Redesigning the way this Country Houses the Homeless

By | Feb 14, 2012

I sat in a cavernous auditorium during my youth along with hundreds of other eager collegians who were determined to become the next Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most fabled architect. An older man carefully strolled across the empty stage to a standing ovation of his youthful aficionados. He wore a dark rumpled-looking suit, had very little hair, and wore glasses that looked like he was a rocket scientist during the old Soviet arms race.

This architect and futurist hero was Buckminster Fuller who famously called our planet, “Spaceship Earth”, and created the geodesic dome, a cheap way to build an American home. He was one of those innovative architects who always thought outside of the box, or in his case, thought outside of the dome.

In his time, Fuller was concerned about how America was going to house all of the returning World War II GI’s and their growing families. Even 60 years ago, housing was a paramount issue in this country.

Today, more than ever, a new way of designing housing for Americans who cannot afford even a simple  stucco-boxed apartment is desperately needed. The sheer numbers of homeless Americans mandate new creations from the most imaginative designers.

It used to be that designers from a generation ago created housing units for this nation’s poor by partitioning tall boxes made of concrete block that looked more like prison blocks than apartment buildings. They were the old housing projects for impoverished families and the old SRO (single room occupancy) buildings in this country’s urban core.

Thankfully, these social experiments were deemed a failure, and many cities are starting to replace them. New thinkers, however, are challenging this generation of designers to not simply create typical market-rate apartment buildings but re-imagine how this country houses its poor.

The 1950s-style American family residence, with its two car garage, white picket fence, and wood shake shingles is not the template for today’s affordable home. Neither is the 1970s-style apartment building with large two-bedrooms nestled around a living room and kitchen, decks overlooking courtyards, and two parking spaces per unit underneath the structure.

These residential structures were designed for American family units that are more of a rarity today. There are less and less two-parent family units with three children. The stereotypical homeless individual is not an alcoholic single man who just needs a room in a concrete block building off of Skid Row.

Households in America have evolved, but our designs to house them have not.

Today, adult children are moving back into their parents home because they cannot afford their own housing. Single parents with a number of children are the norm not the exception. Sometimes three generations of one family are now living together.

And single homeless Americans are in need of a community of support, not just an isolated single room in a concrete block building.

So why not design micro-lofts for homeless Americans that use up half the square footage of a typical studio apartment? For practically the same price of one affordable housing building, we could double the number of people housed.

One of the agencies I run just finished construction of a 49-unit affordable apartment building in Los Angeles that houses formerly homeless neighbors. Local building and planning codes and strict requirements from funding sources controlled the size of units, number of parking spaces, and number of units according to the size of land.

But in reality, we could have built micro-lofts that were half the size of our typical units and housed 98 people instead of 49. If only the codes and regulations would have allowed it. Words on paper, and policies created by bureaucrats left nearly 50 people still living on the streets.

Family units in this country have also changed. Rather than building detached single family homes, why not create homes and apartments where  multi-generational family units could live? That would mean, perhaps, 3-8 bedrooms linked to one common eating and living space.

Or several families struggling with economic survival could live together in a communal space, rather than resorting to life in a motel or a shelter.

Unrelated college students already share housing space with multiple bedrooms and common living space. Why not unrelated seniors struggling to make ends meet, live in these spaces with college students and formerly homeless Americans?

We need more architects like Buckminster Fuller helping us to think differently. Because redesigning the way we house homeless Americans could end homelessness.

Photo credit: mikkasher


  1. Jason
    Posted May 31, 2013 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    This is a good initiative and innovative idea as well.
    Since we're living in a place where lot area is much smaller than the population, it's about time that we consider condo-type housing to cater even to the homeless.

  2. Posted Sep 13, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    a house is made with a properly thought of concept and an idea in a person's head, then it is surely going to be a good place to live in for the residents as well as meet all their needs.

  3. JeremyOlm
    Posted Sep 20, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    This is indeed a very splendid idea. Instead of building a home that could only house one family, why not use that exact same amount of land space to fit a number of families by towering the houses up vertically. This concept has been pursued by mane smaller countries with a fairly high residential percentage like Singapore and Hong Kong and the rate of the citizens being homeless there is considerably low. The housing estate could then have common recreational amenities like a park, exercise corner and many others where residents could get together in a common area to mingle and socialize. Underneath each block of flats, there could also be either and aged care corner for the old folks or a study corner for the youths.

  4. Posted Oct 9, 2013 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    It is of extreme concern that the number of homeless people are increasing day by day. According to the latest statics, if all the unused homes are given to the homeless, even then, the homes will be in surplus. What is actually limiting this is the increase in poverty gap between the rich and the poor!

  5. Posted Jun 24, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Today, more than ever, a new way of designing housing for Americans who cannot afford even a simple stucco-boxed apartment is desperately needed. The sheer numbers of homeless Americans mandate new creations from the most imaginative designers.

  6. Hanix
    Posted Jan 7, 2015 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    Home and Garden Design – The design of home and garden needs to be in perfect harmony as both of these represent uniqueness from each other.