Impossible City: A youth-built off-grid movable eco-village for Seattle's homeless

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Sawhorse Revolution seeks to develop confident, community-oriented youth through carpentry and craft projects like the Impossible City

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A project by Seattle-based charity Sawhorse Revolution is both educating young people and creating accommodation for the homeless. The Impossible City is a community of housing built by local teens as they learn new skills. The accommodation is designed to be affordable, sustainable and movable.

The Impossible City project began in late 2014 when Sawhorse Revolution formed a partnership with the Nickelsville mobile homeless community. The community provides security, shelter and solidarity for around 40 residents.

Sawhorse explains that homeless encampments in Seattle move every 3-18 months and there is no guarantee that new sites will have water, electricity or sewage facilities. Nickelsville pays out around US$2,000 each month for facilities like honey buckets, water and gas, so there was a need to investigate alternative and off-grid solutions.

"It wasn’t hard to realize that we really needed to engage with off-grid living practices to build for an off-grid community," says Sawhorse Revolution executive director Adam Nishimura. "That idea also inspired the use of salvaged and up-cycled materials whenever possible."

The project has seen one off-grid micro-home constructed already. The Green House was designed and built by Sawhorse Revolution students and staff and is made largely from recycled materials. A salvaged aluminum panel is used for the roof, the sides of the structure are made from old street signs and re-used glass provides a window for light.

Work on a second shelter began this month and is expected to be completed in June. The Nest has again been designed by the students, but this time with them mentored by Olson Kundig Architects. It features a lofted bed with space for storage underneath, additional space for storage along one side, a window seat and a rubberized floor. High windows provide lighting, ventilation and privacy, while a grated ramp allows for shoes to be wiped-off before entry.

Additional shelter designs have been shortlisted for building in the future, including one with collapsible functionality, canvas-covered structures and a concept inspired by disaster relief shelters. A solar charging hub, a community cookspace and composting latrines are also shortlisted for creation.

Adding solar panels to the roofs of the shelters was initially mooted as a means of providing residents with power, but it was decided that this was not workable. Instead, a solar hub was devised as a means of allowing residents to charge devices. The hub could also potentially generate power to heat water for hand/dish washing.

A community cookspace would provide a dry place for residents to cook and eat together. It is the least technical of the shortlisted ideas and an easy design to adapt depending on what the residents decide they need in such a facility.

Sawhorse says that the most challenging shortlisted concept to deliver would be the composting latrines. The latrines need to serve at least 40 residents, but would not be able to use concrete or solid foundations like other similar latrines. They must be portable, simple to empty, user friendly and meet city code standards. Despite the challenges involved, this project is a priority and would be a big benefit as toilet rental and maintenance is the Nickelsville camp's biggest expense.

All of the structures are designed to be built using recycled materials where possible, to be well insulated and to incorporate passive elements that take advantage of the surroundings (such as being oriented towards the sun). The shelters are all less than 11 ft (3.4 m) high, around 8.5 ft (2.6 m) wide and 1,800 lb (820 kg) so that they can be easily lifted for transportation.

Sawhorse Revolution is coming to the end of an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the Impossible City. There are a number of pledge options available all the way up to $5,000, which would fund an entire program.

The Impossible City project is expected to be completed in the next 2-3 years, or longer if extra money can be raised to fund additional activities.

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