Laney Builds Tiny Houses

Oakland City Councilmember Abel Guillen may take a prototype on the road to promote a new form of housing for homeless people.


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Photo by D. Ross Cameron

For eight hours a day, four days a week this summer, Matt Wolpe’s students at Laney College were outside in the quad building a house, a tiny house, from the ground up. One morning in late July, as the buzz of a circular saw intermittently filled the space, Wolpe did a quick check-in with his crews. Three students were on ladders measuring wood panels—siding for the back exterior wall. Three others were painting primer on cut panels. Sarah Thorpe was inside re-hanging the front door, which was a bit off-kilter. Thorpe had been part of the class since the spring when an empty 16-by-8-foot trailer was parked in the quad. The house sits on the trailer and can be towed by a pickup truck and moved.

“The beauty of this course is learning by doing,” said Thorpe. “We are a range of ages and have different backgrounds and reasons for being here, but we gel. There’s nothing else like building together.”

This is the third tiny home constructed at Laney. The houses are funded through an $80,000 grant from the city of Oakland, a collaboration spearheaded by Councilmember Abel Guillen. Like cities from Seattle to Los Angeles, Oakland is exploring tiny houses as a way to address the affordable housing crunch and the homeless crisis facing the city.

Guillen sees this as a scalable project. The homes are low maintenance and built with new materials available through local suppliers. He hopes the easily replicable design of the Laney tiny houses will attract investment from foundations to expand production, make more tiny homes available for the needy, and foster workforce development.

Architect Marisha Farnsworth, Wolpe’s teaching partner, designed the 128-square-foot house that students worked on over the summer. The mini-home, which is about half the size of a one-car garage, has the amenities of a conventional house, including four windows, a built-in bed, a kitchen with a 5-cubic-foot fridge, plus a sink and electric cooktop, a toilet and shower, and a closet and loft for storage—all tucked into a compact space. Kitchen cabinets, a table/desk, shelves, and stairs will be made by Laney’s Fab Lab, a high-tech workshop where students employ digital fabrication machines, like 3-D printers, laser cutters, and computerized milling machines.

Wolpe has had 20 to 30 student enrolled in the tiny home building class year-round for the past two years. They turn up in jeans and work shirts with tool belts and safety glasses just like workers on a job site. Several have taken the class for multiple semesters to see the building process through. The first two tiny houses Laney students built were sold to private owners; the second won awards for best architecture, design, and furnishings in a tiny house competition. “They learn all the elements of building from how to use hand and power tools to framing, plumbing, electrical, and rough to finish carpentry,” said Wolpe.

Photo By D. Ross Cameron

Laney students have built three tiny houses, and a forth one is on its way.

The most recent tiny home will be completed in October, and a fourth, even smaller home (built on a 12-foot trailer without a kitchen and bathroom) will be built by March 2018.

Where to put tiny houses, or the idea of a tiny home village, presents challenges for Oakland where land is expensive and hard to come by. NIMBY pressure could be a hindering factor, too. Efforts to place tiny homes for the homeless in San Jose has faced a strong push-back from neighbors. In August, The Mercury News reported that of the 99 potential sites that city explored for placing tiny homes, the list had been whittled down to just four.

Previous efforts to incorporate tiny homes in Oakland’s landscape have met with limited success. Since 2010, artist Gregory Kloehn has built super small, tiny houses from recycled, often discarded, materials and given over 50 to the homeless, in East and West Oakland. Built on two wheels, Kloehn’s tiny homes are more like house carts, not tiny houses, that the owner can physically move around. But there’s been major resistance from the small business owners in those neighborhoods.

Guillen said he has been approached by a couple of local property owners who have land that they don’t plan to develop immediately, which they suggested could serve as locations for tiny homes. Right now, the city’s housing code presents another roadblock. While the tiny house trailer and wheels provide the benefit of mobility, that by definition makes the tiny home a mobile home, and, in Oakland, mobile homes cannot be a primary residence. This means a tiny home can be parked, but it can’t be lived in.

For these two tiny houses, Guillen has a place in mind. Ten to 15 percent of college-aged students are homeless or housing-insecure, said the councilmember. He would like to see these tiny houses eventually finding a home at one of the four Peralta community colleges as transitional student housing. Such property may be free of the restrictive code constraints. But well before pursuing that option, Guillen plans to “test drive” the first tiny house by taking it to different Oakland neighborhoods so people can see and experience it. The hope is that this type of dwelling will gain community acceptance. Oaklanders just may find a tiny home parked in front of City Hall this fall.

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