Monday, January 26, 2009

Sheds for Everyone

We don't often have guest posts on Shedworking but this is such a marvellous idea from Greg La Vardera that I asked him to share his thoughts in more detail:

This started out as a twitter entry where I said "lavardera like to see small prefab house setup like laptop for every child.If you buy one as a shed, you also buy one for family in developing nation."

Well actually it started out before that on facebook where my friend Jonii asked me one day last week "Did you see my post about that Paper House? What do you make of that?" Jonii has been on a multi-year quest for a small modern house, prefab or otherwise, and she looks at all the new proposals that come across the internet. So her question about the Paper House which made the rounds on the design blogs this month seemed like another dead end for her.

I responded that it looked like a very interesting proposal, but it seemed to be aimed at the developing world more so than the USA. That's when it struck me - why can't we do both. Why can't we create a product that would at the same time appeal to shed buyers in the USA looking for a garden office or guest space, and also make an ideal dwelling for a developing nation?

I'm an architect and I love to design, but there are so many great shed products on the market, and so many clever proposals in this space that I have to believe the ideal product is out there such as The Paper House we saw this month or the award winning Abōd® (pictured above). The design is important no doubt. It has to be something that was conceived to be easy to build in a developing nation. But appropriate designs are out there.

What is needed is the organization to make something like this happen. A design must be adopted and the business model set up. But who would take on something like that? Perhaps the foundation that is already running the One Laptop Per Child program? They already get the concept, they understand the business model. Why could they not expand into this worthwhile space? Or some other aid agency that can follow the model already established in the laptop program. Buy a shed, give a home?
Please do leave your thoughts and comments below.

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  1. I saw Greg's tweet on this too, and also thought he'd hit on a great idea.

    I could imagine that individual shelter modules could be adapted to different purposes (cooking, working, school, sleeping, etc.), and keeping with the OLPC theme, each unit could stand alone or be quickly linked to others in adaptable shelter 'networks' for impromptu villages, reconfigured at will as the number of units available grows, and the number of people and their needs change.

    Again, great idea Greg.

  2. I thought that the Paper House was one of the nicer designs I've seen for that kind of low-income shelter housing. So, when I asked Greg what he thought of it... I was more interested in his opinion of the design. As always, Greg had a thoughtful answer... something I have to remember when I'm sort of breezing through the stuff I run by him!

    I realized it wasn't ideal as a dwelling for a person living in the United States for several reasons... several of which have to do with what is socially acceptable to the average neighborhood homeowner, rather than any negative aspects of the house itself. The problem that I keep running into, in the "multi year house search" that Greg mentioned, is that the gap between truly affordable (100k or less) housing and the social acceptance of such dwellings in a country where the norm is the ubiquitous McMansion is abysmal.

    I had high hopes for projects like Edgar Blazona's Modular Dwelling, precisely because it seemed to affordable, DIY friendly, inoffensive from a design standpoint, and yet offer a design conscious Modernist with a low income a viable alternative. Unfortunately, I've no idea how one would go about getting plans to build his mini-house and my attempts to get information have gone unanswered.

    The hard fact of this economy is that the gap between those who can own and those who can't own is only going to widen. Modernist design is still the domain of the elite; even though efforts are being made to shift the ideal to real affordability, I don't see it happening any time soon.

    Some of the people who would most benefit from a program like the one Greg mentioned in his post are not people who dwell in Third World countries but those who live right here in the US. The poverty level is rising here; between the economy, the dire straits of the housing market, and the slate of natural disasters that have displaced thousands of people in the US in the last to 2-3 years, the need for affordable, sustainable, and morale lifting housing is needed more than ever.

    So, yeah... one house to an underprivileged person or family for every one that is bought could work... but why not here?

  3. Scattered comments:
    First I think the Abod shelter is the neatest disaster/emergency shelter plan I've seen. Substantial, yet easy to build. Keep wondering when they'll go into production.

    Second, I think the buy-one/send-one is an excellent idea, tho more pricey than the laptop program.

    Third, an answer to this question:
    >So, yeah... one house to an underprivileged person or family for every one that is bought could work... but why not here?

    Not here because in the US, home ownership has two primary functions, and shelter is only the second one. The first, as we've structured our tax laws and culture, is wealth-building. We obligate ourselves to own a home (of whatever size) not just to have a place to live but to have a savings account that allows us to accumulate wealth while staying out of the rain/snow/heat.

    So in the American culture, if we sent out a 2nd Abod to a homeless person, he/she'd have to have a piece of property on which to erect it. Property ownership is much more strictly controlled here -- and squatting much less tolerated.

    Likewise, there'd be no residual wealth in such a home. "Manufactured homes" (house trailers, mobile homes) have virtually zero capital value. Even the Habitat homes have this problem -- they're sometimes not built for the long haul and hence have no long-term value in lifting their inhabitants out of poverty.

    The current downturn/recession is showing the weakness of homeownership as a wealth-building mechanism, but that's because financiers AND homeowners began to play fast and loose with the rules. The economic payoff for that is proving to be rough and not just for the US.

    If you don't have shelter, it's the most important thing in the world; but, once you're out of the rain, its function changes to assembling family capital.

  4. Anonymous4:24 AM

    Not to rain on the shedworking parade, but I would say that the bigger problem in most developing countries isn't the lack of materials, but the lack of land reform. I live in Kathmandu, and there are tons of makeshift shelters that squatters throw up that are comparatively warm and comfortable - I live in a concrete house that's often colder than the ambient air temperature. But it sits on its own lot. What use is a fancy shed when the government will just kick you off the land it's been put up on?

  5. Anonymous' remarks bring up a good point. If you don't own the land, then you're really just living in a refugee camp. That's not at all the goal. I assume, actually, that if you do own the land then to some degree local building materials could be available, and indigenous architecture might be a better building solution than any prefab shelter. I'm starting to see the OLPC model break down in this application - is there really someone out there who needs this? Maybe what they need more is some greater degree of socio-economic freedom or political reforms. I've seen some pretty scary places in India - scary by USA standards - and shelter seemed to be available if only makeshift, while the bigger problem is clearly power and sanitation (infrastructure). The nice thing about OLPC is that it recognizes the lack of infrastructure, and provides tools to circumvent that problem, giving people the power to create their own informal networks without needing a grid. An OLPC style housing solution needs to offer the same. But still, if you don't have land to put it on you're going nowhere. Interesting problem.

    On the other hand, I think of Katrina and how hard it was to provide some decent short-term shelter. The trailers they came up with were awful. Clearly we can do better than that.

  6. Hmm, very interesting thoughts John. Immediately my mind jumped to the sheds roofed with solar panels, creating a local power grid. Sanitation and plumbing are not quite as obvious a leap. I've seen projects that attempt to address these issues though - a really tough water pump for developing nations, water purification systems, and the stirling engine seems to be kicked around as a flexible power generator.