Archive for the ‘Bruce LeBel’ Tag

Running the Numbers

Written by Lee Schneider, director of SHELTER.

How many homeless people are there in the United States? It’s a tricky question to answer, but I want to try running some numbers past you. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has some good ones to get this started. They estimate there are 672,000 people on the streets every night. Of those 672,000, 37% are believed to be homeless families, usually a woman with one or two children.

Most homeless people are, as you might expect, looking for shelter in cities. But at least 20 percent of them are in rural areas, and that number may be even higher because the more remote the area, the harder it is to count the homeless who may be living there.

The number one state, with the most homeless of all? California.

That’s amazing to me: Our once-prosperous state, home to much innovation, money and creative energy, has become the homeless capital of America. According to some observers, it might be the nation’s first state to fail.

What I’ve written above are the most solid numbers I could find, and they’re from two years ago – the last time anybody compiled state-by-state data. Drawing from those 2007 numbers again, we learn that 42% of homeless people are living on the street, but more than half – 58% – are in transitional housing. That’s the spark of good news I think – because many believe that transitional, even temporary housing, is the way to help solve homelessness. To focus on that, let’s go to Ventura, California.

In Ventura, the numbers are newer, drawn from data gathered this year in the last week of January. On a given day, there are about 2200 homeless children and adults on the streets in Ventura. (Federal estimates put the number even higher, at more than 8,000, according to the Ventura County Star.) Most of those children and adults, 73%, are living on the streets but the remainder, a little over 25%, have found some kind of shelter, some in temporary accommodations such as River Haven.

Some experts believe that 18% of the homeless population are “chronically” homeless, meaning that they are mentally ill or otherwise unable to care for themselves.

There’s debate on that number, but even if it’s rough, it still means that a lot of homeless people are people who may have slipped into a tough position and are trying to work their way out. With the economy still in slow recovery mode, it means that we have a crisis on low simmer that’s not going to go away. More families are going to be looking for shelter.

This is where the architects and designers can step in with inventive solutions. Bruce LeBel of World Shelters recently put up another round of housing in Arcata. (Working with the Turning Point Foundation, Bruce’s company World Shelters revitalized the River Haven community in Ventura, California.) Vinay Gupta has long been developing the Hexayurt, a shelter that can be made from plywood, composites, hexacomb cardboard and other materials. He sees Hexayurts as a solution for regions with large scale rehousing needs, such as Bangladesh. They’ve also been used at Burning Man.  Vinay believes in open source design – anybody can build a Hexayurt – and many have!

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A Village in One Day

With three HD cameras rolling and a still camera shooting time lapse images we witnessed something remarkable through our viewfinders.

River Haven U-Domes _Panorama _6

photo courtesy Bruce LeBel

At the River Haven homeless encampment in Ventura, California, we saw nineteen new homes constructed in just one day. The homes are called U-Domes, a product of World Shelters. They are weather worthy, rated to withstand 80 mph winds, fire-retardant, and fully recyclable. They have locking doors, windows and vents.

We’re putting all the material filmed on the construction day into our edit system in San Francisco. Our Los Angeles edit system is handling the timelapse sequences. We hope to have some previews of the timelapse materials up on this site soon. It’s all part of our documentary called SHELTER.

There has been a little drama while building this village.  High winds blew some of the structures off their platforms before they could be properly anchored. The platforms had to be rebuilt because of a design problem. But by Thursday a small crew of workers hopes to finish fixing the platforms, with a move in scheduled next week for twenty five River Haven residents.

Mark Michaels, a resident of River Haven who helps oversee the community, told us that the residents were really looking forward to taking occupancy, now that winter weather is on the way. “We can get some heavy rains here,” he said. “The whole area can turn into a lake.” But with the U-Domes sturdily perched on their wooden platforms, River Haven residents can stay warm and dry. There are six of U-Domes with 200 square feet of space for couples and 13 U-Domes with 120 square feet for singles.

Do projects like this represent the future of pre-fab used in emergency relief situations? Bruce LeBel of World Shelters will find out. In the coming weeks, he will be working with county and city governments to get approval for similar U-Dome installations elsewhere in California. There’s a lot of red tape to cut through and a lot of NIMBY – “Not In My Backyard.” But as Steven Elias, a friend of World Shelters, explained, while a 250-person homeless shelter might meet with resistance in some communities, small twenty five-person communities might answer the needs of the homeless without having a large footprint.

According to the Ventura County 2009 Homeless Count, there are 2,193 homeless people in Ventura County, counting 361 children. 161 families are homeless.

Certainly there’s a need to shelter the homeless, and pre-fab structures like U-Domes could help. Yet U-Domes are just one form of pre-fab. Generally speaking, pre-fabricated manufacturing is a method of constructing homes using manufactured sections that are assembled on site. This method can be “greener” than traditional construction methods because fabrication is centralized and homes can go up more quickly. This brings another advantage – pre-fab can cost less than conventional building.

447521606_8d24a21a5e

photo from Florian via Flickr

Companies like LivingHomes offer high-end pre-fab homes. Jennifer Siegal, founder of the Office of Mobile Design, (OMD) has pioneered the construction of prefabricated homes, schools and other buildings. Ms. Siegal is a big fan of portable architecture – like the classic Airstream trailer.

But high-end pre-fab hasn’t always found an audience. One pre-fab pioneer, Michelle Kaufmann, closed her Oakland, California company MK Designs this past May, citing the bad economy and withering housing market. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Blu Homes, of Boston, MA,  purchased the rights to build Kaufmann’s preconfigured designs.

Still, what often comes out of pre-fab projects, even the expensive ones, are “ideas, experimental materials, assembly methods, and good design–which can often translate into lower costs for all housing,” including homes for the homeless, says Richard Neill, director of photography on SHELTER and an executive producer on the project.

Could be that companies like World Shelters, and groups like Architecture for Humanity are looking into the robust future of pre-fab by focusing on disaster relief, temporary housing and housing for the homeless. We’re going to tell their story in SHELTER. Look for production updates here.

Thanks to Panasonic for donating the use of one of the world’s most advanced 1080P HD cameras–Panasonic’s P2 HD Cinema VariCam, and also thanks to Marshall Thompson for additional cinematography.

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This is the ongoing  blog of SHELTER, a movie about innovative solutions to provide housing for everyone.   The film examines everyone’s right to a roof over their head and focuses on inventive methods of building as advanced by such architects as Jennifer Siegal, Whitney Sander, Shigeru Ban and Dean Maltz, design innovators like Buckminster Fuller and activists like Bruce LeBel of World Shelters.  SHELTER is a production of DocuCinema and Adventure Pictures.  Its executive producers are Lee Schneider and Richard Neill.