What Happened in Vegas 5: Of Synergy, Shelter, and Concert Stages

Center for Public Interest Design AIA Conference on Architecture 2019  Blog

“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”

― Wendell Berry

LAS VEGAS, NV, June 8, 2019 – I was recently talking with a friend of mine about my affinity for the desert.  That I initially saw it as being a hot wasteland, devoid of meaningful life, and home to all of the world’s worst critters.  While this sentiment remains true of the city of Las Vegas itself, the natural desert surrounding that hellhole tells a different story, as I came to appreciate on a 2018 trip visiting a friend in the desert of southern California.  It was there that I learned about the bio-synergy of the environment.  Critters cannot survive without the water stored in flowers and low-level plants, and some depend on the shelter of palm trees, whose…we’ll call it “bark” because I don’t know the technical term (also because it’s an effective Design Pup pun)…protects them from the harsh sunlight.

Likewise, the plants cannot thrive without the critters because of pollination and other factors that my desert-dwelling friend would be devastated to know that I’ve forgotten in the year since my visit.  Sorry, Ashley.  The point is, the desert works because the flora and the fauna look out for each other.  They help each other.  And while it may seem barren and dull at first glance, once you get to know how it all works, it becomes fascinating to witness and continue to learn about.  In that way, it’s not unlike the game of baseball.

But on this June afternoon, the last of the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019 (A’19,) I was neither in the natural landscape nor at a ballgame, but rather in the aforementioned hellhole of Las Vegas.  Fortunately, I was among wonderful company as I attended this closing session, featuring a quartet of Portlanders discussing how their partnership between the Center for Public Interest Design, Catholic Charities, the City of Portland, Portland State University, SRG Partnership, the Pickathon Music Festival, and others formed a synergy with each organization helping the others grow as they serve to house Portland’s houseless population.

Center for Public Interest Design

Houselessness and Sleeping Pods

Todd Ferry, Senior Research Associate and Faculty Fellow, Center for Public Interest Design

The presentation opened with Todd Ferry outlining where this collaborative process began in 2016, following the release of the 2015 Point-In-Time Report of houselessness in the Portland Metro area.  The Report found that 3,801 individuals met HUD’s definition of homelessness on the night of January 28, 2015, (a number that jumped to 4,177 in the 2017 Point-In-Time-Report) prompting a call to action.  Todd and his team identified a gap between unsheltered individuals and those in affordable housing – a gap that could begin to be filled with tents, sleeping pods, and a transitional village as a way to step into affordable housing.

Focusing on sleeping pods for their space and cost efficiencies, and with the intent to group these pods into villages, the group (collectively known as the Village Coalition) found a strong response at an October 2016 design charrette – calling for architecture firms and design teams to design sleeping pods.  The village model not only had the benefit of positively using underutilized spaces of land in the city, but also created “opportunities for community development while still allowing privacy and security…[providing] a more incremental transition into permanent housing from the streets, rather than a sudden transition,” Ferry noted.

Following the charrette, a total of 14 teams developed and designed pods over the following five weeks, designs which were brought to members of Hazelnut Grove, an organized camp of houseless Portlanders, for feedback.  And with that, the teams began construction of their pods in the frigid fall weather, under shelter of an old warehouse in North Portland (a warehouse that spectacularly burned down in May 2017, just five months after the pods were completed.)  I’m proud to say that I was a member of one of the 14 teams, and I’m happy to shamelessly share an article about this work in a December 2016 blog post by Hennebery Eddy Architects, which explains the design process at that time in excellent detail.

Sleeping POD - LRS Architects

A sleeping pod designed by LRS Architects, shown during a December 2016 exhibit.

Once completed, the pods were transported to a lot near PNCA in Portland’s Pearl District, for a three week exhibit before being moved to a staging location while a more permanent site for the village was identified, agreed upon by the City, and approved by the neighborhood association.

Center for Public Interest Design

Kenton Women’s Village

Joanna T. Do, Property Manager, Department of County Assets, Multnomah County

Following the work of an amazing group of organizations and individuals, the pods were located in the Kenton neighborhood, forming Kenton Women’s Village.  Project Manager Joanna Do noted that “it’s basically illegal to be houseless in Portland,” with the village helping to provide “safety, security, community, and basic human needs.”  In addition to giving women privacy, a safe place to stay at night, lock their door, and house their possessions, the village offered a wide range of services, including:

  • On-site case management
  • Physical and mental health services
  • Assistance getting healthcare
  • Assistance getting a state ID and documentation
  • Employment resources for residents
  • Helping to re-learn household skills
  • Community, leadership, and self-governance opportunities
  • Garden area
  • Community kitchen
  • Showers and restroom amenities
Kenton Women's Village

Kenton Women’s Village, 2017. Image courtesy Zach Putnam/Portland Monthly.

From the implementation and use of Kenton Women’s Village came some lessons learned.  Residents and staff noted that the site lacked water, sewer, power and heat, which presented a host of challenges.  Additionally, storage, lighting, interior community space, and other opportunities were identified as needs for similar villages moving forward.  The pods themselves also offered lessons learned, with storage and operable windows lacking in many designs, as well as some issues with moisture, and the realization that standardization was desired for ease of maintenance.

One of the prototype pods that stood out as excelling in the needs of the village was a design by Portland architecture firm SRG Partnership.

Center for Public Interest Design

S.A.F.E. Pod

Scott Mooney, Senior Associate, SRG Partnership, Inc.

One of the 14 original teams, SRG Partnership approached the design of their pod a little differently than other teams.  Senior Associate Scott Mooney explained the conversations that the design team had, focusing on maximizing storage, porches, and spaciousness, while working within the small dimensional constraints of the pods (dictated by restrictions due to transport.)  The team also focused on making the pod modular, so it could easily be replicated down the road.  Their solution?  Roof trusses.

SRG Partnership SAFE Pod

S.A.F.E. Pod. Rendering courtesy SRG Partnership, sketch by John Maternoski.

I cut this article too close to press time to get permission from SRG to use their slide(s) showing the concept of the pod, so I scanned in the sketch I drew at the conference, explaining it (pictured above.)  By using a series of standardized roof trusses, the team was able to maximize storage space in the thickened walls, while leaving an open area clear, 8ft wide by 8ft tall (“movable space” as labeled in the sketch.)  As it turns out, SRG’s S.A.F.E. Pod turned out so well, this design was chosen for the construction of 15 new pods to be constructed at a new site – the Clackamas County Veteran’s Village.

Center for Public Interest Design

Diversion Design+Build Studio

Travis Bell, Associate Professor in Architecture, Portland State University

Completely separate from the POD Initiative, the Portland State University School of Architecture runs a design+build studio every year, deigning and building a stage for the Pickathon Music Festival.  The goal is to achieve zero waste each year, with the students choosing the materials and design.  Associate Professor Travis Bell calls it “pre-use design.”

In 2017, this studio teamed up with the POD Initiative and SRG.  Plans for the Veteran’s Village pods called for some 700 trusses, which PSU students used as the basis of design for their 2017 Pickathon stage.  The goal was to build the stage out of the trusses, then, after the festival, deconstruct the stage and package the trusses into kits to be used for the construction of the sleeping pods.  The result?  Breathtaking.

SRG Partnership SAFE Pod

Image courtesy SRG Partnership.

Pickathon 2017 Stage. Image © Dylan VanWeelden.

Clackamas County Veteran's Village

Clackamas County Veteran’s Village. Image courtesy Adams Real Estate Photography/Communitecture.

Center for Public Interest Design

POD Initiative Today

In August of 2018, it was announced that the Kenton Women’s Village would have to be moved to make way for an affordable housing development.  This lended the POD Initiative the opportunity to create Kenton Women’s Village 2.0, built upon the lessons learned from the first village.  In an effort to balance standardization without homogenization, the team held a build competition by local contractors, based on three pod designs.  This competition, organized by the Anderson Construction Foundation, SRG Partnership, Catholic Charities, Center for Public Interest Design, and the Homebuilders Foundation, yielded 20 pods constructed between early February and late March 2019.

The pods, now located and in service, are each carefully crafted and unique, built under a sustainable model that features a host of partners donating materials or time pro-bono, drastically simplifying and reducing the cost burden of this project and projects like it moving forward.

Kenton Women's Village 2

Image courtesy SRG Partnership.

This unlikely team of partners continues to move forward with their efforts, including looking into pod arrangement/density, exploring other partners to work with, thinking about the use of pods in natural disasters, and reusing construction mockups in building future pods.

In Closing

“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”

― Wendell Berry

Like the flora and fauna of the desert depending on each other to make the ecosystem thrive, so too does this inspiring cast of partners as they thrive in their environment of creating housing for the houseless.  As the bio-synergy of the desert ecosystem gives rise to those who inhabit it, the synergy of this team of volunteers, professionals, professors, students, government agencies and others each lend their expertise and talents – talents which compliment one another in such a diverse and unique way, that this delicate balance of the community ecosystem gives rise to a deeply inspiring and impactful common good.

As for Vegas – if that town can’t learn from the beauty that naturally surrounds it, perhaps it can learn a thing or two from the synergy and beauty happening with this group here in Portland.  After all, if there’s one thing I learned from my time in Sin City, it’s that while what happens there may stay there, while what happens in Portland is being watched by, and shared with, the world.  And if the takeaway from Portland continues to be projects like this…well that’s something that even my lizard brain can appreciate and take pride in.  Palm tree bark not necessary.

Portland Design Pup traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada for the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019 this past June 6th-9th to explore the influence that Portland architects and designers are having on the national architecture scene.  We attended four sessions led by Portlanders, as well as the investiture ceremony for the 2019 Class of Fellows, which included five Oregon architects.  We will be sharing images and recaps of each event in a 5 part series of articles, of which this is the fifth and final.

About the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019

Every year the AIA Conference on Architecture travels to an iconic city for three immersive days of what’s new and now in architecture and design. Industry leaders and experienced professionals attend A’19 in search of the hottest new products and technologies.



Images courtesy Timothy Niou Photography unless noted otherwise.  Note: Our coverage of the Conference is not affiliated with or endorsed by AIA, AIA Portland, or AIA Oregon.

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