national space standards, only 3.5% had access to outdoor space, and 72% had only single-aspect windows. In fact, the report found examples of flats that had just 16 sq m of floor space, and others with no windows at all.

Most architects feel that homeless people deserve better. Tobias Bünemann, associate partner at RKW Architektur+, recently completed a homeless shelter for 119 people in the German town of Essen. ‘Homelessness is an issue that is always with us, but so far has generally been dealt with through poorly converted existing buildings. In the long term, a well-designed new building is better in every respect,’ he says. ‘A high-quality build gives dignity to the residents. And under no circumstances would we be satisfied with lower design requirements!’ The spacious homes, set in three blocks, have floor-to-ceiling glazing and underfloor heating.

Xystudio’s shelter near Jakowice in Poland has won numerous awards. The single-storey building with a wave-formed roof uses recycled natural materials to create a calm atmosphere. Image Credit: One Light StudioXystudio’s shelter near Jakowice in Poland. Image Credit: One Light Studio

‘One of the main goals of this emergency shelter for the homeless is to treat the people in need with respect,’ he continues. ‘Homeless shelters are needed for a long time, so they should also be designed with a high level of durability and robustness. What has been shown very clearly is how the architectural quality is appreciated by the residents, who treat the buildings very carefully and voluntarily take on tasks to maintain the building as a whole.

‘The reservations about this project in the neighbourhood were very high and we had to do a lot of persuasion. The nice thing was that it was worth it! When it was completed, we received so much positive feedback from local people on Architecture Day [when participating buildings in Germany are opened to the public] it was incredible. The high level of architectural design and the way the residents look after the accommodation have led to great acceptance and positive contacts. There were even voices saying that the entire neighbourhood had been upgraded.’


Polish architect Xystudio has created an elegant building, with a distinctive waved roof, in a village near Jankowice, where disabled and elderly homeless people can find a home with the Roman Catholic Bread of Life community. The calm, single-storey building, which has won a string of architectural awards, features 19 accessible bedrooms set around a courtyard with colourful murals, plus three apartments for live-in carers. The rooms are deliberately small, to provide a cosy, safefeeling place to sleep, while encouraging residents to socialise during the day. Everything was designed to be tactile, with natural materials like bricks from a 200-yearold mill and beams salvaged from old barns.

But the sheer scale of homelessness and the lack of funds means that a variety of prefabricated buildings, from containers to micro-houses, are also being used to provide a speedier, cost-effective solution. The concept of turning containers into houses was pioneered in the 1990s by the Esperanza Farmworker Housing in Washington, where 26 40ft containers were transformed by the local housing authority into 240 beds for migrant farm workers. It has been a staple ever since, from student accommodation in The Netherlands by Tempohousing to the Onagawa Temporary Housing Project in Japan by architect Shigeru Ban.

Stuart Johnson of Amazing Grace Spaces used his skills in kitchen design to create to create a compact, easily transportable ‘pod’ that can provide short-term emergency accommodation for homeless people. The insulated, fire-safe micro-homes cost just £5,500 eachStuart Johnson of Amazing Grace Spaces used his skills in kitchen design to create to create a compact, easily transportable ‘pod’ that can provide short-term emergency accommodation for homeless people. The insulated, fire-safe micro-homes cost just £5,500 each

A number of UK organisations use container housing, including Richardson’s Yard by the Brighton Housing Trust, which houses homeless people in 36 shipping containers, stacked into a five-storey housing estate. The idea seems unpalatable, but the reality can be better than people imagine, says Stuart Johnson, design and operation manager at the charity Amazing Grace Spaces, which has provided four shipping container homes to Wrexham Borough Council. ‘In this country if you don’t build with bricks and mortar it’s not considered a proper building,’ he says. ‘But everything we do we try to do the best we can – they have a full working kitchen and use standard social housing materials. People come to see our show home and say “I could live in one of those”.’

While not quite containers, Hope on Alvarado, a large-scale development for the chronically homeless in Los Angeles by KTGY Architecture Planning, shows just what an attractive result can be achieved with stacking steel modules.

Housebuilder Hill has launched Foundation 200, a charitable scheme to provide 200 generously sized modular homes, free for charities. Designed by the company’s in-house architects with input from user groups, the homes are energy-efficient and safeHousebuilder Hill has launched Foundation 200, a charitable scheme to provide 200 generously sized modular homes, free for charities. Designed by the company’s in-house architects with input from user groups, the homes are energy-efficient and safe

Amazing Grace Spaces is also behind a neat range of self-contained “pod” homes for vulnerable people costing just £5,500 to manufacture. Creating a practical, attractive unit was important to Johnson, who has a background in kitchen design. He used his skills to create a curvaceous, insulated pod with a coded lock. ‘The pods aren’t a replacement for a hostel,’ he says. ‘They are specifically designed for someone sleeping in a doorway, underpass or tent. They are safe, dry, warm, with the basic amenities: a bed, a toilet, a light and a phone charger. There are people out there who feel they are falling further and further down the list. They get disillusioned and disengage with society because they have been let down so much. The idea is that they aren’t just dumped in the pods. We sit down and work with them. They might stay with the project for days or weeks – everybody’s story is different.’

Larger-scale modular homes have been created by Foundation 200 – a charitable project by construction company Hill Group, whose chief executive, Andy Hill, had a close brush with homelessness himself in 1999 after being made redundant. Hill director Emma Fletcher explains: ‘He has been waiting to be in a position to give something back, and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the company he is providing 200 free homes over the next five years.’ Designed by the in-house architects at Hill, with extensive input from charities and homeless people themselves, the homes are small enough to be transported on a lorry without a police escort but have 24 sq m of internal space (larger than most flats in converted offices) and a 2.4m ceiling height.

Architect Shigeru Ban is well-known for his work on emergency shelters for disaster regions around the world. At a refugee camp in Kenya he asked the displaced people themselves to test four different types of shelter, three using local building methods, to see which they preferredArchitect Shigeru Ban is well-known for his work on emergency shelters for disaster regions around the world. At a refugee camp in Kenya he asked the displaced people themselves to test four different types of shelter, three using local building methods, to see which they preferred

Listening directly to homeless people influenced the design, from solid front doors without letter boxes to protect from attacks to eye-level kitchen equipment because many have back injuries. The homes share a ground source heat pump between four and meet the Standard for Future Homes in terms of insulation. ‘It’s the best home we are producing in terms of energy efficiency,’ notes Fletcher. The plug-and-play, steel-framed homes, which have a Bopas warranty and a 60-year lifespan, are craned into place, complete with everything required already inside. ‘All you have to do is unwrap the plates and make the beds,’ says Fletcher. The £75,000 homes will be distributed free to charities working with homeless people, and can be bought by local authorities.

While modular technology has great potential, others are taking inspiration from traditional architecture. Shigeru Ban, who has completed a dozen emergency shelter projects around the world, is working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide 20,000 shelters for refugees in Kenya and is trialling four house types to find out which refugees prefer: a novel construction using paper tubes, and three traditional methods using timber and mud bricks, interlocking soil bricks, and an adaptation of the tree branch construction used in the refugees’ homes in South Sudan. ‘The key thing will be to design and construct shelter where no or little technical supervision is required, and use materials that are locally available and ecofriendly. It’s important that the houses can be easily maintained by inhabitants,’ he says.

Framlab’s Shelter with Dignity 3D-printed geometric pods offer individual spaces that provide privacy and safety.  Image Credit: Joshua Perez/Regan Morton PhotographyFramlab’s Shelter with Dignity 3D-printed geometric pods offer individual spaces that provide privacy and safety.  Image Credit: Joshua Perez/Regan Morton Photography

By contrast, the latest technology, 3D printing, is proposed by architect Andreas Tjeldflaat of Framlab, whose Shelter with Dignity project proposes geometric pods that can be slotted into scaffolding on the side of existing buildings like cells in a honeycomb. ‘I met with homeless people during the design phase to learn about existing needs and wants for shelter offerings, as well as gathering feedback on the evolving design,’ he explains. ‘Many of the people I met preferred to live on the street due to bad experiences in homeless shelters, revolving around a lack of safety, hygiene and theft. Shelter with Dignity responds to these findings by offering individual spaces that offer privacy and safety – a temporary, private space for sleeping and storing one’s belongings. Feeling that one has a home is a fundamental psychological need that current shelters are unable to provide.’

Framlab’s Shelter with Dignity 3D-printed geometric pods offer individual spaces that provide privacy and safety.  Image Credit: Joshua Perez/Regan Morton PhotographyFramlab’s Shelter with Dignity 3D-printed geometric pods offer individual spaces that provide privacy and safety.  Image Credit: Joshua Perez/Regan Morton Photography

Shelter with Dignity is still struggling to raise funds to go into production. ‘There is, unfortunately, not sufficient political will to unlock budget allocations required to improve the options for homeless accommodation,’ notes Tjeldflaat. However, 3D printing is already being used by US firm Icon to change the lives of homeless people in Mexico and the US. Dmitri Julius, VP of operations, says: ‘I would not say that individual architects, builders, and the society at large aren’t taking things seriously, but this issue is incredibly complex. There are the societal implications of social housing in established neighbourhoods, budgets for social housing, wrap-around services that must accompany any housing solution, and the sheer number of homeless individuals. It’s a daunting task and it is seemingly much easier to build existing structures that are cheap and fast to construct. We are attempting to meet those challenges by providing dignified, sustainable structures that are homes we would all be proud to call home.

Icon’s enormous Vulcan 3D printer uses extruded Lavacrete to form stylish new homes that have been put into production at Austin in the US and in Mexico through the New Story charity. Practical and comfortable, the homes can be created to custom designs of up to 2,000ft2 and can be made more quickly and cheaply than conventional constructionIcon’s enormous Vulcan 3D printer uses extruded Lavacrete to form stylish new homes that have been put into production at Austin in the US and in Mexico through the New Story charity. Practical and comfortable, the homes can be created to custom designs of up to 2,000ft2 and can be made more quickly and cheaply than conventional construction.  Image Credit: Joshua Perez/Regan Morton Photography

‘There are a multitude of reasons that lead to homelessness worldwide. If you can create a resilient, cost-efficient home of varying sizes for different needs you could create housing that works for all. You would still need to support the newly homed families, but providing dignified housing more quickly than traditional methods and to satisfy that basic human need is paramount. We believe Icon’s 3D printing technology unlocks that potential.’

Icon’s enormous Vulcan 3D printer uses extruded Lavacrete to form stylish new homes that have been put into production at Austin in the US and in Mexico through the New Story charity. Practical and comfortable, the homes can be created to custom designs of up to 2,000ft2 and can be made more quickly and cheaply than conventional construction.  Image Credit: Joshua Perez/Regan Morton PhotographyIcon’s enormous Vulcan 3D printer uses extruded Lavacrete to form stylish new homes that have been put into production at Austin in the US and in Mexico through the New Story charity. Practical and comfortable, the homes can be created to custom designs of up to 2,000ft2 and can be made more quickly and cheaply than conventional construction.  Image Credit: Joshua Perez/Regan Morton Photography

Ultimately, while architects are busy coming up with creative solutions to the physical issues of homelessness, actually putting an end to people sleeping in doorways needs a sea change in public opinion to push the issue up governments’ agendas. ‘The problem of things not being built is not the fault of the architects, it’s the problem of the politics behind homelessness,’ concludes Sean Godsell. ‘Architects can’t solve homelessness; we need a shift of the paradigm, a societal shift, not an architectural one.’



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