Architecture students build temporary houses for the homeless

About 90 feet of living space are all that 11 students could offer. However, just as light streams in from the tiny white cabin’s three windows, their prototype provides temporary shelter and a ray of hope for the homeless and city officials looking to end the epidemic.

With the guidance of Assistant Professor R. Scott Mitchell and architecture part-time lecturer Sofia Borges, fourth-year architecture students designed and built the temporary shelter for their final project, Homeless for Hope.

“To actually build things at full scale is unreal,” said Jayson Champlain, a fourth-year student majoring in architecture. “People actually get to step inside of something you’ve designed. It’s pretty cool.”

Mitchell and Borges created the topic studio surrounding homelessness for fourth-year architecture students. They partnered with Madworkshop, a foundation spearheaded by two alumni, and Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, a nonprofit based in Mission Hills, to build a “bridge” housing solution.

According to Borges, the lack of attention for researching and developing temporary housing while long-term solutions are being developed creates a great need.

“There’s a huge deficit in what can we do for people on the streets now,” Borges said. “That’s where our project really has a lot of immediate value.”

Mitchell also hopes their topic studio gave students the opportunity to experience how an architecture firm works.

From lessons in teamwork to riding a scooter down Skid Row, Champlain validated his professors’ hopes. The fourth-year architecture student worked on the project along with 10 of his peers and served as one of the project managers.

“This grabbed my attention because of how different it was,” Champlain said. “Getting to work with people — not just architects, but real people from different organizations or homeless people — and getting to build with my hands [is] something we don’t do much in architecture.”

Heeje Yang, a fourth-year student majoring in architecture, worked on the project along with Champlain. He also appreciated the practical application of his major.

“As an architecture student, we always stay in studio and use our computer to design imaginary buildings,” Yang said. “But because of this studio, I was able to do actual hands-on work and actually be a part of the construction process of the modular housing. It was a good experience.”

According to Champlain, the students first spent three to four weeks of rigorous research detailing the problem before working on a solution.

Yang worked in a social housing firm the previous summer, but he believes that the students gave him an opportunity to further  investigate the homelessness epidemic in Los Angeles.

“It is a [bigger] issue than what I imagined before I researched and studied,” Yang said. “I am very shocked as I study more and more because the problem always gets bigger, not smaller.”

The studio also collaborated with city officials to make sure the project was compliant with all city codes.

“We were really surprised how open city officials and the mayor’s office were to collaborating on this idea,” Borges said.

While designing and building the prototype, students received the opportunity to speak with leaders and activists invested in the cause, including philanthropist Betty Chinn.

Through the project, Champlain realized the value of his skillset.

“Dealing with people and socially engaged problems inspired me to say, ‘Wow, I can really use architecture to make a difference,’” Champlain said. “Architecture can really be a catalyst for bigger social change.”

One pod costs around $25,000 to make. Hope of the Valley is currently fundraising to finish plans and build a community using the design.

Borges and Mitchell, however, hope the project will extend beyond the topic studio.

“We don’t see this project as only one shelter with Hope of the Valley, but as the larger response to getting people off the streets faster,” Borges said.