ArtCenter Students Create Innovative Homeless Housing: Both a Bridge and a Sanctum

ArtCenter professor and his students confront one of the prickliest public policy problems in urban America

Published : Monday, January 28, 2019 | 5:51 AM

ArtCenter College of Design Professor James Meraz (at center) at Sanctum class presentation. Image courtesy ArtCenter

Sometimes when you have a problem, you turn to a neighbor. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti did when he turned to Pasadena for help with his city’s homeless problem.

Last February, Garcetti reached out to a number of architectural and design schools in the region for guidance in designing what is known as bridge housing — temporary shelter — for homeless people hopefully on the path to getting homes.

Garcetti got the helping hand he was looking for from Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design where professor James Meraz decided he wanted to be a part of the effort to solve one of the prickliest public policy problems in urban America.

Meraz came up with the idea of Sanctum and then sold his students on it.

“Sanctum is a place of sanctuary,” he told Pasadena Now. “A place that feels safe. A place to feel like you’re not threatened. And I came up with that notion, because what homeless people lack is having a roof over their head.”

An interior view of an ArtCenter student designed homeless housing unit known as the NEST. Image courtesy ArtCenter

The journey began at a meeting last Feb. 14, with representatives from other schools and the mayor’s staff. The staffers explained what they needed and then made way for the mayor.

“Garcetti came in,” explained Meraz, “and he’s, you know, a super-charismatic guy, and just kind of put a face on the project, said, ‘Hey, thanks. Please do something’ and that was it.”

There was no grant or funding involved. The effort would be voluntary, so the charisma must have been real.

Meraz talked to the chairman of his academic department — environmental design — and told him he wanted in, and that he thought, to make a difference, it would have to be a two-term project.

The mayor’s staff had designated a number of areas requiring some intellectual input, but Meraz decided to take up the aforementioned bridge housing challenge.

“The city of L.A. has parking lots they would like to use for temporary bridge housing,” he explained, “which is really the first step toward getting people off the streets right now. It’s a location that people can live at for three months to three years.”

The city identified a lot in Koreatown that promptly raised the ire of local residents.

“Our students got immediately thrust into the politics of all this,” observed Meraz. “We learned very quickly about the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) effect.”

Meraz attended town halls at which Garcetti tried getting Angelenos on board with his homeless initiatives.

“I was at meetings, like one in Venice, where Garcetti was speaking and people were wearing t-shirts that said, ‘Stop Dumping on Venice,’” Meraz recalled. “It struck me that they are talking about having all these horrible people on the street, but you have to realize this is the first step. You need to support something like this to get those people off the street.”

Through the agency of an ArtCenter alumni, Meraz was able to place his students in the belly of the homeless beast. Danny Park’s family had a Korean market directly across the street from the Downtown Women’s Center, in the heart of skid row.

ArtCenter student designed homeless housing known as the Pop Hut. Image courtesy ArtCenter

“It had a big impact on my students,” said Meraz. “We served lunch and dinner to 120 women and spent time talking to them and it really humanized their problems for us.”

The students felt strongly about developing dwellings that were individual and private. A temporary bridge housing community had been built downtown near Olvera Street comprised of a container where 15 people sleep, bed-to-bed.

“There’s no privacy in that,” said Meraz, “and we believe that cost the city $3 million.”

Interviewees at the Downtown Women’s Center felt the same about the need to build individual micro-units. “It was not required for the project,” he said, “but the women really felt strongly about it.”

The students came up with six designs. They were team projects along the lines of prefabricated modules; innovative, off-the-grid systems with their own lighting and power.

During the second term of the ArtCenter year, three were chosen.

“They’re very different with budgets ranging from $1,500 to $6,000 for largest,” he explained. “The price on the largest would continually go down if multiples were created because it is produced through digital fabrication,” explained Meraz.

The designs met the criteria for the Koreatown site and, according to Meraz, don’t come near the $3 million price tag on the Olvera Street project. “So I think this can be done much more efficiently than it has,” he said. “They look really attractive and can be accepted by the community.”

The first part of the ArtCenter year generated the prototypes and, in the second, new teams continued with what Meraz called “design evolution.”

That phase included presentations to deputy mayor Brenda Shockley and consultations with the architectural firm of Michael Maltzan, which has done its own conceptual work on bridge housing.

The prototypes are housed in downtown L.A. at 114 W. 4th St. Their status, and where they will be used, if at all, is still up in the air, according to Meraz, who has since been contacted by the cities of Riverside, Torrance and Long Beach about the Sanctum project.

The lesson he learned as the teacher in all that transpired is that, “This isn’t just an L.A. problem. It is a problem for all of our cities and counties in Southern California.”

You can see Sanctum: Micro-Dwellings for L.A.’s Homeless’ by appointment only by calling (626) 396-2223