Sawhorse carpenters are customizing Nickelsville

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High school students from Seattle's Sawhorse Revolution are building special shelters for the homeless.

On the lawn outside Franklin High School, an ethnically diverse group of four girls and four boys, students at Franklin and nearby Nova High School, wield power and hand tools. Eighteen-year-old Tony Liu thunks nails into the side of a 120-square-foot micro house with an air-compressed gun, while Jaelyn Eaves-Howell, a senior at Franklin, sits on the ground with a pry bar and sharp pliers, removing nails from a piece of lumber.

Despite the potential hazards, no one is too worried. In fact, the work seems old hat for Eaves-Howell. She is a veteran of the Sawhorse Revolution, a carpentry program for high school students now aiming to change the face of Seattle’s transitional housing camps. Former University of Puget Sound classmates Adam Nishimura, Sarah Smith and Micah Stanovsky started the program in 2009 as a week-long summer carpentry camp at Smoke Farm, an old dairy farm turned cultural center in Arlington.

The camp, called Fortnight, thrived. In 2012, counselors started after-school workshops in Seattle and Sawhorse Revolution was born. Working with students from Franklin, Garfield and Nova High Schools, Sawhorse built sheds, benches and arbors for community gardens and playgrounds: Judkins P-Patch, Beacon Hill Food Forest, Seattle Children’s PlayGarden, Green Plate Special.

But Smith in particular felt something was missing; Sawhorse was doing good things, but somehow not hitting its mark. Meanwhile, Seattle’s homeless population was surging at a 15 to 20 percent annual clip. Nishimura and Smith, who had talked for years about doing something for the homeless, saw micro-housing for tent camps as a perfect way to marry the Sawhorse building capacity with a community need.

Smith and Stanovsky went from tent camp to tent camp, talking to residents and handing out cards. Eventually they tracked down the elusive Scott Morrow, Nickelsville organizer and longtime homeless activist. “We finally heard he had office hours,” Stanovsky says with a chuckle.

Morrow’s “office hours” were Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 6:30 to 7:30 in the morning at Victor Steinbrueck Park, the homeless hang out at the north end of Pike Place Market.

After several early mornings sipping coffee from the styrofoam cups that Morrow hands out while holding sunrise court for the homeless community, Stanovsky won Morrow’s confidence.

Two years later, students are assembling Sawhorse’s second micro-house for Nickelsville, which they will move to camp on Friday, June 12. The first task today is to unload from a flatbed truck the floor and walls that students built during a two-day retreat the previous weekend at Smoke Farm. The beefy two-by-six studs sheeted with plywood are heavy and unwieldy, providing ample opportunity for a crushed finger, smashed foot or strained back.

After some negotiating and straining, the group has the floor and walls stacked on the ground, only to find they have put the floor on the bottom.

“What comes first in the house?” asks Matthew Cary, the lone builder on the project today.

“The floor,” one students says.

“Ideas,” says another.

Cary raises his eyebrows, impressed. ‘The floor" is the answer he is looking for, but ‘ideas’ is the answer he likes. And ideas are most certainly the foundation of this micro house, known as The Nest. Working with architects from the top-shelf firm Olson Kundig Architects and liaisons in the homeless community, the students set out to tailor a structure to the particular needs of the community.

“We set out to do a human-centric, iterative process because we knew we weren’t going to get it perfect on the first try,” Stanovsky says of their second effort.

To attack the problem of mud and moisture in the camp, they replaced the stairs at the front door with a diamond-grate metal ramp, installed a high-absorption rubberized floor and made sure the windows provided good cross ventilation. For more privacy, the windows were positioned high and fitted with internal shutters. Students also crafted a window seat that doubles as a child’s bed, and added plenty of storage throughout the structure. Finally, they designed The Nest so a trailer could be backed underneath it for easy transportation.

Quality, says Sarah Smith, is what sets Sawhorse apart: “Most of the tiny house movement for the homeless just doesn’t have the coolest design. It’s just this pump them out attitude. … From the Sawhorse standpoint, that is pretty frustrating. The things that are associated with good design aren’t associated with low income housing, and that’s what's revolutionary about Sawhorse. We consistently embody quality. People say we have high school labor, and I say yeah, but they are led by some of the best craftsmen in Seattle.”

Through close work with Nickelsville and long conversations with Morrow, Smith and Stanovsky started to gain a deeper understanding of the issues facing homeless encampments. “Expenses day to day are the biggest threat," says Stanovsky. "Shelters are good, but they need to cut bills.”

Recent figures show that Nickelsville owes almost $12,000 on their outhouses — Honey Bucket has continued service despite the debt — and around $6000 for trash pick up, which has been discontinued.

Sawhorse has put the student’s creativity to work to develop a plan they call the Impossible City, an “overlay” of six total projects they hope to implement in Nickelsville over the next two years. They will investigate more moveable home designs, looking into the kinds of canvas covered structures and collapsible homes often used in refugee camps. But more importantly, they hope to take a bite out of bills.

On the checklist for Impossible City are composting latrines, which would offer the largest financial benefits, and solar panels to run LED lighting, charge devices and heat water, therefore trimming the gas bill for generators. A covered kitchen and eating area would provide a communal center for the camp. If all these steps are taken, it could change the face of Nickelsville, making it far more sustainable and comfortable.

Meanwhile, Sawhorse is growing quickly as an organization. What started as a low-to-no-budget summer camp has turned into a full-fledged non-profit angling for a nearly $200,000 budget in 2015, up from $97,000 in 2013. Most significantly, Sawhorse has stitched together a network of allies that may lead to the construction of a new transitional village and open the door for more permanent micro housing.

The Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) is in preliminary talks with the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Sawhorse and other organizations to build 16 transitional homes on a vacant lot at 22nd Avenue and East Union Street. Melinda Nichols, the president of the board for LIHI and a carpenter by trade, met the people from Sawhorse through their work at Nickelsville.

“They are a wonderful organization," says Nichols. "They want to integrate with the community and find out what the homeless needs are… . It’s been an innovative and fun process. They have so much enthusiasm and commitment. They are so open and democratic and respectful of everyone they work with.”

Through its work with Nickelsville, Sawhorse may well have found its organizational sweet spot. The place where its core mission meets — and solves — a pressing community need.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Brian Hagenbuch

Brian Hagenbuch

Brian Hagenbuch recently relocated to Seattle after spending a decade in Argentina, where he worked for Reuters, Time Out and wrote for theater and film. He grew up in the Methow Valley.