Low-income housing with a Calif. twist

Venice is not Frank Llyod Wrigth country. The houses are generally small, jammed close together, on tiny lots, and of uninspired design -- and there aren't enough of them.

There is housing crunch in the works here, not unlike the one squeezing much of the rest of southern California. It is not a situation that lends itself to Wright's dictum that every family has a right to at least one acre of land.

An ocean-front community on the western edge of Los Angeles, Venice -- named for the canal that laced it together in the 9040s and '50s -- feels pressure from rich people eager to live near the ocean and from moderate- and low-income people who have always lived here. Venice needs space where there is no more land.

Glen Small thinks he has a solution, or at least the beginnings of one. He has named his idea the Green Machine. It provides enough answers to Venice's housing questions so that it just might get built, and soon.

Mr. Small, an architect and a teacher at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, sees changes ahead in the structures people call home. He feels it will require a comprehensive approach to housing problems, present and future , to deal with the shortage of energy, space, water, and other resources on the horizon. His Green Machine may be a practical, though farfetched, first step.

The Green Machine is a housing complex that aims for simplicity; it's a trailer park, but not just a place to park trailers. What Mr. Small has in mind is a three-tiered frame of steel tubes with lots of glass and vegetation, inside and out. The shape is like an oblong pyramid, a huge pup tent, with each of the three tiers divided into platforms.

These platforms "hang" on the outside of the structure like huge steps, and on each one will sit a trailer or a specially designed, fiber-glass modular house.Families will live on the first tier, since it holds the largest platforms; singles on the second; and artists -- of whom Venice has an abundance -- will inhabit studios on the third level.

Running through the center of each level will be 17-foot- wide, 17-foot-high corridors, open to sunlight and lush with greenery. Since trailers are too small for much besides sleeping and eating, Mr. Small planned these corridors as "common area, for recreation or socializing."

So much for the basics. The Green Machine also presents a shopping cart of ecological bonuses. The land will support not only the structure but also a park, playground, and large vegetable garden for the inhabitants. Sewage will be treated and recycled to keep the park green and the vegetables growing; three parabolic solar collectors atop the structure will track the sun across the sky and convert its rays into electricity.

Heat and hot water will also come from solar collectors mounted elsewhere on the building. "There will be $330,000 worth of energy-saving systems," Mr. Small says. The Green Machine will also collect and store rainwater for drinking and cooking.

He designed his Green Machine to include 24 units on a one-acre plot. However, if the idea catches on he can add to the building by jacking it up and adding a new and larger first floor, thus preserving the shape and adding the additional weight to the ground rather than to the building.

Platform sizes would range from 1,000 square feet to 650 square feet -- not exactly an acre. But in Venice and other communities, medium-and high-density housing is the only option. Mr. Small feels the common living room makes up for the tiny living spaces.

"I chose trailers because they make very efficient use of small spaces. Everything has a double function. They are readily available and don't cost that much. I call it a 'comfortable compactness.'" He picked Airstream trailers because they are often cited as the elite among trailers. Their silver-skinned exteriors would also lend an aesthetic conformity to the Green Machine.

To add still another wrinkle, Mr. Small plans to have part of the occupants' monthly rent go toward the purchase of the trailer.

"People, I think, would take much better care of a home they owned than one which they did not," he says. And when it comes time for vacation, well, just bring that crane over here, fella, and set the trailer down right behind that green Chevy with the tow hitch.

"I call it the Green Machine," Mr. Small explains, "because it combines technology with green growth. I think that nature is really the ultimate technology, and as we become more sophisticated in our technology, we are moving closer to nature . . . . I am trying to demonstrate a minimum taxation of the land and restore the land to its natural state as much as possible. The premise is to try and clean up the land, and by doing so give people an enjoyable place to live at the same time."

The Green Machine has obvious drawbacks -- not everyone wants to live in a trailer -- but it enjoys some well-placed support. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Pat Russell, who represents Venice, calls it "the only innovative thing I've seen in housing proposals in the 11 years I've been in office . . . ."

Mr. Small also found something of a champion in Calvin Hamilton, director of planning for Los Angeles.

"I am very enthusiastic about it," Mr. Hamilton comments. "The Green Machine puts together in a synergetic way a whole lot of ideas and new technologies that can meet some of our housing problems."

Mr. Hamilton thought enough of the problem to help Mr. Small find a grant for a feasibility study, and the L.A. planning director recently spent two days in Washington beating the drum for money to actually build the thing.

What official Washington really thought of the Green Machine is hard to gauge. One top official at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) showed little enthusiasm for the project. Architect Small's ideas to do tend to reinforce an East Coast stereotype of California as existing on the outer fringes of rationality. A vision of newspaper stories focusing on HUD for spending $1 million on a tripledecker trailer park in southern California does not play well with a vision of job security. The National Endowment for the Arts funded a feasibility study, however, and other officials in HUD and the Department of Energy's housing division, as well as the Department of Agriculture, were at least receptive to the idea, although not available for comment.

"I am very optimistic that we will get the funding," Mr. Hamilton says. "We're trying to put together a funding package in Washington, but we also plan to go to some of the more public-minded corporations to see if they would be interested. It's something innovative, and it's energy efficient, so a big corporation might see it as something in the public interest and good public relations . . . .

"My feeling is that we will get the funding by next summer and, hopefully, begin construction sometime in 1981."

Cost is certainly not a major stumbling block. the feasibility study, prepared last July, pegs the bill at $1.6 million, about $70,000 per unit. That figure is not as cheap as some low-to moderate-income housing, but lower than most of it. On the used market, 25-foot Airstream trailers sell for $7,000, Mr. Small says.

A significant problem, though, according to Council- woman Russell, lies in the people who will live in the Green Machine.

"It can't be just anybody. They would have to be willing to share space with each other. It would be much more of a communal setup than regular apartment living."

Selecting just the right residents could bring the project up against antidiscrimination laws.

The land, a former right of way for a trolley line, is already available, however, and a survey of Venice residents found 70 percent of them in favor of the project.

All parties involved emphasize that the Green Machine is an experiment. "It will give us some idea of what can be done," Mr. Hamilton says, "whether or not and how these technologies can work together. Everything is off the shelf [ technology], but none of it has been put together into one plan. If the Green Machine doesn't work, we can go back and try something else, but at least we have started."

And if it can be built anywhere in the world, southern California is the most likely prospect.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Low-income housing with a Calif. twist
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today