This article first appeared in ARCHITECT's October 2022 issue as part of the magazine's 'Housing Innovators' coverage.
It was a remarkably fast project,” says Michael Pinto, AIA. The principal at the Los Angeles office of NAC Architecture is speaking of his firm’s Hilda L. Solis Care First Village project completed in 2021 in LA’s famous Chinatown neighborhood. Tasked by Los Angeles County in 2019 with creating an interim, 232-bed residential complex with on-site supportive care for Angelinos transitioning from being unhoused, Pinto and his team faced a daunting set of challenges: Working at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, they would have to create a project aimed at a uniquely vulnerable community and do it on an extremely tight schedule—just six months from start to finish.
The pandemic dictated the basic contours of their solution. “Ordinarily this would have been on a dormitory model,” says Pinto. “But because of COVID, we have had to design independent units with separate air control and restrooms.” With that as a starting point, the designers were able to conceptualize the project as a series of modestly sized apartment blocks formed into a familial cluster—leading to their key decision, one with significant implications for the project’s fast rollout. “We decided to go with a modular solution,” says Pinto, with 132 of the sleeping units located in two permanent, three-story resident buildings, and the remaining 100 located in temporary mobile trailers. Relying on these modular typologies—Crate Modular shipping crates, conventional prefabricated units from Palomar, and trailers from Guerdon, all installed by Vesta Modular—the architects reduced the production and assembly time to meet their deadline early.
Using what Pinto refers to as “a radial strategy,” the different modular typologies are laid out in staggered rows on the wedge-shaped site with a separate structure housing administrative functions and shared services to one side. Between the volumes, landscaped corridors provide communal outdoor space of a kind not often seen in such projects, including areas for al fresco dining and even a dog run. “One of the barriers to helping with people experiencing homeless is that a lot of them have pets,” notes Pinto; the dog run, he says, “allows us to address a population that is often harder to serve.”
The stubborn problem of homelessness in LA (along with the dire housing deficit that has contributed to it) intensified the urgency to bring the project online as fast as possible. From that perspective, hyper-efficient prefab construction had obvious advantages—but as Pinto sees it, the discrete, all-in-one dwelling units that the modular approach made possible also provide a longer-term benefit to residents. “There’s a level of autonomy there, with your own front door, your own thermostat,” he says. “It makes it a more tangible solution.”
Project: Hilda L. Solis Care First Village, Los Angeles
Architects: NAC Architecture, Los Angeles.