The issue of homelessness is growing in big cities like New York, where affordable housing and land to build it on is increasingly scarce, while the number of homeless people has grown to its highest level since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
But what if the city's under-utilized buildings could be used to house the homeless? More specifically, the exterior walls, which could play host to small, modular structures -- each one a potential home. That's the idea behind Homed, a proposal by Oslo and NYC-based design firm Framlab, which involves hexagonal-shaped, single-person units being attached onto empty walls on buildings -- which the firm calls "vertical lots". These small homes, plugged into existing empty vertical spaces, would be an alternative to overcrowded, transitional shelters, which often cannot provide that "fixed address" that homeless people need to break that cycle of homelessness.
The explanation for New York's high homeless population has its roots in the late 1970s. During these years the city turned against the single-room occupancy (SRO) units. These were a form of housing units that once dominated the New York housing market. They accommodated one or two people in individual rooms and were very modest in size. Because of their affordability they played a vital role in providing housing for the city's poorest. In 1955 changes in the housing code prohibited conversion or construction of new SRO units and at the end of the 1970s there were only a small number of them left. To provide context: the estimated 175,000 SRO units that were eliminated from 1955 on were roughly equivalent in number to New York’s entire public housing system.
The prefabricated units would be attached to and be accessible via a scaffolding that would rise up alongside windowless, empty building walls, and could be easily disassembled, if needed. The units would come with an outer aluminium shell, and interior walls 3D printed from recycled polycarbonate. Smart-glass (electrochromic glass) windows would help to shade or light the unit's interior as needed, while providing a view for inhabitants, in addition to providing advertising opportunities for sponsors.
In addition to the recycled polycarbonate walls, the interior would feature plywood panelling to offer a "warm and friendly" environment. Furnishings would be 3D printed from bioplastic, and designed in a modular way, so that inhabitants can tailor their space according to their preferences. In addition to private units, there can be units for bathing or communal use.
It's an intriguing proposal that might work in theory, but forward-thinking policies and improved regulations would be needed as well. Losing one's home is a traumatic event, and can be due to any number of factors: rising housing costs, big medical bills, losing one's job, mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse -- the list goes on, and in these precarious economic times, it can happen to anyone. To get out of the cycle of homelessness though, many agree that the idea of "housing first" makes sense -- in order to get a job or temporary assistance, one needs some kind of fixed address. So understandably, the designers note that Homed is not a cure-all for the complex issue of homelessness:
it is important to stress that Homed is not proposed as a singular solution to the situation. Rather, it is intended to be an instrument that plays a part in the solution. The massive extent and complexity of the situation requires work on a broad regulatory and policy-making level. But, it is critical that the design community is part of the process.