Tiny buildings for Fresno's homeless need a home

Fresno architect is building eco-villages for transients, but a suitable location is needed.

May 13, 2010 

Fresno architect Arthur Dyson says he has the solution to the city's homeless problem: villages of tiny homes built with recycled materials and surrounded by fruit trees.

The first structures -- some measuring only 80 square feet -- are already under construction on the Fresno State campus, where Dyson has been working with students in a construction management class to develop concepts.

But the structures won't become living spaces for the homeless unless city officials can find a suitable spot for them.

Gregory Barfield, Fresno's homeless prevention and policy manager, said the city is ready to assist Dyson with the project, including finding a site.

The city could look to vacant or abandoned properties, or sites available through foreclosures, he said. But the city also will need to get a buy-in from neighbors and a permit through the Planning Department, Barfield said.

If all hurdles can be overcome, the project will be unlike others that attempt to help the homeless, said Jeff Pflueger, a Bay Area photojournalist who has chronicled the Fresno homeless problem.

"It's a pretty revolutionary model the way [Dyson] is bringing together different people in the community, engaging students as advocates for the homeless while they are learning architecture and sustainable building," he said.

Dyson said he pondered how to solve the city's homeless problem while serving on a committee of community leaders that several years ago wrote the "Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness" in Fresno and Fresno County.

He envisioned an "eco-village" that would include housing units set up in a field surrounded by trees and gardens, a central building with a kitchen and bathrooms and another larger building for the sale of goods created or grown by residents.

Some of the city's homeless have been included in the planning process and have met with the Fresno State students to discuss potential living arrangements.

This isn't the first time that attempts have been made to create housing options for the homeless. In recent years, the Poverello House has added 60 uninsulated two-person wooden sheds, with battery-operated lighting and bathrooms available, said Kathryn Weakland, director of development/communications.

The structures proposed by Dyson may include small solar panels that could generate enough electricity for minimal lighting or a television, said Lloyd Crask, a construction management instructor.

Al Williams, a homeless community member assisting on the project, said the housing could be temporary or more permanent depending upon a person's needs.

"People aren't going to want to live in that for the rest of their lives," Williams said. "It's a stepping stone with no time limit."

After speaking with Dyson last year about his idea, Vida Samiian, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Fresno State, said she wanted to move quickly to establish a class where students can gain experience and the homes could be built.

"We are trying to do the design-and-build concept using recyclable materials so this may be replicated or expanded in the future," she said.

Much of the housing is being made with recycled materials.

Donated pallets -- covered with plywood -- are being used for flooring and walls. One group is using cardboard that has been waterproofed as construction material for walls and cut-up aluminum cans for a roof.

"In the winter, the aluminum can grasp a lot of heat," said construction management student Betty Green, 31, of Fresno. "In the summer, we will have ventilation, lots of windows to allow the air to vent."

Dyson sees a time where old tires or bales of hay or old clothing can be used, too.

The college contributed $20,000 for the class, and students also are using donated pallets and buying building materials with a discount from Lowe's, Dyson said.

The students will be required to finish building the homes in the next two weeks and then write a report about the buildings and the challenges they faced.

"The concept was to have a course where we could design and build some model shelters that would provide some relief during emergencies or for homeless communities," Samiian said.

The project is valuable not only academically but also from a humanitarian standpoint, said Julio Sanchez, 22, of Modesto, a construction management student.

The homeless "are people who are just down on their luck and need a place where they will feel comfortable," Sanchez said.

Williams said the students have set aside preconceived ideas about the homeless and are listening to their needs.

"I am very proud of them," he said. "There aren't many people stepping up and doing what they are doing."

Once an "eco-village" is established in Fresno, it will create its own charter for residents. At that point, Dyson said, students from sociology and anthropology departments can become part of the project.

And after the buildings are occupied, the program can be critiqued and improvements made, he said.

Dyson said he has been impressed by the enthusiasm students bring to the project. Unlike some professionals, he said, they seek ways around obstacles.

Alex Ortega, a 22-year-old student from Lemoore, is eager to see what will evolve.

"Once you see it finished and someone can actually physically use it, I think we will really feel the impact," he said.

Dyson's idea may not be limited to the Valley. He said he has spoken with Fresno Pacific University officials about starting a similar class and also has been called by a university in the Philippines and architects in Italy and Russia about replicating the "eco-village."

"As much as there is a need everywhere, it's nice to help your neighbors first," he said. "But they are looking to see what we are doing and if we can do something here, maybe they could use this as a model."

The reporter can be reached at mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6166.

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