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Housing the Houseless: Lessons Learned from our PlyPAD

SERA’s PlyPAD has finally been installed in Kenton Women’s Village! This unique, pro-bono project sought to create an affordable, easily-replicable shelter using CNC-milled plywood. It is now the fifteenth tiny home for a formerly houseless woman, just steps away from SERA’s original POD home.

The PlyPAD is a small project with a layered history: after last year’s competition win, the project was displayed as part of a ‘live build’ at the Portland Art Museum; it was later CNC fabricated at the ADX maker space; and finally shipped in four modular sections to be assembled on site.

An interior shelf assembled from a kit of parts.

There were plenty of challenges and discoveries along the way that we think are worth sharing!

The PlyPAD design was an ambitious concept, with humble resources and budget. Design elements included:

1) kit-of-parts construction aimed at novice builders

2) a sawtooth roof to create clerestory windows

3) modular, box-beam units for easy shipping, and

4) built-in plywood furniture.

In practice, we found that much of this was easier said than done. The ‘kit-of-parts’ needed some hammering to get pieces to fit together; and assembling the box-beam modules strained a few bolts and took some bumping with the forklift. The sawtooth roof became a single clerestory window to simplify flashing and cladding. And the built in furniture… actually came together pretty smoothly!

The finished interior of our PlyPAD

The design got plenty of interest and attention at the art museum, which was one of our goals – highlighting the need for solutions to homelessness – and exceeded expectations in terms of durability and transportability.

Overall it is a toss-up as to whether using CNC-milled plywood created or solved more problems, but it was certainly full of interesting challenges.

While it was a tough process, the positive response from village members truly made it feel worthwhile. After delivery, the builders sent us a note saying “the reception from the women was pretty ecstatic and a little overwhelming.” The consensus was that “the built-in shelving was much admired, as was the roomy feel.”

As SERA continues to develop projects aimed at Portland’s houselessness, we might keep in mind that this work is not always easy, but that our trade as architects and designers is perhaps most needed by those who can’t afford it.

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Editor’s note: Credit and congratulations for the design and creation of PlyPAD goes to the volunteer project team: Timothy Bestor, Walker Holt, Noah Ives, Artur Grochowski, Reid Weber and David Stephenson. Thanks also to the builders at Maslow CNC.

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