It takes a village (and good design) to address houselessness

Portland State University’s School of Architecture’s Center for Public Interest Design (CPID) is a key partner in the [Plywood] POD Initiative that accompanies Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon. Todd Ferry, Senior Research Associate for PSU’s CPID talks about the project and the importance of good design in creating housing solutions.

What has the experience of recreating the POD initiative within an art museum context been like for you and the students and partners involved
Working with the Portland Art Museum on the [Plywood] POD Initiative effort and exhibit has provided the Portland State University’s School of Architecture’s Center for Public Interest Design with a unique opportunity to further explore how designers can address houselessness in our city through the village model—in a way that opens up the discourse to the larger public. Storytelling has been a crucial part of our work in this area, and having the chance to reach thousands of museum visitors has been amazing. I think that all of the designers who submitted proposals for the exhibit believe strongly in the power of design to create social change, and good design can also challenge unfair or unfounded perceptions about houselessness—a necessary step in creating villages. My students and I wanted to use the exhibit to share some of the voices and perspectives of our project partners, including recognizing the essential contributions we have received from the Village Coalition and residents of Hazelnut Grove, who are true experts on village-making. We’re excited that members of the Village Coalition will be sharing their personal stories and reflections on village living at the Museum’s Miller Family Free Day event on August 20th.

John Yeon pioneered the plywood house concept during another era when housing was a concern for the city. What do you think he would appreciate most about the designs that have come from out of this initiative?
John Yeon was a singular designer with an incredible attention to detail and sense of materiality. I hope that he would appreciate these aspects of each of the designs submitted for the [Plywood] POD Initiative and would welcome the inspiration his work has provided for this effort.

How do you feel that good design can positively impact the neighborhoods affected by houselessness?
Good design is good for ALL. Too often, design services are reserved for the very few who can afford them, when it is frequently those with the least means who could benefit most from good design. The POD Initiative recognizes this and engages the architecture community to explore potential solutions to houselessness through the village model, which recognizes the efforts that many houseless Portlanders have already been attempting to do for themselves. While it is an overwhelming issue to tackle in totality, working at the module of a single pod is an ideal entry point for designers, because it is modest in isolation, but becomes extremely powerful in aggregation. Community is like this, and an inclusive and participatory design process can change the way that a community feels about and relates to their houseless neighbors, as was clearly demonstrated when Kenton welcomed the women’s village into their neighborhood. I think that the quality of the pod designs and shared village facilities were also crucial in encouraging community buy-in to the project. We hope that the Kenton Women’s Village will serve as a model that will be replicated within other communities in Portland. Human beings without homes have to sleep somewhere, so why not design safe, comfortable, and dignified accommodations for our most vulnerable neighbors?

What aspects of the POD designs resonate most deeply with their current or future inhabitants?
It has been a true pleasure getting to know some of the residents of the Kenton Women’s Village and to hear their feedback on their new homes. Just having a safe and comfortable place to sleep and recover from living on the streets has been transformative for the residents. Each pod at the Kenton Village is unique, so we are receiving a variety of feedback, which will be instrumental in helping us when we are designing new pods and villages. This is also true of the [Plywood] POD designs created for the museum exhibit. Residents of Hazelnut Grove reviewed all of the designs and offered valuable insight into issues related to each, such as constructability, storage, village layout, aesthetics, water collection, etc. Ultimately, whether housed or unhoused, people appreciate certain pods for their beauty, utility, and/or playfulness. This is an important component of the effort. Not only to create a library of design prototypes for future villages, but also to capture the imagination on what is possible beyond the bare minimum. When a housed person sees a pod design and thinks, “That is the one that I would want to live in,” that is a huge step toward empathizing and, thus, humanizing the houseless experience.

The PlyPAD by SERA Architects was chosen to be built following a review process that included members of the Portland Art Museum, Hazelnut Grove, Maslow CNC, the City of Portland, and the Village Coalition for its constructability, design quality, and livability. Additionally, it offered strong possibilities for exhibition and staged construction, which is important since the museum will be using it as demonstration project. The PlyPAD will be constructed at the museum on August 20th using an innovative CNC plywood cutting technology developed by our partners at Maslow CNC, which should be fascinating for museum-goers to watch.

Landscape and location were important to John Yeon. Do they play a role in the POD village and POD designs?
The pods are designed to be flexible enough to accommodate a variety of site conditions, but the designers certainly had to acknowledge the climatic conditions of the Northwest when making their material choices and formal strategies for shedding water and maximizing natural light. It is in the design of a village itself when a particular site context can be explored for optimizing its unique characteristics. For example, there is a large stone retaining wall at the Kenton Women’s Village that has become overgrown with moss to great effect, and several of the pods frame a view of this wall for the occupant inside, to rather lovely ends. The reality is that most villages will likely be placed on land that is less than ideal, and it will take a combination of utilizing the available assets on the site and implementing place-making efforts to create a welcoming place to live. At the Kenton Women’s Village, our students in the PSU School of Architecture collaborated with volunteers from City Repair and Kenton neighbors to convert an empty gravel lot into a friendly place with planted trees, grassy mounds of earth, planter boxes, a privacy fence from reclaimed wood, benches, and steps built into the hillside for easy connection to Kenton Park and the nearby MAX light rail station. Now, the residents have begun adapting to the site to their own needs and desires, which is fantastic to see.

What do you hope that visitors on August 20th learn?
I hope that visitors to the Portland Art Museum who view the exhibit and participate in the related activities that day leave with a better understanding of the importance of the village model as one of many paths needed to address houselessness in Portland. I hope that they will begin to imagine how they might support a village in their community and begin a conversation with their neighbors about contributing to this effort. And finally, I hope that visitors see the power of design to make meaningful change in our communities.