Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Opportunity Village as a place for pooling and mobilizing local resources—PART 2: Mobile Tool Shop

In my last post, I introduced the idea of how Opportunity Village as a place has catalyzed the pooling and mobilization of local resources, focusing on the recent community education program that took place as an example. This past week, a second great example came to fruition, which I would like to cover here.

designBridge—a University of Oregon architecture student organization—has been working on The Common Good project since 2012 when the received a grant from The Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics “to examine notions of capitalism and the common good in relation to design services with and for local houseless individuals.

“Research and community engagement focused us on how design might aid the individual’s transition toward self-reliance and independence,” says project lead, Alex Froehlich. “Our process revealed to us that while minimum standards of human survival—such as food, emergency shelter, clothing, etcetera—were available, there is little to no opportunity for the learning, production and pedagogy that lets a citizen take their future into their own hands. In response, we designed a trailer that will provide space, tools and programs for individuals to learn and practice skills that they can use to effect their own agency.”

Following a public workshop, the student group decided to focus the project on designing and building a mobile tool shop. They then partnered with Opportunity Village to provide a home for the trailer, with the idea that mobility would allow a diverse range of uses in the surrounding community as well.

Early design charrette
Acquired and gutted a used trailer, on display at the village
Taking in feedback at the OVE open house
Schematic drawing for mobile tool shed 
Trailer under construction
designBridge members adding finishing touches
Finished product unveiled at the village on 9/13/14 
A look inside the mobile tool shop
bike repair workshop held at the village 

While bringing this project from idea to reality has already mobilized a significant amount of local resources, it is our hope that this is just the beginning, and that the mobile tool shop will continue to facilitate the sharing of local resources in Eugene. This mission also improves the capacity of Opportunity Village has a hub for taking in salvaged and excess materials that can be re-utilized

Within the village, this new facility will help villagers to maintain and improve the tiny houses and community buildings. Furthermore, it provides a space for villagers to pursue personal projects and income generating initiatives. And then, on a larger context, we hope to find ways that the space can be a resource to the surrounding community as well.

This was Part 2 on pooling & mobilizing local resources with a village. Also Read — Part 1: Community Education

Monday, September 15, 2014

Opportunity Village as a place for pooling and mobilizing local resources—PART 1: Community Education

In my opinion, one of the best things about Opportunity Village is seeing the type of collaboration that has emerged simply by making a space available for pooling and mobilizing local community resources. Here we see urban space reclaimed and invested with value—creating a place for people to gather.

These kind of ideas have been inspired by my involvement with the City Repair project. City Repair is based on "the idea that localization—of culture, of economy, of decision-making—is a necessary foundation of sustainability. By reclaiming urban spaces to create community-oriented places, we plant the seeds for greater neighborhood communication, empower our communities and nurture our local culture."

I had similar goals for Opportunity Village, and back when it was just an idea, I made the claim that"Opportunity Village will create a landscape that would be infused with place so that people would be encouraged to gather and interact with each other.  Within the Village, this idea of place allows for people in a similar situation to work together in order to help themselves.  At the larger scale, it provides an effective avenue for collaboration between the housed and the unhoused."

Now, with the village being open for a year, we see these ideas coming to life. While formal services are not offered on-site, the mere existence of the village as a place has inspired a number of informal services to surface, and I'd like to recount a recent example of this here.

A couple months ago Bill, a teacher from Marist High School, came to one of the weekly village meetings at Opportunity Village. He pitched the idea of using the community yurt to provide a formal academic experience to those who may not find traditional higher education particularly accessible. After a discussion, the village approved this use of their common space through a majority vote.

Following this, Bill began to piece together a pilot program of six classes over the course of three weeks. The idea being: if it went well it could become an official program through the University of Oregon, and college credit could be offered. He found professors from different departments at the UO—including journalism, business, political science, psychology,  and law. Each professor then led a class focused on the meaning of "justice" from the prospective of their academic field.

The classes averaged about 15 people each, and included village residents as well as others from the surrounding community. In talking with Bill afterwards, he found the program to be an overwhelming success. "The participants were smart, sharp, insightful, and I know every professor had very complimentary things to say... like that they wish their normal classes were as engaged as these sessions were. And that was the whole point—we knew that there were smart people who would want an opportunity to share their voice and learn."

One villager told me how it was a very useful experience, saying "I may not enjoy going to school, but I enjoy learning." She went on to say, "The real value is the thinking about the subject, and the subject was well picked—justice—because living in a place like this you have to think about that, and it felt like a unifying thing for the village itself. We were coming together in unity of purpose, and we were active with it."

Going forward, Bill said he'd like to figure out how to make this kind of learning experience accessible to even more people. And we hope Opportunity Village can continue to provide a place for those kind of things to happen.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Navigating minimum square footage requirements for tiny houses WITHOUT a trailer — International Residential Code says it can be as little as 138 square feet

I think that a lot of tiny house enthusiasts may be misperceiving minimum area regulations as a building code issue, and wanted to address that here. Below are the applicable minimum area standards that I've found in the 2012 International Residential Code (IRC) for one and two family dwellings—and they're actually quite simple:
  • R304.1 Every dwelling unit shall have at least one habitable room that shall have not less than 120 square feet of gross floor area*** (this requirement has been removed in the 2015 IRC)
  • R304.2 Other habitable rooms shall have a floor area of not less than 70 square fee (except kitchens)
  • R304.3 Habitable rooms shall not be less than 7 feet in any horizontal dimension (except kitchens)
  • R304.4 Portions of a room with a sloping ceiling measuring less than 5 feet between floor and ceiling shall not be considered as contributing to the minimum required habitable area for that room.
  • R306.1 Requires that every dwelling have a water closet, lavatory, and bathtub or shower (which could be as small as 18 sf while still meeting spacing requirements in Section 307)
  • R306.2 Requires that every dwelling have a kitchen area with a sink
  • I've found no requirements that the sleeping area or kitchen has to be in a separate room.
This means that the legal limit for a tiny house throughout the U.S.—according to your state building code—could be as small as 138 square feet (120 sf habitable room at 7' wide + 18 sf bathroom)

Even if one maintains the layout of a more traditional house, it could be as small as 260 square feet (bedroom @ 70 sf. + kitchen @ 50 sf + bathroom @ 20 sf + living room @ 120 sf)

***UPDATE: The 120 sf room requirement has since been eliminated in the 2015 IRC, meaning a dwelling could now be IRC compliant in as small as 88 square feet ( 70 sf habitable room + 18 sf bathroom). 

More on that recent change here:

Simple illustrative drawing of an 8'x20' tiny house that meets
the 2012 IRC minimum area requirements

But this doesn't mean you're off the hook yet. More stringent requirements come in through local municipal code and zoning ordinances. Residential zoning categories are determined by density, and each category can come with strings attached for minimum lot and building area.

So, the challenge is presented by municipal code rather than state building code, which is nice because it can be more approachable given the right circumstances.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

To plumb, or not to plumb?

Currently I'm helping to plan Opportunity Village Eugene's next project, Emerald Village. The affordable tiny house community has been moving along quite smoothly in terms of concept development, fundraising, and political support—though we've recently hit a snag in the decision making process. Our current dilemma revolves around whether or not to plumb the individual tiny houses at Emerald Village, or to utilize a common bathhouse similar to Opportunity Village.

At Opportunity Village, a transitional tiny house community that has been open for one year, the housing units do not have utility hook-ups. They are small, private rooms that are instead supported by shared kitchen, bathroom, and gathering facilities (much like the once popular SRO hotels). The philosophy behind this was simple—we wanted to get as many people off the street as soon as possible, which also meant with very little money (the entire 30-unit village was built for $100k). The fact that utility hook-ups were consolidated in just a few buildings eased permitting complexities of the tiny houses, and allowed us to get on site much sooner. Furthermore, many have pointed out that there is a social benefit to the common facilities. It keeps folks from isolating themselves in their tiny homes, and instead encourages engagement in a self-governed community.

The implications of a model like this are tremendous. This was well articulated in an e-mail I recently received from Seth Zeren in Boston: "...I've been struck by how much we middle class types have become mere consumers of the city, not producers or maintainers of our urbanity. The intense professionalization and othering of the development world means that many citizen activists have no voice other than protest to influence the evolution of their city. My hope is that by showing that even non-professionals, non-wealthy citizen can make a mark on the city we can heal the rifts that are creating barriers to change."

Now, with Emerald Village, we planned to reduce the dependence on common facilities without eliminating it. This involved doubling the square footage of the units and adding electrical wiring to support a kitchenette and heat. But recently, in meeting with various city officials and community leaders, we have received feedback that plumbing, too, should be a must. 

Specifically we've heard that the average person will not consider it "a real house" unless it is "self-contained." I've also seen this attitude reflected in the narrative told by the recent media coverage on this topic—especially with the amount of attention that Portland is getting without having done much, aside from showing a tiny house rendering that included an in-unit kitchen and bathroom.

This leaves us with a tough decision. I think we all agree that plumbing the houses would be a good thing for improving the quality of life at the next village, but we're also wondering, at what cost? Will it jeopardize our grassroots approach founded on volunteerism and modest private funding? Plumbing adds a lot of cost and formalities to the table. Not just in the infrastructure additions, but more so indirectly in the resulting site development costs and city reviews and fees, such as system development charges (SDC). These costs could necessitate federal funding, and in doing so, would limit these projects in a similar way as traditional affordable housing and rental subsidies, which is consistently underfunded in the U.S. The project would still be dramatically cheaper than conventional projects (as seen with Olympia's Quixote Village), though this would be primarily a result of a reduced physical footprint rather than a project led by non-professionals.

It also makes me wonder—have we forgotten the common use of outhouses in the U.S. in the not so distant past? Or that most of the world still relies on this method? And we are talking about flush toilets. Co-locating them in one facility rather than in each unit may be an inconvenience, but it is difficult for me to buy into the idea that it is substandard or inhumane. This is the exact kind of logic that has led to the prevalence of homelessness in American culture. By limiting the definition of "home" to middle-class standards, the gap between the street and housing has been continued to inflate.

So we are still left with this dilemma: More housing or more plumbing? Do we add more plumbing and earn wider public acceptance of the tiny house village on a national scale? Or do we continue to push cultural norms in an effort to provide more housing and  influence wide scale change? One thing I know for sure is that the difference between homelessness and a home without in-unit plumbing is far greater than the difference between the latter and a home with in-unit plumbing.

... Any thoughts?