The biggest barrier to building housing for unhoused people is the cost. Most studies show the average cost of a housing unit is over $600,000. What if you could reduce the cost by more than half and reduce the time by 75%?
“We wanted to create dignified housing where each person has their own bathroom and common areas where people can gather as a community,” explained COO/CFO Paul Cho as he gave a group of us, including Patrick Mooney, Homelessness Director for CD13 and his deputy Michael Batistick, a tour of the 19-unit permanent supportive housing project.
Recently, LifeArk was selected to provide 33 units for the Midvale site, slated to be the first-ever interim housing project in this part of the city. Unlike Tyler, the Midvale units are designed to be temporary so they can be removed from the site and used elsewhere if needed.
“This is the first fully permitted plastic housing,” said Cho. “This is the first time plastic molding technology has been used as a load-bearing material. It’s very lightweight yet sturdy. The units are federally approved for fire and life safety standards, ADA-compliant, and can withstand a 9.0 earthquake,” said Cho. And now, the units can be made with 30% recycled plastic which is the equivalent of 2 million shopping bags.
Before joining LifeArk, Cho spent sixteen years providing housing and services to people with multiple co-morbidities in a non-profit he co-founded called Illumination Housing, LLC.
“We have shown that housing people is cost-effective for everyone,” said Cho.
The Tyler project in El Monte was started during the pandemic and opened to tenants in 2022. The project serves as a proof of concept for LifeArk’s homeless housing modules. The site is managed by a church group that earns a management fee and provides volunteers for additional support. The project is designed with a common area for cooking and laundry and shared outdoor space surrounding the housing units. Each unit has a private bath, closets, a bed, and a desk, like a hotel room.
The total cost of LifeArk Tyler was $3.6 million including the acquisition of the site. The cost per unit is $190,000, substantially less than most homeless housing. The cost is likely to get even lower as there were many design errors at El Monte because this was their prototype explained Sale. Adding that the first tenant moved in within 55 days of the site being prepared.
The concept’s brilliance lies in the plastic material’s design, which is roto-molded plastic filled with insulation much like an ice chest, so it stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Equally brilliant is the simplicity of construction. All the electrical and plumbing lines run under the units but above the concrete slab so nothing is buried in the ground and LifeArk units only require one hook up to city utilities. The federally approved design makes it easy for local building departments to give quick construction approvals. The modules can be assembled on-site or delivered finished in half the time it takes to complete conventional housing.
LifeArk was designed by architect Charles Wee, founder of GDS Architects. At the request of his cousin, a missionary living along the Amazon River, Wee began work to design floating housing enabling indigenous people there to survive the dramatic fluctuations in the river’s height. Wee’s work was selected as one of 17 semifinalists in the 2017 Buckminster Fuller Challenge, an annual honor known as “socially responsible design’s highest award.”
Certain that design and engineering could be used to solve the global housing crisis, Wee and Cho have spent seven years iterating the design, securing federal regulatory approval for their construction materials so they can bring their concept to the marketplace.
Wee hopes that this type of flexible housing could be used for disaster relief, refugee housing, or homeless housing. The units can also operate 100 % off the grid, allowing units to be moved around as needed, LifeArk’s modular roof can be fitted with photovoltaic panels, a rainwater harvesting system where a single-family home can store over 30,000 liters of filtered drinking water, a filtration system so that water needed for all other uses can be pumped up from the river, and a portable sewage treatment system.
The low-density projects can be built quickly and the bungalow-style design fits into most residential neighborhoods. The design continues to evolve and improve as LifeArk rolls out more projects, explained Cho. They recently added slats to clad the outside because they discovered the plastic exterior developed imperfections in the finish due to the heat. The cladding covers any flaws and prevents warping. It also serves as a trellis for planting vines.
Cho is waiting for the City of LA to complete the site preparation for Midvale and told us he hopes to start manufacturing the modules this spring so they can be installed within the next six months.