Problem: Reconciling the Informal and the Formal
'New Beginnings' is a homeless transition village based on the insight that transitioning out of homelessness is a stepwise process involving more than just obtaining formal shelter. Building independence is a communal, holistic endeavor focused on achieving equilibrium in social and mental health. Informal settlements like New Beginnings pragmatically model holistic environments with supportive social capital uncommon in formal housing development. While the informal is commonly cast as an illegitimate alternative to the formal, we prefer instead to see the informal as an adaptive enclave within the formal. Informal solutions traditionally associated with structural poverty in emerging economies have become logical means for maintaining economic and environmental sustainability in advanced economies marked by growing inequality like the U.S. The informal pioneers an ecological vision that pushes the formal to address new socio-economic challenges.
Amidst a national housing crisis, an estimated three million Americans experience homelessness annually, and more than 850,000 are sheltered nightly. Emergency shelter capacity is limited, while local governments are unable to provide permanent housing. Informal housing involving interim self-help solutions is the best adaptational action for obtaining shelter, despite its nonconformance to city codes. New Beginnings proposes a low-cost prototype for a homeless transition village incorporating a kit-of-parts that can be replicated in other communities. Moving a step beyond tent cities and squatter campgrounds, the project design reconciles gaps between informal building practices and formal sector regulations, making interim solutions ecologically sustainable and more permittable under most city codes. The project shows the viability—even the stateliness and dignity—of the informal as a source of shelter and community in restoring resiliency and wholeness among struggling populations.
Towards a Circular Economy: Prefabrication for Disassembly and Reuse, not Demolition
To eliminate local homelessness, the transition village was granted five-year conditional approval by the City of Fayetteville and will be eventually dismantled. Since transition villages are temporary, the low-impact village is designed as if it were a carnival, here today and gone tomorrow with minimal site disruption and quick set up elsewhere. Village design and construction processes eliminate the concept of waste through a flexible kit-of-parts made for disassembly and adaptive reuse, or upcycling elsewhere. The three village component systems—Secure Perimeter, Sleeping Units, and a Community Porch are prefabricated off-site by volunteer organizations and flat-packed for transport and assembly, minimizing on-site construction. Thirty insulated and heated sleeping units are supported by the Community Porch aggregating shared sanitation, waste, provisioning, and social services. On-site construction is limited to wet assembly and site preparation for water supply, waste disposal (sewage or septic), foundations, and stormwater management. Once homelessness is solved locally, component subassemblies of panels, cartridges, and structures can be readily adapted for reuse elsewhere.
New Forms of Cooperative Living
Though still informal, this transition village prototype offers a settlement pattern language more palatable than tent cities in securing regulatory approval and alleviating neighbors’ concerns. The homeless transition village is part of a new habitology giving rise to a quickly emergent class of socially-directed permanent real estate products known as “pocket neighborhoods”, “co-housing”, and “tiny home villages”. Collectively, they suggest new forms of cooperative living understanding that well-being is local, shared, and place-based, determined primarily by surrounding social and ecological capital. We cannot be healthy alone.
The University of Arkansas Community Design Center is an outreach center of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, and one of a few university-based teaching offices in the United States dedicated to delivering urban design work. Originated in 1995, the center advances creative development in Arkansas through design, research, and education solutions. Nationally recognized in public-interest design, the center has its own downtown facilities and 5-6 professional design/planning staff, some who also teach. Beyond the focus on urban projects, UACDC has developed eight place-making platforms to shape civic design and public policy at state and municipal levels. These interdisciplinary platforms include 'missing middle housing,' 'agricultural urbanism,' 'transit-oriented development,' 'context-sensitive street design,' 'watershed urbanism,' 'big box urbanism,' 'smart growth,' and 'low impact development,' vocabularies which are locally articulated but hold universal currency.