Commonweal Housing is an independently funded housing based action learning charity. This means we use our resources to provide the accommodation to enable charity and housing association partners to develop and test new ideas and housing based services which they believe can deliver new solutions to social injustice. Our independent funding (we are not beholden to public donations or government grants) and our independence of thought means we are able to support project partners by providing them with the freedom to ask difficult questions as they work to find imaginative new answers. In many cases this will mean tackling seemingly unattractive issues– because if we are not able to do these things then who will?
I have pondered on how the need to find pragmatic solutions to different manifestations of homelessness and rough sleeping is actually undermining the core of the homelessness lobby. I have asked whether over the decades we have seemingly abandoned what at their heart were sensible ideas because as a society we had increasingly implemented them badly. The workers flophouse specifically was one I mused on – the need for a new form of basic temporary housing for those who may be in a position to pay something but who are also unlikely or even unwilling to seek a permanent social sector home and who may literally be passing through. I was prompted to consider this following a piece of research funded by Commonweal undertaken by Thames Reach and Accendo Consult which looked at the drivers behind the increase in tent encampments frequently accommodating EU economic migrants springing up around outer London. These tent encampments provide very poor accommodation frequently impacting upon the health and well-being of those living there but they are also a major blight on local communities who find they have lost access to public space.
In 2017 Commonweal ran a design competition attracting entries from around the UK, Europe and even the USA. The brief was to come up with a form of modular temporary housing solution that could be deployed easily within existing empty buildings and indoor spaces be they empty light industrial units, offices or even church halls as an alternative to tent encampments. Working with the design competition winners Reed Watts architects from London, Commonweal has sponsored the development of Flat Pack Pods a cheap self-assembly temporary housing solution that can be deployed in existing empty buildings to make them a better alternative to a mattress on the bare floor. The element of privacy and a relatively safe space to sleep could help bring positive meanwhile use back to temporarily empty buildings.
Whilst initially being developed to meet the needs of those identified in the Thames Reach research we are delighted that Housing Justice has allowed us to road test our Flat Pack prototypes in their Winter shelter in Hillingdon, West London. Having the pods used in real situations, receiving feedback, critiques and suggestions for improvements is vital if we are to try and take this form of temporary housing solution forward. The reviews from Hillingdon will be considered in detail as we seek to establish a finalised design and hopefully scale up production of the pods in 2018.
Flat Pack Pods are not THE solution to homelessness, but they could be a small part of addressing one element of homelessness – the extremes of rough sleeping and living in tents at a time when so many non-residential buildings stand empty. The housing sector is falling over itself to make better use of car parks and vacant plots using shipping containers, factory built ‘cubes’ and other ideas – all of which are great but meanwhile what can be done to make existing empty buildings potentially available? Finding new pragmatic solutions is what Commonweal are seeking to do – in some cases good enough is good enough!