August 31, 2020

In Seattle, volunteers build tiny homes for homeless neighbors—in their own backyards

Launched as an ambitious community collaborative in 2016, The BLOCK Project recently created a step-by-step accessory dwelling unit kit that only takes two people and a couple of tools to assemble. These units give more than just shelter to individuals who have struggled with housing insecurity.

Four years ago, Seattle nonprofit Facing Homelessness launched an ambitious plan to build tiny homes for homeless people in the backyards of willing neighbors. Together with volunteers, local businesses, and the city, they're creating a model for compassionate housing. Photos by Barron Peper courtesy of Facing Homelessness

Editor’s note: Facing Homelessness is a winner of the 2020 Renewal Awards, an annual program of The Atlantic and Allstate that honors nonprofits that are creatively solving problems in their communities. This summer, five winners each received a $40,000 prize from The Atlantic and Allstate. Find more essays from this year’s winners here.

These past several months we’ve been reminded how essential it is to notice accomplishments and celebrate as a community. At Facing Homelessness, we’re celebrating one of the biggest milestones since The BLOCK Project. This compassionate model of housing powered and built by our community was first conceived in 2016. Who knew that “Just Say Hello” would evolve into building homes for our neighbors experiencing homelessness in backyards throughout Seattle?

As we near the end of an unprecedented summer, we reminisce about those incredible milestones that got us here.

The BLOCK Project was born of compassion

Facing Homelessness founder Rex Hohlbein and his daughter Jenn LaFreniere, top, both architects, created the vision for The BLOCK Project. Seattle residents Kim Sherman and Dan Tenenbaum, left, were the first homeowners to welcome a homeless man to live in the tiny house volunteers built in their backyard.

In 2016, our founder Rex Hohlbein and his daughter Jenn LaFreniere sought to make this opportunity a reality by designing the first BLOCK Home, a fully-equipped backyard cottage. Kim Sherman and Dan Tenenbaum were the first to say, “Yes, in my backyard!” This approach became The BLOCK Project and has evolved, been refined, and influenced by each person who joined its work. Today, we are searching for the person who will call BLOCK Home No. 9 (BH-0009) home sweet home and have started construction on BH-0010!

The first nine BLOCK Homes required a general contractor to lead the framing, sheathing, metal panel, and finish work. We thank our friends at Schultz Miller, Lockhart Suver, Dowbuilt, Molior, Evolved Structures, Schuchart and our extended team for partnering with us to build these thoughtfully-crafted homes. In the process, we learned a lot about this beautiful community, its desire to come closer, and how to engage residents to inform the experience of transitioning into permanent housing (an ongoing journey.) Throughout these iterations, we began dreaming of a construction process powered by our volunteers, donors, and neighbors, while delivering greater efficiency and the opportunity for connection.

Designed by community

For 10 years, Facing Homelessness has empowered the community to act for social change, from “Just Say Hello,” to our Facebook page—which has gained over 53,000 followers—fulfilling countless needs for our unsheltered neighbors. We needed to build the same opportunity with The BLOCK Project, and involve community in both the build and design process.

We organized a charrette of our closest partners to dream of the most healthy home imaginable, built entirely by volunteers, and permitted and inspected in a streamline manner. Contractors, engineers, sustainability and weatherproofing consultants, MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) specialists, and city officials gathered to put pen to paper. Our friends from the International Living Future Institute hosted a conversation where our community brainstormed how this home can “nurture the innate human-nature connection.” Together we built consensus on a new approach, and after months of refinement, BLOCK Home Version 1.1 was born.

BLOCK Home Version 1.1 can be assembled in a simple step-by-step process.

The new design is made up of modules that can be carried by two people and assembled in the field with nothing more than a mallet and screw gun. But where are these modules built and by whom? This past winter, the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle provided the perfect place, and our team member Tomasz used his experience from Camp Second Chance to design and build a fleet of “jigs,” reducing complex building science into step-by-step actions. In the quiet months of COVID-19, Tomasz took refuge in this well-ventilated warehouse to make real the volunteer HUB we’ve dreamed of, which is unlike anything that exists.

The nonprofit officially opened The BLOCK Shop this year.

No experience required! The BLOCK Shop is officially open for fabrication!

With our fabrication systems in place, the BLOCK Shop is currently operated by volunteers who are with us at least one day a week. These Super Volunteers are trained by Tomasz and Bernard to lead larger events at the BLOCK Shop and in the field erecting homes.

This unbelievable team is turning dreams into reality. We are thrilled to announce that BLOCK Homes can now be installed in a backyard in less than one week! This trifecta (V1.1, BLOCK Shop, and Super Volunteers) has revolutionized our ability to deliver a home to someone in need, with minimal disturbance in the yards of our hosts.

Eighteen-year-old Kara Rosenberg pitches in with a jackhammer, left, and Heather Bergey is a Super Volunteer who dedicates at least one day a week to the cause.

Our community told us they were ready to get dirty, to come closer and to provide community. Now, we are prepared to act.

Learn more about hosting with The BLOCK Project, and join this incredible network of change-making. We are so grateful for your continued support, hope, and resiliency. We’ve got work to do!

These are challenging times for everyone—and especially our most vulnerable neighbors. If you’re moved by the goodness of this community, please consider a monthly recurring donation of $5 in support of the work. Thank you!

Barron Peper and Launa Lea

Facing Homelessness

Barron Peper is Project Architect and Communication Manager at Facing Homelessness, and Launa Lea is Development Manager with the Seattle nonprofit.
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