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Portland architect designs prefabs for the homeless

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Architect Stuart Emmons, who designed this home on Southeast Holgate Boulevard and 97th Ave. in Portland, figures he can make modular housing for the homeless at $40,000 per unit. Many people have fantasized about housing homeless people in surplus shipping containers. Portland architect Stuart Emmons went down that route, too, but thinks he’s found a better idea: factory-made modular buildings.

In 2009, Emmons saw student accommodations in Amsterdam and a Chinese-owned hotel in London made of steel shipping containers, the kind that go from ship to train to truck.

“They’re OK for a cool office or student dorm,” Emmons says, “but they’re too narrow to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.” There’s no way to include an ADA-compliant bathroom with toilet, sink and shower and allow room for doors to swing open, he says.

So Emmons looked for another way to provide super-affordable housing in a financially and environmentally sustainable fashion. He thinks he found it in Aumsville, where his modular homeless units will be made. In a factory under controlled conditions, bathrooms and kitchens are installed, and paint and carpeting are added. Units are assembled like Legos, and the electrical and plumbing lines are hooked together in a few hours.

Emmons designed a 265-square-foot mini-studio apartment for homeless singles called I’mHome, with a living room and bathroom. It has been priced at $40,000 per unit, fully furnished down to the light bulbs. To cut costs, it just has a microwave and refrigerator instead of a full kitchen.

“The idea is to get people off the streets, where they are warm, safe, dry and can keep their dignity,” Emmons says.

The I’mHome units have only been out on the market for two months, and Emmons has pitched the design to folks in Spokane, Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Portland. He’s hoping to make his first sales soon.

Modular building advocates say it’s an inherently more sustainable technique. It’s more efficient, requiring less energy and producing less construction waste.

Emmons previously designed the small, nine-unit Kah San Chako Haws affordable housing project next to the Native American Youth and Family Center in East Portland. Units range from tiny, 375-square-foot studios to modest 835-square-foot two bedrooms.

For homeless people, Emmons wanted to design something that would be more affordable, and sustainably reproduced, than Bud Clark Commons in Portland’s Old Town.

“At $213,000 per bed, that just set me off,” he says. “I like Bud Clark Commons, but we only took 220 people off the street.” He figures there are 19,000 people homeless in Multnomah County, including those on the streets, couch surfers, and others living 10-deep in one-bedroom apartments

The Kah San Chako Haws modules cost around $190,000 each unit, but Emmons says the price will drop as his manufacturer, Blazer Industries of Aumsville, makes more.

Modular coffee shops?

As Emmons walks through Blazer’s tidy facility on a fall afternoon, he greets journeymen carpenters working on modular classrooms, single-family homes and bathroom blocks for state parks. The company also makes buildings you may have seen at strip malls. Who knew your local Starbucks, or that Goodwrench Quick Lube, were craned into place from the back of a truck?

Blazer’s finance manager Brent Buchheit points out that his staff work quickly because they are out of the rain, and Blazer uses better-quality materials than the average manufactured-home maker.

“They’re earthquake-proof too,” Buchheit says. “We’ve had these buildings fall off a trailer on the freeway and they’re fine; we just load them back on.”

There’s no doubt that modular building is on the rise, because it’s cheap and practical. The B2 housing tower in Brooklyn, with some 930 units, will be the largest modular building in the world. Swedish company Skanska is building all 32 floors of the steel-framed units at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

In Sweden, Ikea and Skanska have teamed up for BoKlok, a prefab living unit that comes fully decked out from the Ikea catalog.

Bonnie Serkin is a developer and modular enthusiast. She and her husband own and manage 3,000 acres near Newport and are building a sustainable village called Wilder. So far, they have built three prefabricated cottages from panels. Serkin insists upon sustainable design while trying to keep prices down.

Prefabs save on building time, which saves money, she says. “There’s none of that scheduling nightmare with the trades and inspections,” she says. The money saved can be put into sustainable features.

Learning from Steve Jobs

Emmons has architecture degrees from the Pratt Institute of New York and Harvard. He started in woodworking and cabinet companies before rising as an architect, eventually doing the master plan for Portland’s South Waterfront.

His bread and butter is big-ticket remodels for West Hills residents. But as the Great Recession hit his practice, he wanted to do something different for the homeless.

He settled on modular homes.

“When Steve Jobs wanted an Apple showroom 10 years ago, he built a full-scale prototype in a warehouse in Cupertino, where they worked everything out — lights, furniture — then mass-produced it around the world,” Emmons says. “It’s like Ikea. Even the packaging is figured out in the most efficient way. It’s all pre-engineered. And you get a bed for $149. Why can’t we take that idea to the construction industry?”

Susan Emmons (no relation to Stuart) is director of the Northwest Pilot Project, which provides services to elderly and poor people in danger of homelessness. “We are in dire need of housing,” she says. “There’s a shortage of 20,000 units for people at 30 percent of median income. That could be a family of four, people on limited Social Security, or veterans on a pension. We’re not developing much housing for those people.”

She’d like the emphasis to be on creating a building that is possible to live in. “I’d like to see a design for a housing unit that can be easily replicated but that is also habitable.”

Stuart Emmons thinks he’s got something that fits the bill. But so far, he says, his modular homes are getting more interest from Seattle and San Francisco than Portland.

Find out more: www.emmonsmodular.com.