Homes for Sonoma

Project Description

In October 2017, the North Bay Fires that swept across Sonoma County destroyed 7,500 structures and 110,720 acres leaving 15,000 people without a home. Just days after the fire, a team of architects, builders and community leaders convened to find a way to help their community. The team jumped into action to create an innovative solution to the housing crisis through architectural design. Thus, Homes for Sonoma was launched with the goal to build attractive, dynamic, flexible and sustainable modular homes with a community-centric design for fire victims.

Before the fires, the housing crisis in Sonoma County was already dire due to rising home prices and a tightening housing market. The loss of housing to the fires merely exacerbated the problem, which the design team understood as being part of the systemic housing problem. “We all are very committed to helping the fire victims, but there’s a longer-range vision of helping solve the affordable housing problem in the county,” the architect told The Press Democrat in a story published last January. With this in mind, longevity and quality of the home design was essential. While the components of each cottage can be moved and rebuilt in other settings, the durability of the materials promises permanency of the structure. The location may change, but the building will continue to live on.

The team approached this project with an eye towards the increasingly popular Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) with two sizes of cottages—a one-bedroom 480 square foot home and a three-bedroom 768 square foot home. With an attractive, minimalist design, these homes bring up images of the high-end tiny home movement that has become popular across the U.S. The project team believes that people experiencing homelessness should live in a setting that is attractive and, ultimately, feels like a home. Each home will be equipped with full size bedrooms and bathrooms, efficient modern kitchens, and covered porches and decks. Homes for Sonoma also hopes to fully furnish each cottage for maximum ease for the residents with the understanding that the most vulnerable populations in the community lost everything. The organization has achieved funding for 20 homes, the first of which could go up as early as September 2018.

While Homes for Sonoma is still learning and discovering the nuances of launching an innovative project such as this, the goal is to eventually deploy the design to have a wider reach. The mobility and flexibility of the design can help other regions experiencing housing crises or natural disasters to replicate the design and the program model elsewhere.

Design Challenge

After a natural disaster, the solution to temporary housing is familiar: white, boxy, unhealthy and plain-looking trailers lined up in rows on a non-descript field. The materials are unsustainable, in some cases toxic (as seen in post-Katrina issued homes), and meant to be used for three to five years and then discarded. They’re also immensely unpleasant to live in. This is an example of the challenge communities face for temporary housing that Homes for Sonoma seeks to address. The Homes for Sonoma design team wanted to create a contrast to the design by addressing the following features: Longevity, safe and healthy housing, and sustainability: The cottages were specifically designed with permanence in mind. While the location of the homes may change, the building standards and materials used would last into perpetuity by ensuring that the homes meet state and regional building codes for permanent homes. By meeting California energy efficiency standards, green building codes, and the Wildland-Urban Interface requirements, longevity and the sustainability of the homes, no matter where they’re moved, is guaranteed. Going through these processes also ensures the use of safe, healthy, non-toxic, and fire-resistant materials by going through the standard ADU permitting processes. Mobility and flexibility: The design also incorporates mobility so the cottages can be constructed, disassembled, moved and re-constructed numerous times. The homes are also designed to be fabricated by modular home builders or can be built conventionally on site, so there is not only flexibility around the location of the home sites, but flexibility around who builds the structure and and how it’s built. Cost-effectiveness: Because affordable housing is an enormous challenge in the region, cost-effectiveness was an important element to the design. The design team was able to incorporate the use of less expensive materials that are still attractive and fit into the simple, modern look and off-site modular construction. This way, the homes—which cost between $100,000 to $150,000 to build—would be accessible to non-profit organizations focused on affordable housing or lower-income individuals in need of temporary housing. Beautiful design: The team's goal was to design a home where people wanted to live, rather than a home where they had to live. They did this through a sleek, minimalist, modern aesthetic familiar in higher-end ADUs. With modern flooring, high-end-looking cabinetry and finishes, flexible indoor-outdoor space, the homes are anything but the standard mobile home. The slightly pitched roof, modern siding, and the wood-paneled wall next to the entry also accentuate the homes’ curb appeal. A community-oriented design: The design considers these homes as part of a community as opposed to being envisioned in isolation of other residents. The design takes into account privacy (such as through window placement and a privacy wall on the front porch) and community (such as through the placement of the side porch that could face other homes’ porches to instill a community-engaged atmosphere). The hope is that the homes would be built as neighborhoods.

Physical Context

There are two important contextual elements taken into account in the design: the increasing risk of wildfires in the region and the growing opportunity for ADUs as solutions to the affordable housing crisis. The following provides details on how these elements were incorporated into the design. Adapting to wildfire prone regions through design: The Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) are designated areas where residential communities are built near or among wildfire-prone lands. These areas are increasing due to housing development growth and the increased prevalence of wildfires due to climate change. The North Bay Fires in 2017 are an example of this where more than 7,500 structures in Sonoma County were destroyed by wildfire. Because of these natural elements facing these communities, integrating WUI requirements into the building standards for new homes in regions such as Sonoma County, is essential. By incorporating the WUI requirements into the design, the Homes for Sonoma team is responding to the natural environment by utilizing materials and detailing that makes the buildings more resistant to future wildfires. These considerations for the wildland-urban context is incredibly important to ensure longevity of the structures so they can adapt to fit into the natural environment. Designing as an Accessory Dwelling Unit: While it’s not necessarily the physical context, it’s important to consider the cultural and societal context that has made ADUs not only popular among property owners, but also promoted by affordable housing advocates. The region’s housing crisis is only getting worse—only exacerbated from the homelessness created by the North Bay Fires—and small ADUs are becoming an increasingly viable solution because of legislative changes to building standards in California and across the country. By designing the homes that meet these updated ADU standards, Homes for Sonoma is seizing an important opportunity to provide affordable housing for community residents in a unique and innovative way. The design team creatively addresses all the challenges illustrated above to make affordable housing beautiful, adaptable, and enduring, ultimately making these cottages a desirable and appealing place to live either temporarily or permanently. Additionally, Homes for Sonoma is paving the way for other similar projects across the country. By navigating the challenges and opportunities of the ADU permitting process, they’re able to become leaders in the ADU-affordable housing movement across the country. This important work will hopefully make projects such as this easier for other communities to implement.