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Olympia volunteers working to mass produce tiny homes to help unsheltered people

KOMO-TV Seattle logo KOMO-TV Seattle 5/8/2021 Matt Markovich, KOMO News Reporter
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James has been living on pavement with dozens of other unsheltered people on what was a parking lot behind Olympia’s transit center.

“My move was just this side of where that orange tent is," James said walking through what’s called the Downtown Mitigation Site.

“This is where I was, right next to the drain” he says pointing down to the ground.

Now that spot is surrounded by 8ft. by 8ft. tiny homes.

“I’ve had my hands on everyone," he said.

James is one of many residents a part of a coordinated public-private partnerships to build 60 tiny homes, many of them going to the Downtown Mitigation site.

But what makes this build different from other like it, is how the homes were made, in a Henry Ford style factory created inside a caverness warehouse at the Port of Olympia four blocks away.

“We basically made a big flow," said Jimmy Materson of Earth Homes. 

It’s called the quartermaster because his job was to set up the factory and get everything working together. Now that we got the flow going, we can basically make 10 or 11 or 12 a week and if we had more people, we can make 15 a week."

The concept is simple. Make an efficient, well-insulated tiny home in away anybody can make.

“Turn it into a sort of Ikea assembly manual and make it even more accessible for everyone to put these together," said Earth Homes CEO Aaron Sauerhoff.

Caption: KOMO

A key to the build is using a standard building practice known as SIP, structural insulated panels, a plywood sandwich of sorts.

“You have plywood, foam, plywood, you glue it and squish it together and you have this super rigid torsion bar structure," Materson said.

Materials were gathered at or below costs. Doors and roofs were donated, and the labor is volunteer, both skilled and unskilled.

“Anybody can show up, put PPE on and cut wood, glue foam and drill and staple, we call it ‘brain proof," said Earth Homes volunteer coordinator and administrator Robi Verdande.

“I've been a part of a lot of volunteer things over the years and this is so well organized and so clear, and anybody can step in," said volunteer Mary Campbell. “It’s hard to watch my house value go up and then drive past people who are sleeping on the streets, it’s not right.”

When the homes are finished, longshoremen working at the Port volunteer their time and equipment to move the homes the four blocks to the Mitigation Site.

“It’s a need that has to be done so we like to help," said Jeff Churchill, a longshoreman who drives a log stacker.

On this day, Shawnne Smith, another site resident who has spent days building homes was at the receiving end of a home being placed into the site by a huge forklift.

He’s been at the site for 16 months, most of the time in a tent on the hard ground.

“To transition from the tent into something warmer and drier, is to feel more human again," Smith said.

Sauerhoff said a completed home costs about $1300 to build and the market rate of the home is about $3000.

“This model is replicable," Sauerhoff said. "It’s very scalable. It’s simple, effective and i want to help other cities pull this off and make it happen."

None of the homes are intended to be permanent, but in a day where cities are feeling the need for emergency shelter housing and do it quickly, Olympia’s Ikea inspired, insulated volunteer factory built tiny homes maybe a solution.

“We need these kind of centers regionally all over the place, making enough units to get people off the street," Mateson said.

For James, his new home he helped build and received three days earlier provides something most people take for granted; a locked door.

“It’s priceless," James said. 

Privacy and security are just as important as a roof over your head.

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