Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

The Space of No(w)here – tackling homelessness
Cameron Sinclair, 27 Oct 06
Article Photo

According to Unicef there are an estimated 750,000 people living on the street in the United States and a further 3,000,000 in Europe Tackling the issue of how to address urban homelessness has been a constant thorn in the side of the design and construction industry. There should be a basic rule – if you cannot design a basic shelter, you cannot call yourself an architect. Earlier this year the website Designboom tried to address this issues by hosting the ‘shelter in a cart’ competition as their 2006 Social Awareness Award. The response was incredible – over 4246 designers from 95 countries participated.

Prior to Architecture for Humanity I had spent my architectural education and graduate thesis focused on developing sustainable and transitional housing for homeless populations in New York City. More recently we released the book Design Like You Give A Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises, which has a chapter on responses to homelessness – mainly in the United States. Therefore I was asked to be apart of final jury for the competition and was presented with a shortlist of 115 entries.

The brief set out was fairly controversial given the fact that the criteria was to develop a ‘cart’ system to support those who chose to stay on the streets, rather than the housing shelter approach. During the review the one thing that worried me was that many entries ignored two basic needs – protection of ones valuables and a self-sustaining economic engine.

By the end of the jury process I felt there was a sole entry that tackled these issues, the poorly named and under budgeted ‘a street car named survivor’. This entry, designed by Ing-Tse Chen, looked at a variety of potential way to generate income while still having safe and lockable storage while someone slept. The concept is based on the traditional Chinese carts, where the designer is from. The tricycle can transform the unit from a taxi to a movable store.

Other Self Built Structures

Since 1987 a team of renegade architects and builders, known as the Mad Housers, have been building small shelters for the homeless. More than 100 48 sq. ft. huts began to appear after the group negotiated with city officials to look the other way, unless a property owner complained or the residents were disruptive to the neighborhood. Shelters appeared in California, Illinois and Wisconsin throughout the 90’s but after many were dismantled the group disbanded. Fast forward a few years and a new group of Mad Housers reemerged in Georgia. This time they worked within homeless settlements and developed designs that blended in with the environment. Some homes have now been up for 6 years.

On the other side of the globe Kyohei Sakaguchi has been documenting homes built by the homeless in Tokyo, Japan. During his research there was an open source nature in sharing ideas and concepts, many that included sustainable technologies (see main image above). Homes included solar energy, lighting, cooking equipment, television or even computers, all have been produced with little or no money. Currently you can see a ‘zero yen’ house at the Vancouver Art Gallery. More images and information can be found via treehugger and Inhabitat. For more images of homelessness in Japan check out Nurri Kim's related photography Tokyo Blues.

The competition and these initiatives are not the the answer to issues of homelessness but they force the design community to begin to ask serious questions. What is the role of the designer? Who is the designer? Should we support these communities? Is homelessness a solvable issue?

Bookmark and Share


According to Unicef there are an estimated 750,000 people living on the street in the United States and a further 3,000,000

Do you have a cite for those numbers? Sure I could google but I'm lazy ..

Posted by: brian on 27 Oct 06

Do you have a cite for those numbers?

The numbers were reported in an article by Philip Alston entitled "Hardship In the Midst of Plenty" in a UNICEF report entitled "The Progress of Nations 1998".

The specific numbers are in Mr. Alston's piece:

He doesn't give references for where he sourced the data.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 27 Oct 06

It's important to note as well that the vast majority--about 80%--of homeless people aren't homeless for very long. They're those who are down on their luck, spend one night on the streets, and hate the experience so much that they resolve to get their lives back together. (This all comes from this Malcolm Gladwell article, btw:

Another 10% are occassionally homeless--often they are abuse victims who stay away from home for a night but really have nowhere else to go.

And then there are the 10% termed chronically homeless. They are often mentally ill and/or addicted to drugs or alcohol. They are expensive for a city, because they often end up in emergency rooms and, at least in America, have no insurance.

If that's the case (and I don't have anything else to cite besides Gladwell's article unfortunately), then it's arguable that providing independent housing for the chronically homeless is counterproductive. The city of Denver took another approach: just give chronically homeless people a city-subsidized apartment. Just flat out give it to them. It's far cheaper than paying their bills for injuries sustained on the street, and, unlike the shelter options above, it provides a method of measuring programmatic and personal results.

Posted by: Andrew W on 28 Oct 06


as i see the have/have not situation until the values change the type

of living dwelling put forth to the public servants will continue to go over like a lead ballon. bill moss of Moss Tents in Camden Maine spent a lot of time at Talisen West at the end of his life and designed place for those without dwellings, and as i understand it nobody came forth and used them. btw, the notion of homeless is term that is used along the lines of herber marcuse's notiong of repressive tolerance. i even heard john todd the living machine guy quote marcuse once!

Posted by: nick consoletti on 28 Oct 06

Hello Cameron,

I will be in NYC at Thanksgiving and am scouting out material for my blog ( I'm there. This topic is of particular interest to me and I was hoping that you might have suggestions as to an event I might attend or an individual or organization I can get in touch with. My about page will give you specifics about what I do if you have the time to glance at it. I would greatly appreciate any leads.

Posted by: Ashley Cecil on 28 Oct 06

The smaller sizes of the Hexayurt would work really well for formerly homeless people:

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 3 Nov 06



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg