Sawhorse-built watch tower at Smoke Farm.
This is a Sawhorse-built watchtower at Smoke Farm. SR

A couple of summers ago, I spent about a week hanging out at Smoke Farm, an hour north of Seattle, with the Sawhorse Revolution—the youth-oriented construction program that is, on its surface, about teaching young people how to use tools, work together, and build stuff. (I also wrote about the experience.)

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That "stuff" is beautiful and sometimes improbable—a watchtower in a field, a tree house at dizzying heights, a Chinese-inspired arch bridge—but I saw a lot more bubbling beneath the surface of the Revolution: conversations about race, class, and gender (what kinds of kids typically have access to tools and shops?); a public schooling system that has been whittling away trades education and throwing its resources toward standardized-testing prep; the deeply entrenched and completely idiotic assumption that "shop class" and construction work are for dummies.

Building the tree house at Smoke Farm.
Building the tree house at Smoke Farm. SR

But my favorite comment about Sawhorse Revolution came from one of its chief organizers, Sarah Smith: "A student who can build or take down walls is not so trapped by them."

Knowing how to make things—and take things apart—can go some distance towards relieving the depression and despair of learned helplessness.

Sawhorse is in the middle of a new project called the "Impossible City"—the students, along with professional architects and builders (including Olson Kundig), are working with the residents of Nickelsville to design and build an "eco-village" on the site. The idea is to build personal shelters, a solar-power hub (for charging devices, warming water, and powering batteries for nighttime lighting), a communal kitchen, and more at the encampment.

Students used an old Japanese technique of burning cedar to finish a shed at the Judkins P-Patch.
Students used an old Japanese technique of burning cedar to finish a shed at the Judkins P-Patch. SR

And they're going to build them all to be collapsable or transportable for when the camp moves. They've already exceeded their $32,205 goal for materials and transportation—but there are still a few days left in the campaign. If you like the sound of the project, you can donate here.

The "Impossible City" has attracted attention from the Huffington Post, Real Change, Tiny House Blog, Curbed Seattle, and a few other places.

But along the way, Sawhorse has met some objections. There's growing skepticism around do-gooder volunteerism and whether it does more harm than good. For example: Should unskilled volunteers really be building roads and houses in the developing world? (That's a debate, of course, with people arguing on both sides.)

Are high-school students really the best ones to be building these structures? (Personally, I can see why that would be a question for those who haven't seen other Sawhorse structures—but they're pretty goddamned impressive.) And is the "Impossible City" misdirected energy that should be channeled towards the root causes of homelessness?

After wrestling with some of these questions, Sawhorse Revolution cofounder—and medical student—Adam Nishimura wrote an open letter about them. It's worth reading, not just about this project, but about questions of volunteerism and do-gooding in general.

Adam Nishimura working alongside a student at Smoke Farm.
Adam Nishimura, left, working alongside a student at Smoke Farm. SR

I'm not going to put Nishimura's letter in the standard blockquote formatting, because that could be hard on the eyes. It begins with this italicized background note:

* * *

Sawhorse Revolution is a non-profit carpentry education program for diverse high school students. They are currently engaged in a multi-year collaboration with the Nickelsville homeless community.

Sawhorse Revolution’s students work with top-tier architects, engineers, and carpenters to design and build six different projects that upgrade the camp's infrastructure. This includes tiny homes and a series of off-grid energy projects. The Sawhorse Revolution folks have already run two tiny house-building projects to pilot the partnership. The first is a tiny house that incorporates salvaged materials, including city street signs, built by students from the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative and professional builder Matt Rhodes of Rhodes Creations. The second, student-designed in a program mentored by Olson Kundig Architects, will be completed in June 2015. Builder Matthew Cary of Heirloom Quality Modern leads the charge on this build.

Most of the feedback from the general public has been positive, but some detractors who have emerged on the internet and among our wider Seattle community have argued a few fundamental points:

-That this and similar projects misplace energy around homelessness issues, which ought to be “solved” by government.

-That “youth-designed” results in poor work and is a gimmick.

-Related, that this is yet another do-gooder’s attempt to foist poor-quality work on poor people in exchange for the “do-gooders” feeling good about themselves.

To Whom It May Concern:

We’ve had a number of people tell us they didn’t support our project because it wasn’t a realistic “solution” to homelessness—that we are just pulling together unskilled labor to build junky structures. What’s worse, goes the argument, our project distracts from larger systemic efforts that should be addressing homelessness through large-scale, long-term solutions. It’s easy to point out why the first part of the argument is wrong: the structures will speak for themselves. Our building projects are led by architects and dedicated professional carpenters. We’ve worked with city youth before, and they learn fast. However, I think the second issue is a great point that deserves some exploration. Essentially, I believe the concern arises from an unclear distinction between the underlying causes and the symptoms of homelessness, as well as a misunderstanding of the goals of Sawhorse Revolution.

If the problem you are trying to solve is homelessness, then housing (or any type of infrastructure) is only a small part of the solution. Homelessness is driven by many additional factors: high unemployment, devastating medical bills, unaddressed domestic violence, and inadequately-funded mental health services, to name a few. If you really wanted to solve homelessness, your energy and resources should also be addressing these other deficits in the social safety net. While we fully support (and partner with) the myriad efforts and organizations trying to address these multifaceted etiologies, we recognize that such a goal is beyond our scope and mission as an organization. Sawhorse Revolution is a budding education program for high school kids—who are we to try and fix the entrenched contradictions and inequalities of capitalism that result in homelessness? However, just because we can’t eliminate the causes of homelessness doesn’t mean we can’t help alleviate the symptoms.

If I reach into my pocket and give someone my change I’m not solving the problem, but I’m recognizing the problem and recognizing the person to whom I give the money. I’m ameliorating a symptom, even if temporarily.

More work on the treehouse.
More work on the tree house. SR

Transitional housing isn’t a cure for homelessness in itself, but it can make life better for a good number of people. Nickelsville (the community for which Sawhorse Revolution is building) has served as a useful transition for many people. In collaboration with housing organizations such as the Low Income Housing Institute, it has provided a number of homeless individuals and families a stepping stone into additional, stable housing situations. For the people who pass through Nickelsville, the homes that Sawhorse Revolution students build provide an added level of comfort and security beyond tents during their transitions.

Unfortunately, there’s a tough assumption that circulates around issues of development economics: that efforts to address symptoms somehow detract from efforts to address causes. First, there is a concern that it’s a zero-sum game—e.g., that resources towards Nickelsville detract from larger, more permanent housing projects. Second, there is a belief that small-scale solutions will placate policymakers into thinking that larger-scale solutions are not necessary. I find both of these ideas compelling in certain situations and have struggled with both in my experience with providing healthcare in underdeveloped countries. However, I’m not convinced that either are particularly accurate for our efforts with Nickelsville. Here’s why:

First, the likelihood that a small non-profit organization like SR is taking resources away from permanent housing projects is minimal. Our mission is to provide students with excellent building education. Thus, most of our funding comes from corporations and organizations that earmark their funds for education. The houses that we create for Nickelsville are almost a by-product of our main goal, and result in dollars benefiting homeless housing that would probably never end up being used for such purposes. If we do rally funding earmarked for housing purposes, there’s a strong argument to be made for the need of both transitional and permanent housing in a large-scale pipeline for the homeless (stay tuned).

Second, we aren’t telling anyone that homelessness shouldn’t be addressed on a broader scale. As I mentioned, we acknowledge the complexity of the issue and function as advocates for the myriad services being offered and developed for homeless people. Indeed, a strong web of support involving small-scale housing, large-scale housing, group shelters, community centers, mental health providers, free kitchens, sliding-scale clinics, and many other social services is likely the best bet for any long-term “solution.” Building a tiny house does not negate that fact, nor does it make the demand on our policy-makers any less ardent. We are teaming with organizations such as LIHI to provide our support to this web and show policy-makers it is a necessity.

An early Impossible City structure, with street sign siding.
An early "Impossible City" structure, with street-sign siding. Sam Hunt

But let’s pretend that the issues of resource allocation were legitimate in our situation—imagine that our efforts to address homeless somehow do detract from other, larger efforts to combat homelessness. Would it still be worth it? Probably. In some slow, gradual, and slightly roundabout way of repeatedly chipping away at its symptoms, our program ends up addressing an important etiology of homelessness: the dehumanization of people without homes.

Our students work closely with the residents of Nickelsville as clients, giving them a level of attention, dignity, and respect that is hard to find elsewhere. The process of design demands learning about your client, stepping into her shoes, and re-envisioning the world from her perspective. Sawhorse students visit Nickelsville on multiple occasions, in multiple roles, and spend time speaking with, eating with, and working alongside people experiencing homelessness. The students learn that living without a home doesn’t make you less of a person, and that the reasons why people arrive at such situations are unfathomably diverse and nuanced. Hopefully, they walk away with a better understanding of how homelessness happens to people and a sense of compassion that carries unpredictable implications for the future. The result is a transformation in social perspectives of homelessness that large-scale housing efforts are unlikely to address.

Nicklesville micro-housing.
Nickelsville micro-housing. Jenny Crooks: Office of Art and Culture

Many people have urged us to come up with a single, affordable housing design and come up with a “system” for building, cookie-cutter, assembly-line style. Yes, this would likely be faster, cheaper, and more efficient. But we are faced with an awesome design challenge with clear constraints (size, cost, mobility) and an endless opportunity for new approaches. Each structure will provide a new set of lessons learned, and serve as a prototype for the next. We don’t expect to discover a new, reliable, and replicable approach to building transitional housing in our efforts, but on the long road towards sustainable, low-cost housing, there is much to be said for creativity and iteration. More importantly, it is the design process unique to each structure that brings our students, staff, and supporters into conversation with the homeless residents of Nickelsville.

Insight, human relationships, and a fast turnaround of ideas are features of our small-scale approach that make it a worthwhile investment in the slew of options to address homelessness. You can’t get these things as quickly when you build on a massive scale: If you’ve ever seen the teetering megalithic housing projects in poor, overpopulated regions of the globe, it’s clear that dehumanization is the result of quantity over quality. As well-intended and necessary as some of those projects may be, they are far less dignified than the tiny homes we will provide. Though it is not our intention to “solve” the puzzle of homelessness in the short-term, the dignity our small-scale, iterative approach brings to the issue just might help impact it in the long run.

* * *

You can learn much more about the Sawhorse Revolution by reading this piece that appeared in The Stranger, as well as at Sawhorse's website and their "Impossible City" fundraising page.