Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Architectural Record Book Review

I was recently asked to write a book review, here it is.

Designing for the Homeless; Architecture that Works, by Sam Davis. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2004, 176 pages, $34.95 (cloth)

This important new book is first of all a call to action for architects. Sam Davis, a UC Berkeley professor and architect of affordable housing, presents homelessness as a complex problem that architects can and should help ameliorate. Robert Gutman rightly says in a blurb for the book, “The subject of homelessness has often been discussed, but no one before has cut such a broad swath through the subject,”
Davis’ approach ranges beyond design and planning to the societal costs of homelessness and the personal concerns of the afflicted. He tells how unforeseen events can catapult a once-ordinary person into living on the streets and argues that a continuum of housing types is needed--from emergency shelters through assisted-living to independence. Needed too, he writes is a continuum of services, social, psychological, educational, employment-oriented, financial, When it comes to design, he discusses the challenges of fitting projects into existing communities and compares various plans and interior layouts, asking such questions as how should the housing look and how should it feel. He evaluates costs and expenditures and writes: “Some architects maintain that the best way to achieve affordable housing is to recognize cost limitations at the outset and make compromises on space standards, amenities, and even quality; others argue, as I have, that affordable housing should be indistinguishable from nearby housing so that residents will not feel stigmatized and will feel a part of the surrounding community”
The author focuses on case studies, including the St. Vincent de Paul Village in San Diego (1987), a center that offers customized care, helping people earn GEDs, train on computers, find jobs, receive medical and dental care, and take charge of their own lives. In New York, he cites the Family Transitional Shelter and the First Step Housing project. In San Francisco, he mentions Donald MacDonald’s City Sleepers, four-foot-high, 32-square foot sleeping units that are constructed of plywood, are waterproof, have a sliding glass window and screen, and stand 18 inches off the ground on inverted car jacks. Also in San Francisco, Davis writes about a small structure modeled on temporary housing for victims of the 1906 earthquake, the work of Jim Reid, a former contractor, homebuilder, and mayoral candidate. Reid says the 100-square-foot structure, including laundry facilities and a full bath, proves how easy it is to house San Francisco's homeless. In Atlanta, Davis cites the work of the Mad Housers, a nonprofit that helps provide housing for the homeless.
Davis notes that in Atlanta alone there are over 10,000 homeless people at peak times and less than 1,000 beds available, and that architects and architecture students can and should help provide homes to those living on the streets. That message is Sam Davis major theme and contribution. The illustrations in Designing for the Homeless’ aren’t of the best quality and Davis hasn’t brought the facts of homelessness up to date. More important, however, is that he has given us a significant book; it packs a considerable punch in a scant 145 pages. William J. Carpenter

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