From above, they might be mistaken for an art installation, or a new Legoland park.
Their odd shapes, often long lines of varying width, are complemented by vibrant swaths of color on the ground.
Designed to become part of the urban fabric of Los Angeles, these eye-catching sites are a series of bridge home communities offering an experimental solution to the city’s homelessness crisis. Constructed on overlooked lots with 8x8 pallets as their building blocks, Tiny Homes Villages go beyond shelter to provide a sense of community and dignity through design.
“It’s a new urban typology in Los Angeles," says architect Michael Lehrer, FAIA, founding partner of LA-based Lehrer Architects LA, which—in collaboration with the city—has designed five Tiny Home Villages.
Lehrer Architects LA is certainly no stranger to these types of projects. For more than 20 years, the firm has been conceptualizing design-led solutions to shelter unhoused (and formerly unhoused) that embody the firm’s “beauty is a rudiment of human dignity” ethos, including the award-winning Downtown Homeless Drop-In Center on Skid Row. Lehrer has served on the board of Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles for 20 years.
“All that [experience] just gives a different kind of perspective [and] understanding [of] the complexities and deeply unintuitive nature of homelessness,” he says.
It was the firm’s inclusion on what Lehrer describes as a competitive, pre- vetted list of about 20 architects for the city that ultimately led to its involvement in the Tiny Homes Villages. Just prior, Lehrer won the design contract for AETNA, a dormitory-style bridge home built from preassembled modular units, which opened in August 2020 in Van Nuys. Through this design-bid-build project, Lehrer’s firm began its fruitful relationship with Ford Construction, which, along with the Bureau of Engineering for the city of Los Angeles, has led the five design-build Tiny Home Village projects.
“The city finds the site, initially vets the number of units that fit [and] the range of infrastructure requirements, and produces bridging documents, which the contractor bids on,” says Lehrer. “We are an integral part of the Ford team.”
Completed in February 2021 in just 13 weeks at a cost of $4.4 million, Chandler Boulevard Bridge Home Village was the city’s first Tiny Home Village.
“[The] first project really was a beta project,” says Lehrer. “This typology, tiny home villages and units, had never been used in L.A.”
Located in North Hollywood, Chandler includes 40 one- and two-person shelters, along with a series of carefully arranged, prefabricated modular units that house common space (from dining to showers to secure storage) and contribute to a sense of community as well as to the ability to build each village with speed. “Speed is among the virtues of these projects,” says Lehrer. “Things that would [normally] take months took days or hours.” As with most of the Tiny Home Village projects, Chandler’s unique set of challenges is rooted in its site. “[It’s a] pretty fantastically weird site,” Lehrer says of the 22,000-square-foot infill lot that, squeezing into a narrow angle at one end, borders the Orange Line bus route and sits across the street from a major park.
The 65-square-foot pallet units—each including four small, operable windows, fold-down beds, shelving, AC and heating, and a door that locks—are the building blocks that allow unique configurations to fit into oddly shaped sites that are often overlooked by developers. Quick to assemble, the units also allow the communities to be built in record time to serve the city’s currently 42,000 residents without homes as quickly as possible.
Once function is solved, what distinguishes the Tiny Home Villages is form.
“How do you take a little thing and up its importance, if you want to make it important?” Lehrer asks. “What are the tools at your disposal? Along with the carefully considered configuration of the units and common spaces, adding interest to elements like fencing through graphic patterns, for example, [or] color is generally the most impactful for the least amount of money,” says Lehrer.
To create a strong sense of place, Lehrer says that “the first line of placemaking attack" started at the ground plane. Lines, bands, and geometric shapes were used to extend the domain, unify spaces and create them, draw the eye, or set up patterns.
This was followed by adding color to some of the otherwise all-white units. Starting with bold, primary colors at Chandler, new bright tones were introduced at Alexandria Park, the second Tiny Home Village, and at the time, the city’s largest, housing up to 200 residents. “It’s a longer, linear site,” says Lehrer. “There, it was an even more complex sense of city-making.” Alexandria includes, for example, a main street feeding into other, smaller streets.
At each subsequent village, the amount of paint used on the units was reduced to further lower costs. At Sunset and Alvarado, a Tiny Home Village in Echo Park that wascompleted in May 2021 and houses up to 74 residents in 38 units on what was a former parking lot, visual impact was achieved by strategically painting just the front-facing wall on some units. As the importance of the communal gathering spaces became more apparent, color was concentrated in the most central spots, including the entryway and courtyard. Diagonal placement of most of the units helped to meet the requirements of an extremely tight site. At Whitsett West in North Hollywood, formerly an encampment for people without housing, bold color was reintroduced to the challenging 1,000-square-foot site situated between a freeway and warehouses and measuring only 20 feet wide in places.
“There are no throwaway spaces,” says Lehrer. “Every space has the possibility of being good or excellent or beautiful, and Whitsett [exemplifies] that. It’s a really special place.”
On each of the sites, design is used not only to empower residents through a sense of respect and dignity but also to enhance the neighborhood and ultimately change perceptions about unhoused communities in the culture at large.
“If you’ve captured the culture’s imagination, you actually affect the way people think about placemaking and the importance of good places,” Lehrer says. “That’s probably in a way the biggest part of the mission; you’re changing the culture.”
Of course, Lehrer readily acknowledges that everyone has their own idea of beauty. For residents in a particularly vulnerable state, a boldly colored shelter might make them feel exposed. But on a good day, residents might feel a sense of pride that their village has drawn so much positive attention and, in the eyes of some, enhanced the landscape. And of course, rather than hiding a pressing problem, calling attention to it has its place, too. By standing out from its surroundings, the development can make it impossible to look away.
It’s important to note, too, that these tiny homes are designed for temporary use. They are stepping stones to permanent housing—places to pause and regroup. But as Lehrer believes, the basic building blocks for home are the same for everyone: “safety, autonomy, agency, self-respect, and dignity.”
“Then,” he says, “you can actually have the possibility of a higher level of happiness.”