Small demountable homes for the homeless.


Australian cities have plenty of temporarily vacant land, at any time if you look around. There are always demolition sites which have been cleared and waiting for work to start. These properties already have water, sewerage and electricity on site ... its just usual that they aren't connected.

For instance, the old ABC television production and office centre at Gore Hill in Sydney — many acres in size — lay idle for at least five years before anything was done requiring the land to be vacated again. Such sites could easily be made available for temporary homeless 'villages' by using demountable housing units which are designed for easy carriage and storage, and which can be erected by (say) two men in a couple of hours — and removed in the same length of time, and erected at both indoor and outdoor locations.

Such houses need to be able to provide comfortable living ('homes' not 'shelters'): with cooking, showering, clothes washing and toilet facilities. Ideally, they need to be flat packed for storage and easy transport, and have a double use in disaster relief.

Because there is always a degree of isolation, and an unhealthy stigma attached to homelessness, we also felt that the homeless-jobless should be recruited into the self-serving activity of constructing these pre-fab demountable homes, jointly with various community volunteers.

It was this basic observation and analysis that led to the H4H development, and to the slogan:

"Homes for the Homeless — built by the homeless."

Outline: We are all aware these days that the situation of being homeless is not just attach to alcoholics, drug-addicts, the bone-idle and those categorised these days as "rough-sleepers". Nor should we assume that the solution lies with the commendable provision of dormitory-type shelters, street sleeping pods, or stacks of reclaimed rusty shipping containers, by charitable organisations.

It is well known now that a high percentage of the homeless are women often with young families who are often escaping domestic abuse or violence. Many of these families live in cars, hired caravans, and vacant buildings. Prominent among the homeless are domestic and international students who for financial reasons virtually live in university libraries when they aren't couch-surfing.

On any one night most of the homeless are otherwise normal individuals who's lives have been suddenly disrupted for a wide variety of reasons, including mental, emotional and family disruption problems.

The common factor here is that the homeless often need some time alone to get their lives in order. They often can't find (or afford) single-person or small-family accommodation in a required region ‐ and location choice is often an important matter to many under emotional strain and those with children at school. It is often vitally important to the adults that they can retain their independence while regaining some non-judgemental control over their isolation and their ability to socialise.


Like everyone else, the homeless want a private retreat with personal security, some tenure over a bed (with personal storage space), and a table for eating, socialising and studying. They need the dignity which only comes from having a private shower, toilet, clothes-washing/drying, and basic cooking facilities. Social interaction is also important; they need to be able to invite friends to visit and share a cup of coffee or a basic meal.

Construction principles:

This H4H design came about as part of the Plateau Group development of small homes for the elderly (See). Originally it was initially an intellectual exercise in designing the smallest full-featured house that would be liveable, cheap and mass-producable. Later the design was changed to counter the stigma of homeless 'lay-abouts' by modifying the design progressively to make it suitable for fabrication by unskilled potential occupants and volunteers of any age and experience.

  • This design is therefore modular and demountable - consisting of six main panels which can be simply and quickly bolted together when the pack is on-site. This design requires about 2 hours of assembly for two men (slightly more with complex sewerage runs), and it does this using only three screws to interlock all four corner panels.
  • The emphasis on flat-panel construction ... means that all fabrication work can be done easily, on a very basic work-table, in any covered space. We plan to use the floor panels on trestles as a bench, and the 'factory' can be any underground parking place.
  • The tools needed for fabricating the panels are basic: electric drill, hammer and screwdriver (no dangerous equipment like circular saws). Any volunteer can be productive within half-an-hour.
  • Some of the added components (such as the Water Closet, a hinged-lid box, and a divider cupboard) do require a slightly higher level of joinery skill, but most people with handsaw-handling experience can fabricate these. We don't use circular saws.
  • On site assembly:
    Water feed is just a garden hose which clips on to a small hot-water tank.
    A standard of-the-shelf builder's power cable reel with drop-out safety switch (accessible under a step) provides the main electrical feed.
  • Both side walls have an embedded light-fitting, and two double power-points on a single cable run from the safety switch. Cables fittings can be pre-fabricated and passed by a licensed helper before being added to the panels.
  • The components requiring higher standard of carpentry skills are:
    1. The unit front door. This could be stock-standard factory-produced outside door with locks, two obscure-glass lites and a letter slot, or it could be made by men's sheds, etc.
    2. A divider-cabinet (no doors) adjacent to a small kitchenette area separates the living area from the shower-toilet. This cabinet is just open shelving, but it needs a waterproof ply backing.
    3. A completely novel wooden-framed water-closet consists of a tip/drop fold-up toilet tray with standard plastic seat. Above the toilet area is a tip/drop wash basin which doubles as the toilet flush. When closed the whole unit is reasonably water tight to keep out shower water. And, being made of wood with plastic lining rather than porcelain, the water-closet unit is robust and compact which is important when transporting.
    4. There is also a small gal-iron water-tank/heater unit fitted with a shower-head. The water is heated from beneath by the same double hot-plate provided for cooking. This tank requires riveting and soldering (or brazing) and it will probably require some specialised skills and training.

    The size of the homeless problem:

    The eye-opener here is the number of small homes that are needed to make any useful impact on the problem. At any one time many hundreds of thousands of Australians don't have a permanent place of residence. The lack of a permanent address has secondary impacts also —

    • on their ability to collect Centrelink payments.
    • on their ability to apply for jobs.
    • on their ability to handle banks, credit-cards and payments for services.

    Parameters of the problem:

    We have therefore approached this problem with the following assumptions.
    1. We need a design capable of producing thousands of home units at an affordable cost, which means volunteer and homeless labour. It is not worth tackling the problem piecemeal: it must be capable of part-solving this substantial problem.
          — This means factory mass-production of components, not conventional construction techniques.
          — It also means factory simplified design suited to an unskilled workforce.
          — Also it requires work conditions suited to the elderly and disabled contributors.
    2. The home units need to be low-cost. [Our materials costs are about $3,000]
          — This means that simple construction techniques, off-the-shelf hardware, and precut timbers must be used so that construction and erection can use volunteer labour. This is the sort of volunteerism that should attract many retirees, providing the tasks are kept simple and without dangers.
    3. These new home-units must be located in the midst of Australia's city-suburban sprawl. Many of the potential occupants will not moved out to the cheap outlying suburbs and become further removed from what remains of their existing emotional and physical support-systems — including schools and colleges, friends and family, doctors and psychiatrists.
          — This means that our inner suburbs need to be retrofitted in some way with small, low-costs, individual housing.
    4. Almost everyone is keen to extend help to the homeless, provided their own neighbourhood doesn't get lumbered with a stack of old rusted shipping containers, or their back-alleys aren't littered with sleeping pods.
          — This is a fact of life. The 'not-in-our-backyard' attitude is understandable, and the only solution we see is for the impositions on any neighbourhood must be temporary (in terms of months, say, up to a year).
    5. Every suburb has, at various times, vacant plots of unused land, unused car-parks, abandoned warehouses, long-term development sites. These include: factories that are on the market, demolition areas awaiting development approvals, old properties cleared for infrastructure extensions (roads, light-rail etc.) and disused government reservations (mainly easements alongside railway corridors).
          — Since the H4H houses are small and demountable — easy to erect/disassemble and move — then it should be possible to 'borrow' these locations on the basis of a letter-of-agreement promising to remove them within, say, a week of receiving notice. [Note: It is surprising how many such sites are available when you go looking.]

    Our solution:

    We have designed a basic small demountable, mass-produceable independent home with the basic facilities of sleeping, cooking, washing, and toilet. It is modular and extendable, but the basic model is 3.4m in length, 1.8m wide and 2.1m high. The galvanised iron roof overhangs the front by 0.3m, and there is a small back overhang, enough to run water into guttering. In dry country the occupants may need to collect rain water into a small tank.

    We have made some design decisions that are counter-intuitive to regular builders.

    • The roof and floor panels are a constant distance apart — meaning that there is no slope to help water run off the roof. [This makes all walls studs the same height so they can be pre-cut, and the inside plywood panel liner is able to be used at full size without cutting. Water run-off can be achieved in such short distances (with a corrugated iron roof) by sloping the whole unit slightly in the direction required.
    • The frames, rafters, bearers, etc will all be made from pre-cut 75 x 35mm termite and rot-treated standard batten timber. [For deployment indoors/outdoors, and for reasons of both cost efficiency and ease of fabrication by unskilled people.]
    • Wall noggins are almost all a standard length, and are not staggered (as is normal in such walls). [This means that it is predictable where hinge fixings can be added from the inside]
    • Cross-bracing strength is achieve mainly by glueing and nailing the inner form-work ply to the inside of the frames. [For this reason, there is no front window.]
    • Electrical cables are made-up and inspected by a licensed inspector well ahead of time and just dropped into the frames on both side walls. [No trades are needed during the fabrication or at the site for assembly.]
    • For the same reason, the external metal siding can be pre-cut ready for screwing to the outside of the frame, after insertion of insulation and fitting the pre-made light and power cable in each side wall.
    • The toilet-shower floor is raised about 30cm above the ground to provide easy access of the utility connections (water and electricity), and to provide sewerage pipe falls of about 25mm for each home in a row. If more fall height is needed, some of the units could be mounted on sleepers.
    • To handle wind pressures outdoors, the side-walls are stiffened by the use of hinged inside shelving screwed onto the studs. [When folded, they protect the ply-panelling during transport.]
    • The junction of side, front and back panels is made using light-weight 35 x 35mm gal angle. This increases the vertical rigidity at the corners, maintains a metal-to-metal-tie between roof and floor, and provides simple panel-joints which are air-tight yet need only three stud-bolts.
    • The roof panel ties down to the walls; the walls to the floor panel; and the floor panel to embedded ground-stakes or concrete bolts (when needed). The roof ties will be pre-drilled flat 35mm gal tabs. The ties to roof and floor can be made at the exposed front of the building, but at the rear the ties need to be internally and made before the shower-floor is added. [In most cases the homes will be erected in a row in close proximity, or against a wall.]
    • The water closet and shower/hot-water tank are added to the unit during assembly on site, and the tank is fed through a single brass garden tap from a plug-in standard garden hose connected to a standard garden hose-bank. [The brass tap gives a warning before a shower if the water has been overheated. It is the only tap in the unit.]
    • The water tank has a simple spray nozzle permanently mounted on a top corner, and a single on-off garden hose 'cock' feeding hot water to the wash-basin.
    • The water closet discharges into a collector with a U-bend fitting, and then has very flexible access to whatever is on offer in the way of sewerage pipe connections, or even an effluent storage tank or local septic. The connections can all be made from the inside during assembly, before the shower-floor panel is added.
    • The shower tray feeds to a rubber hose chain quite separate from the sewerage disposal. This gives more flexibility and keeps the shower-room lower while allowing greater sewerage fall. The drooping hose replaces the need for U-bends with shower-water.


    Plateau Group Convenor: Stewart Fist
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