Robert is a generous, smart, funny man who has worked all his life – and who has been homeless for more than a decade. He has lived primarily in a dormitory-style shelters, sleeping in rooms with more than 100 other men at close quarters.
Last week, Robert moved into a home of his own.
His new house is in my backyard.
Robert says he’s excited that the only snoring that will wake him up at night is his own. For the first time in a decade, Robert is able to take off his shoes and socks when he goes to bed, without fear they’ll be stolen. His new home has the amenities most of us take for granted – a bed with a pillow, a door that locks, safe storage for his belongings, and a kitchen, toilet, and shower.
Robert’s house is the first BLOCK Home, built as part of an innovative new program from Facing Homelessness and The BLOCK Project. The ambitious project aims to put a beautiful, architect-designed, 125 sf, off-grid home in the backyard of one residential lot on every block in Seattle. Each BLOCK Home resident will have a caseworker connecting them with wrap-around care. All electricity for the house will be provided by solar panels, and the design includes provisions for rainwater collection and filtration for potable water, a drain field for greywater, and a composting toilet, making the home completely self-sufficient. So far more than 40 homeowners have signed up to host a BLOCK home, and the organization plans to build at least two more houses this year.
The BLOCK Home was designed by the father and daughter team at BLOCK Architects, with the pro bono help of local engineers (including FSi!), architects, and contractors. Contractors donated project management and construction expertise and hundreds of hours of labor. Artists have hosted fundraisers. Community members have provided funds for building supplies, along with volunteer labor to clear the site, build the house, and provide Robert with the essentials he needs for his new home.
Building the first BLOCK Home has been true community effort, and it has been an amazing experience watching it come together. More than 200 people have been through my backyard in the past few months, volunteering their time to work on some aspect of the project. Some folks have dedicated weekend after weekend (Berns, Lavrans, Mark, and Travis, you know who you are!) to making this happen. Their commitment and passion have been humbling and inspiring.
It is no accident that the BLOCK Home has brought community together. Facing Homelessness believes community and personal connections are key to ending the homelessness crisis in Seattle and across the country. People experiencing homelessness often feel shunned or invisible, pushing them further from society and increasing their trauma. Community support and love are essential to overcoming this trauma.
At the same time, housed people are well aware of the housing crisis, and many of us crave an opportunity to make a meaningful impact on our neighbors in need. The Facing Homelessness slogan “just say hello,” encourages housed people to take the simple step of acknowledging and extending kindness to our unhoused neighbors. It offers an alternative to looking away, and can start to heal some of the trauma of isolation experienced by our neighbors living homeless. The BLOCK Project goes a step further, providing housing that offers “opportunities for healing and advancement to those formerly living on the fringes of society,” and bringing “connection, relationship, and compassion to the center of our lives and communities.”
My partner Dan and I have seen this firsthand, and it has changed and enriched our lives.
Yes in my workplace!
Working on the project has also been a great experience for everyone at FSi. FSi designed the heating, ventilating, and plumbing systems for the BLOCK House. As a fully permitted, off-grid home within the City of Seattle, the BLOCK House is really the first of its kind, and the engineers who worked on the project were able to resolve interesting technical and permitting challenges.
The house is not connected to the electrical grid, and is heated exclusively with energy generated by solar panels on the roof. FSi did extensive energy modeling to determine optimal levels of insulation (exterior walls are 6” thick!) and limits to temperature set points needed to keep the house warm and support plug loads during our cold, dark Seattle winters when the panels aren’t able to generate much energy. The design also includes a heat recovery ventilator, to eliminate moisture from breathing in the small space (think of condensation in a tent), without exhausting all of the heated air in the winter.
The off-grid water system presents even greater challenges. The design includes rainwater collection and filtration for all potable water, which means all water needed during our summer dry spells must be collected in a cistern during the rainy season and stored through the summer. The resident must be able to track and limit water use during the summer so the cistern doesn’t run dry. The design includes a composting toilet, as well as filtration and a drain field for greywater from sinks and showers.
The Seattle King County Department of Public Health does not currently have rules for permitting off-grid water functions, so we are continuing to work with the health department and the BLOCK Architects team to phase in this portion of the design for future houses as a pilot project.
The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) recently joined the BLOCK Project team, and we look forward to moving towards Living Building certification on future BLOCK homes.
In addition to the interesting design challenges, all of us at FSi have been excited about the project, its progress, and its potential impact on our city and beyond. Working on the BLOCK Project has really invigorated our office, and inspired us to become more involved in issues of housing and homelessness. Since we started designing the BLOCK House, multiple staff members have begun long-term volunteer work with organizations serving people living homeless. Others have participated through fundraisers, donations, and volunteering. We’ve taken on the call of Facing Homelessness to “just say hello,” showing kindness and interacting with people we meet living homeless.
FSi is proud to be a partner of The BLOCK Project, working on the design team led by Block Architects, along with Turner Construction, Swenson Say Fagét, Herrera, Wetherholt and Associates, and Allworth Design.
The following companies also donated labor, expertise, and/or materials:
- Molior LLC,
- D4 Systems Sheet Metal
- JH Kelly
- Prime Electric
- West Seattle Natural Energy
- Oliver and Blue Construction
- Method Construction
- Graham Baba Architects
- Windermere Real Estate Sand Point Office
- Schultz Miller
- Dovetail General Contractors
- Toth Construction
- Karlstrom Associates
- Gradwohl Construction
- Krekow Jennings
- Marenakos Rock Center
- University of Washington College of Built Environments
- Washington State University Architecture Department
and many others.
Want to get involved?
There are lots of ways to contribute to The BLOCK Project!
Donate to one of the next houses. There are three more host families and residents waiting for funding for their houses, and another 40 families who have signed up to be hosts. Help make these houses a reality! Visit the BLOCK project to donate.
Apply to host a Block House
Learn more at http://www.the-block-project.com/community/
Sign up to volunteer
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about opportunities to finish work on Robert’s house, and start on the next ones!
Just Say Hello
Take that initial step of extending kindness to a person experiencing homelessness – and see where it takes you!
Photos courtesy of Rex Hohlbein and The BLOCK Project