Building Tiny Homes in Seattle

After 6 years working at Amazon, I decided to take a career break in late 2022 to explore some of my interests – a cross section of sustainability and housing. I’ve been volunteering at two different Seattle-based housing nonprofits with my time off:

  • Sound Foundations NW, which focuses on building tiny homes for people who are experiencing homelessness.
  • Facing Homelessness, which (among other things) focuses on building green and sustainable accessory dwelling units (ADUs) installed free of charge to homeowners who offer to host a resident experiencing homelessness.

This post is focused on the tiny home builder Sound Foundations NW, which has an amazing factory in SODO in south Seattle. They churn out 4 tiny homes per week almost entirely on volunteer labour, and I’ve been volunteering once or twice a week since August 2022. I had heard about Seattle’s tiny houses a while ago, but had not had the chance to visit until last year.

Why Tiny Homes?

The tiny homes are an emergency transitional measure to get someone living in a tent or vehicle off the streets until they can move into more permanent housing. Residents are put into tiny home villages, where they have access to their own secure and lockable tiny house. The villages usually hold about 30-60 houses, have separate kitchen and bathroom facilities, food, a mailing address, a supportive community, and social services.

People stay in the tiny homes for 114 days on average, and almost 50% move on to permanent housing after they leave, compared with the national emergency shelter average of 12%. Overwhelmingly, people experiencing homelessness prefer tiny homes to traditional shelters. Each tiny home built in the Sound Foundations NW factory can help 3 people on a path out of homelessness every year.

What does a Tiny Home look like?

Each tiny house measures 8’ x 12’ (or 2.4m x 3.6m). It’s sturdy and well-built, and large enough to hold a bed and shelving unit with space for personal belongings.

On the outside, they have a weatherproof barrier, siding, trim, a shingled roof with eaves to protect from water runoff, and a lockable door. They are professionally spray painted a variety of different colours to mix and match when in the village.

They’re finished to a nice standard, with vinyl wood flooring, wooden trim, painted walls and two windows (front and back) for cross ventilation. The houses are wired up with an electrical socket so that residents can charge devices and plug in a heater during winter.

Each house costs $4300 in materials (2023 pricing), and takes around 174 hours of work to complete. The factory is run almost entirely on volunteer labour. There is only one paid employee: Barb Oliver, who’s been running operations in the current location since 2020.

Volunteering at the Factory

Volunteering is open to everyone over the age of 16! Some people come in on a regular basis, but there are many people who volunteer just once, through corporate or community groups. Individuals also come in after hearing about the factory and wanting to see it in person.

Barb takes first-timers on a tour of the factory, and also explains how the tiny house villages work. Most of the time, a corporate or community group will be involved in a “tilt up”: we take a pile of raw materials, build a bunch of individual components, and by the end of the day we will end up with this:

As someone who loves to see things work well at scale, I am honestly amazed at how this works. Many of the groups have zero experience in construction or using power tools. The factory has only one paid employee. How do we end up with a framed house after 6 hours?

The factory has a series of “jigs” – aka templates – for different parts of the house: walls, floor, roof frames, etc. Almost all of the materials that we use in the jigs are pre-cut in advance and set up to be easily accessible on a tilt up day. A more experienced volunteer takes the role of “Team Lead” and will help between 1-3 new volunteers build a piece of the house, such as a side wall. The team lead will teach them how to use a nail gun, supervise as they start attaching pieces together, and do any troubleshooting or finish work. By lunchtime, there will be a completed side wall.

After lunch, the group works together to bolt the newly-built walls to the newly-built floor. We then attach the roof to the hold the frame together. Not only is the house framing done, but the walls are already weatherproofed, sided, and joined together.

If there’s a tilt up on days I volunteer, I am often a Team Lead – but I like being a regular crew member. My favourite things to do on the houses are adding the floors and interior trim, when the unfinished house starts to look like a polished room.

If you are in the Seattle area and would like to find out more, sign up for the Sound Foundations NW newsletter, drop by the factory (tours run every day except Friday) or sign up for a volunteer shift. New spaces are released every Wednesday for the following week, via the newsletter.

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