This article is part of our Design special section about making the environment a creative partner in the design of beautiful homes.
Twelve people who had been living on the streets of Seattle are now snug in 12 tiny houses tucked into backyards throughout Washington’s largest city. And each little dwelling is likely the most sustainable house on its block.
Solar arrays on the roofs of the homes provide more than enough power for heating, lighting and cooking, even in Seattle’s not-so-sunny climate. And all the materials and fittings — from the juniper wood for the exterior of the 230-square-foot structures to the induction cooktops in the kitchenettes — were chosen to meet the highest environmental standards.
These are the houses of the Block Project, as the home-building effort is called, with the goal of eventually putting one on every block in Seattle. The homes are constructed by volunteers working under the direction of Facing Homelessness, a local nonprofit.
But it was a father-daughter architectural team that got the ball rolling by trying to address two seemingly intractable problems — homelessness and climate change — one tiny house at a time. “People struggle with grasping what they can do,” said Jennifer H. LaFreniere, 36, the daughter of the duo. “With the Block Project, you are able to do something and make a difference, even if it’s on a smaller scale.”
The effort grew out of the concern of her father, Rex Hohlbein, for individuals he and other Seattle residents had grown accustomed to seeing camped out in parks, on sidewalks and under bridges in their city. It is estimated that 40,000 people are homeless in King County, which includes Seattle.
Mr. Hohlbein, 65, who had a small practice that designed and remodeled houses, reached the point where he couldn’t keep looking away. He began inviting the homeless people he encountered into his architecture office, where he would listen to their stories and post profiles of them on a Facebook page that quickly drew 50,000 followers and an outpouring of financial support for the individuals.
He started Facing Homelessness to bring housed and unhoused city residents together, and over time, the organization’s campaigns have provided food, clothing, haircuts and other services to those in need. In 2013, Mr. Hohlbein quit his architecture practice to focus on Facing Homelessness.
Soon after, he started meeting Ms. LaFreniere for coffee every Friday morning. The two had talked about someday starting a firm together, and at their weekly meetings they began to kick around the idea of using their skills as architects to help house the homeless, sketching out designs on paper napkins.
The houses would be compact shed structures that could easily fit into a backyard, they decided. Following “passive house” building principles, the structures would be well insulated so they could be heated with a minimal amount of energy, and would face south to capture the warmth and natural light of the sun.
The architects decided against metal siding because of concerns about toxic runoff and instead selected juniper, a tree that has crowded out native species in parts of the United States and could be cut down without guilt; juniper would also help the homes fit in with the woodsy aesthetic of the Northwest. Covered front porches would give residents a place to sit with visitors.
“We wanted the houses to be beautiful to live in and as efficient as possible,” Ms. LaFreniere said.
She, too, quit her job, and in 2017 formed Block Architects with her father to get their home-building idea off the ground. They convinced Facing Homelessness, which by then had its own staff and board of directors, to take the project on.
Today the organization has a prefabrication workshop where panels for the houses, which cost about $75,000 each to build, are cut, sanded and stained. The production process has been fine-tuned to the point where Facing Homelessness could shift into high gear and, with adequate funding, crank out 20 homes a year. But speedy mass production isn’t the point.
It takes time to find property owners willing to dedicate their backyards to housing a formerly homeless individual. Not every property is big enough. (Mr. Hohlbein said his yard isn’t large enough, for example, and Ms. LaFreniere and her husband, who have a growing family, do not plan to stay in their current house for long.)
Once a host is found, people from across the city pitch in, digging the foundation and assembling the house, or contributing landscaping, or helping pay for a welcome kit of essentials, including a mattress, bed linens, towels, trash bags and toothpaste. Hosts typically assume the modest monthly utility costs of a Block home, usually around $30. Each Block home piggybacks on the homeowner’s water bills, for instance, and is hooked up to the grid via the homeowner’s account with the local utility.
The residents, who have been referred by social workers, live rent-free and are connected to a network of support services to ease the transition and help them process whatever trauma they have been through.
By the time the process is done “that single home has touched so many people,” Mr. Hohlbein said.
And the numbers continue to swell, with the recent completion of the 15th house and the permitting of two more, to be built this year.
Two Block homes were recently constructed for an Indigenous-led nonprofit organization for a community planned in Rapid City, S.D. “We would like to see more collaborations like this,” said Bernard Troyer, a director at Facing Homelessness, adding that such arrangements could provide an ongoing source of revenue for the organization while helping other groups tackle housing insecurity.
Of the 20 individuals who have resided in Block homes in Seattle, 19 have remained in the homes or gone on to find other stable, permanent housing. Two hosts have bowed out of the program — in one case, the homeowners, who were older, felt they could no longer handle the responsibility, and in both instances the homeowners purchased the houses that had been placed in their yards from Facing Homelessness.
The homes are built as permanent housing but are designed so they could be deconstructed and moved elsewhere. So far, all the structures have stayed put.
Mr. Hohlbein and Ms. LaFreniere have fielded queries about the Block Project from people across the country and have given talks as far away as Chicago. States and municipalities across the country are making it easier to build small homes in backyards — officially known as accessory dwelling units, or ADUs — to help address the country’s housing shortage and add affordable units to neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes.
But there has also been pushback against the effort, with some opponents concerned about the effect additional people in their neighborhoods will have on traffic, safety, schools, municipal services and taxes.
Seattle revamped its regulations governing ADUs in 2019, and since then construction has surged. Often the structures are quickly built of metal and cement board.
But the Block Project homes are so carefully conceived and crafted that one has just been certified by the Living Building Challenge, a program administered by the International Living Future Institute that authenticates that a structure has attained high standards for sustainability. Excess power generated by the rooftop solar arrays is fed into the grid and offsets the host’s utility costs — one way these houses for the homeless are giving back to the community.
“When a person moves into a Block home they have been on the receiving end of things,” Mr. Hohlbein said. That’s often not a comfortable place to be. “We really wanted this home and the people living there to be able to share their knowledge of sustainability and of what homelessness is about,” he said.
Facing Homelessness declined to make any of the residents available for an interview, citing respect for their privacy, but one of them said in a statement, “When you’re tired with no safe place to rest, that’s the only thing you can think about.” Now, after two years in a Block home, the resident no longer lives minute by minute.
“I can think about tomorrow, the day after, the week after, I can even plan things months out, and recently have begun thinking about the next few years of my life and what I’d like to accomplish.”
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