Architectural rendering of a plywood pad
PlyPAD design by SERA Architects

Local architecture firm channels John Yeon for tiny house design

In conjunction with Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon, local architecture firm SERA, in partnership with Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design, designed a plywood pod house that will be constructed on site on Sunday, August 20 during Miller Family Free Day: Exploring Architecture, Building Community.  Lead designer Timothy Bestor talks about the design process.

Have you worked on anything like this before?
SERA Architects has a long history of non-profit work partnering with organizations like the Blanchet House, Central City Concern, p:ear, and the Union Gospel Mission to design buildings that offer help and services to houseless and drug-addicted members of our city.  The original POD initiative was the first small scale shelter that we have had the opportunity to design (and physically build). Through the construction process, multiple relocations, and now occupation of our first POD, we have learned many lessons that we were excited to be able to refine and further explore as part of our PlyPAD submission.  We have since had discussions with other interested parties on how we can expand on the concept, and we intend to continue to be involved in this effort to the fullest extent possible.

What were your design inspirations?
One of our driving inspirations was to solve a few of the problems that we encountered during the original POD project.  The major challenge that many of the PODs struggled with was mobility.  In order to create as much livable space as possible, many teams increased the size of their pods to the 8 ft. x 12 ft. suggested maximum footprint.  This lead to an increase in the quantity of materials required and resulted in heavier PODs.  In addition to weight, the 8 ft. width made it so forklift operators had to wrap straps around and over the PODs during each move, which shifted, squeezed, and damaged various finishes.  As a response to these lessons learned, we decided early on that the best way to address mobility was to design a POD that can be broken into a series of smaller modules.  These modules would be narrow enough to fit on the forks of a forklift to reduce the need for strapping and they would be inherently lighter by being a fraction of the total weight of a completed POD.  After delivery to a site, the modules would bolt and snap together over weather-tight gaskets to form the completed POD.  Other advantages to separate modules is that they can be customized to fit a resident’s desired layout and can be shuffled or expanded as needs change.

After learning of the role that plywood and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) technologies would be playing in the second round of design, we looked at how they are both currently used in construction.  We found the open-source Wikihouse project and were impressed with the interlocking joinery and the scale of projects they were able to create with nothing but interlocking plywood.  After seeing the level of cleanliness and precision that John Yeon was able to achieve with plywood, we were inspired to try to distill the best of all three.  We worked to clean and simplify the interlocking joinery, for use at a smaller scale, and leveraged the precision offered by CNC technology to create a series of sculptural supporting ribs that flow into and form the furniture.  Working with Maslow CNC through many tests and iterations we have further refined the concept and are excited to begin building the finished prototype.

How (if any) was your process different on this project and what excites you about the use of plywood and CNC technology?
The original POD we designed used conventional wood construction, which is ideally assembled on a solid footing and not intended to be lifted, shifted, and twisted.  While our pod only suffered minor cosmetic damage to the siding, there were some nail-biting moments watching some of the forklift acrobatics!  One of the exciting challenges with the introduction of plywood and CNC technology was the chance to innovate and think of ways to use a comparatively lightweight material in a new and elegant way.  We decided to bookend our modules with structural plywood ribs that seamlessly integrate with built-in furniture to add both structure and rigidity to the three-dimensional framework.  These ribs stand proud on the interior of the finished POD and serve as both an expression of the structure and as the point of connection between two modules.  The resulting double-rib is a nod to John Yeon, who often expressed the sandwiched joint between two framed plywood panels in his affordable spec houses.  CNC technology also allowed us to introduce clean, precise curves and allows for the potential replication and mass production of the POD to help address homelessness on a much greater scale.

Were you familiar with John Yeon’s work prior to this partnership? Aside from the use of plywood, are there any aspects of the design that you feel he would have especially liked?
Personally, I was familiar with the Watzek House and the Visitors Information Center, but not with his spec houses or the role he played in celebrating plywood as an affordable, clean, and potentially elegant building material.  During design, the team used this approach of affordability and material simplicity to make critical design decisions and guide the final aesthetic. We feel that he would appreciate this simplicity and clarity of intent as well as the more aesthetic expression of the repeating structural grid of squares that we used in both the trellis and to form the supports in the furniture.  Yeon would often use a series of repeating squares at varying scales to define and enrich a space, for example, the subtle red squares of the guardrail below the flowering wisteria at the pond of the Watzek house and the covered framework of the walkway at the Visitors Information Center.

What do you think that visitors will be most surprised by, or interested in when they attend the build day on August 20th?
Hopefully, on August 20th visitors will stop and interact with the structure and volunteers, ask questions, and give us their feedback.  We think they will be surprised with the scale of the structure and how livable and beautiful these small structures can be; and they will be impressed by the inexpensive technology that Maslow CNC has developed to make CNC routing affordable and accessible to everyone.  Finally, we hope they learn a bit about the initiative and leave thinking about how they can help and participate both directly and in their communities.

What does it mean to you professionally and personally to work a project like this?
The key element to the POD initiative is that it provides meaningful impact at an approachable scale.  Designers teaming up with students, houseless individuals, and members of our city to design and build safe places for a struggling member of our community to live and sleep.  As part of a village, residents receive the comfort and support of a localized community and through the support of other organizations have access to counselling and healthcare to help them take the first important step off the streets.  Personally, it has been a fulfilling journey and I hope to be further involved as the program evolves.  Professionally, the entire team is thankful to be members of SERA, a firm with a long history of socially and environmentally forward thinking and a firm that encourages its employees to take on projects like this.  We hope there are many more opportunities like it to follow.