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U of I Students Work on Designs for Homeless Housing


- Ellie Marek based her design for a portable temporary housing unit on the conestoga wagon. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Ellie Marek based her design for a portable temporary housing unit on the conestoga wagon.

As a homeless encampment continues in Cooper Court and the city of Boise navigates litigation over its anti-camping ordinance, a group of community activists and University of Idaho students are looking at a solution to homelessness in Boise from an unusual angle: a pop-up neighborhood.

Launched by the Boise Alternative Shelter Cooperative, or BASC, the project would build miniature single- or double-occupancy residences for use as an alternative to a tent city.

BASC's plan is in the preliminary stages, but it presented a slate of shelter designs Sept. 28 at the University of Idaho Water Center.

U of I architecture graduate students had a week to work on the project as part of a class taught by Associate Professor Kasama Polakit.  

The structures had to cost no more than $500 per unit, measure between 40 square feet and 60 square feet in size, and contain sleeping space for up to two people. The units were also required to include insulation and ventilation and, preferably, a six-foot ceiling height, lighting and interior features like storage.

Students' proposals included modified, pre-fabricated structures; variations on similar housing units at pop-up neighborhoods in other cities; and familiar designs like the Conestoga wagon.

Michael Schlager's design borrowed from those at Eugene, Ore.'s Opportunity Village—a gated community designed for people transitioning out of homelessness—and featured a sloped ceiling, two windows and ramps providing access to people with disabilities. 

"Not everyone can climb up into one of these," he said. 

When designing his model, Schlager considered how it would interact functionally and aesthetically with similar units in a community like Opportunity Village, though he estimated each of his units would cost $540—$40 more than the project's budget. Other students considered factors like the cost of each structure, the time and energy it would take to build them and versatility in Boise's climate.

Pat Churchman presented two designs—one custom and another based on pre-fabricated backyard storage sheds. The shed design, he said, "was a more feasible option" because it saved time and money.

All but two of the designs were over budget, with the least expensive design submitted by Ellie Marek, whose $499.20 structure based on the Conestoga wagon, measured 57 square feet and featured a 6 1/2-foot-high ceiling. Ditching the arched ceiling of the wagon, Marek insulated her model's walls with recycled clothing fiber and featured a floor raised on cinder blocks for air flow. Like Schlager, she said she considered aesthetics as well as a functionality.

"We want these shelters to be very present to the public," she said.

Courtney King, meanwhile, designed her model with a sense of urgency as winter approaches. King said her design was inexpensive (at  $522.32 per unit), easy to build and allowed for expansion in the future.

"The long-term for this is to start building upward," she said. 

BASC may be several steps away from proposing any formal plan to public or private stakeholders, but member Erik Kingston was pleased with the students' designs.

"I like the way you're thinking about the modular aspect to [the shelters]," he said, but added that there are barriers between their exercise and building a pop-up community, including finding a suitable plot of land.

"You've got to get the dirt, as you know," he said.