AIA Home of Distinction: A Seattle Architect Takes On the Tiny-Home Challenge
By Nia Martin
March 18, 2018
In a Seattle tiny house village, two shelters work together to offer more than just a place to call home
Among the utilitarian 8-by-12-foot homes in Nickelsville Georgetown Tiny House Village—one of several city-sanctioned homeless encampments—are two angled structures that face each other like two halves of a whole. It’s an appropriate way to look at these buildings, which were designed by Barron Peper, an architect with Seattle-based Mithun, to house a family.
“Two houses act as one,” explains Sarah Smith, executive director of Sawhorse Revolution, the nonprofit building program that helped construct the houses, which are called the Parabay Homes. Peper is a volunteer with Sawhorse Revolution; the organization pairs high-school-age kids in underserved areas with mentors to teach them carpentry and building skills as they work together on community projects.
Each two-unit Parabay Home totals 224 square feet and is designed to house children and adults, each with their own unit. The occupants can easily see each other through facing glass windows, separated by 4 feet of yard space.
Peper came up with the idea of a yard as a way to make use of the mandatory 3 feet of separation between homes required by fire codes. “This space is significant for Seattle’s model for tiny house villages in that it offers a semipublic space for residents to expand the perceived zone of their home without being fully exposed to the village,” says Peper. Being forced to give up privacy is an extension of homelessness, especially in relationship to outdoor spaces, which is why even a small, simple yard can have a huge impact on the residents of tiny homes.
Photographs by Alex Crook. From left to right: Build-ins help maximize use of the interior space for residents who are unlikely to have their own furniture. Each unit is 112 square feet. A space heater helps warm the unheated units. A future iteration of the design might include more storage by the door for muddy and wet items; dealing with them is a reality of living in the Northwest
For the project, Smith and Peper consulted with the community members of another homeless encampment, Nickelsville Othello Village, where the two previously had worked together on another tiny home, to learn what issues they could address with design.
“Sarah and I learned that the first house we had worked on together, designed for three people, was inhabited by a family of five. Children were sleeping on the ground where the desk chair was supposed to go,” says Peper. They also learned that large families are often divided into two homes next door to each other, which can diminish family roles and dynamics.
Installing glass window panels on the sides of the house that face inward was a construction challenge for designer and builders alike in terms of design fit, budget allowance and effectiveness against the elements. But the ability for families to see each other, while also maintaining a bit of separation, made the extra head scratching and debating worthwhile. “They are dignified, they’re warm, they’re safe,” says Smith of the feedback she’s gotten of the homes.
Many of the high-quality materials used were donated, or heavily discounted. The exterior includes triple-pane windows, metal flashing for waterproofing, a galvanized standing seam metal roof and Swisspearl composite concrete exterior panels in white, charcoal and coral—which retain true color against the elements. Peper wanted the outside to feel urban, tough and durable, and the interior to be inviting and natural. Inside are birch plywood walls and surfaces with several built-ins, such as a bunk bed, storage spaces, a reading nook and desk. Built-ins save precious space while also keeping things simple in case the structure has to be moved—a reality of living in temporary housing encampments.
Peper and Smith hope that this home design continues to be used, though future iterations may be built with different materials and have simpler details and improvements. Smith wants to figure out how to incorporate more storage and a mudroom area to give residents a section to dry wet and muddy items, one that doesn’t encroach on limited interior space. Peper, who has worked on tiny home solutions for homeless communities since his days as an architectural student, hopes to encourage members of his industry to partner with more organizations like Sawhorse.
Both Peper and Smith acknowledge there’s a long way to go when it comes to sheltering all of the homeless individuals in Seattle, but they also say that a solution involves more than just housing: It’s also about giving people dignity. As Peper says, “Just saying ‘hello’ is a precious daily offering for our homeless neighbors.”
Opened a year ago, Nickelsville Georgetown Tiny House Village is sponsored by the Low Income Housing Institute (lihi.org), but the residents themselves manage their community, enforcing strict rules against violent behavior and drug and alcohol consumption to ensure the safety of its population while providing a temporary place to land (average stay is from approximately one to six months) until permanent housing is found.
This tiny home was selected by a panel of architects for the AIA Seattle Home of Distinction program as an example of what strong conceptual design can do within an extremely modest budget and how design can addressimportant issues of housing and density. Dreaming about a home dsign project and not sure where to start? AIA architects can help. aiaseattle.org/askanarchitect
Architect and designer
mithun.com (Note: Peper worked on this project separately from Mithun.)
Carpentry and construction
Mētis Construction Inc.
Heirloom Quality Modern
Custom furniture and carpentry