The warehouses along the water at the Port of Olympia appear, somehow, larger on the inside than on the outside.
In one of them, a large swath of the floor is cleared and empty. A temporary shop sits to the side and next to that are loads of building supplies. It was relatively quiet inside on Thursday afternoon, as city officials just wrapped up a tour of the shop. But in the weeks to come, the shop will be churning out dozens of shelters for the downtown mitigation site.
Earth Homes LLC is a company dedicated to safe and sustainable home design and construction. In December, they contracted with the City of Olympia to construct 65 temporary transitional shelters to provide safe, warm dwellings at the downtown mitigation site, which sits just a few blocks away from the Port. Aaron Sauerhoff, Earth Homes’ founder and owner, serves as project manager. The project has been a whirlwind thus far, he said. The last couple of months have been dominated by building plans and putting together the shop.
“Helping people that are currently experiencing houselessness is what I’ve always wanted the core of my company to be doing,” said Sauerhoff.
The project started with the city of Olympia.
Assistant City Manager Keith Stahley said he recognized the tents at the mitigation site were due for an upgrade. They aren’t stable in strong winds and are prone to rodent infestation, he said.
Stahley had a conversation with Jeff Loyer, a local man who had constructed a number of microshelters to benefit the homeless community. The microshelter concept originated as a chicken coop, but Loyer decided that the structure would be better served getting someone out of the cold. Since then, several have been built at the Nickerson site on Wheeler Avenue. The design is well-suited to provide more permanent transitional shelter at the mitigation site, said Stahley.
Stahley sought funding support from some local sources. He spoke with officials from the Regional Housing Council and Providence, securing $60,000 and $50,000 donations from each, respectively. That collective $110,000 is used to fund the project. But since then, Stahley said, they’ve received a slew of monetary donations from community members and partners. The city provided another $27,000 to hire up to 20 visitors at the mitigation site to work on the project full-time for a week.
Stahley said he had heard of Sauerhoff and the work Earth Homes was up to, thinking he seemed like a good fit to lead the project.
Work started in December
“He understood the context and he understood the project demands. And we got him started,” said Stahley. The city contracted with Earth Homes in December, with an agreement for 65 shelters by the end of March. The city also communicated with the port, securing between 5,000 and 10,000 square feet of warehouse space.
Sauerhoff and some associates spent December putting together building plans and January putting the shop together. They met with material providers to secure the necessary building material.
For the past week, workers at the shop have been assembling walls for the eight-foot by eight-foot shelters. The walls are built as Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) — an “ice cream sandwich” sort of design where a sheet of rigid foam is glued between two sheets of plywood. The design is well-insulated, sturdy and cost-effective.
The assembly process
During a tour of the shop on Thursday, Sauerhoff walked through the construction process. He and a team, including Setup Manager Jimmy Mateson, have broken the process down to a series of simple steps. Plenty of volunteers have booked time to help, and not all of them are likely to know the ins and outs of construction.
“We can’t be attentive and one-on-one with everyone, we need to set people up with stations where anyone can plug in and get the tutorial on the station and run it,” Sauerhoff said.
Informational sheets are hung up around the shop, giving each area a light-hearted name like “lumber land” and “the plywood-go-round.” The sheets lay out specific plans for a portion of the shelter.
“We wanted to make it so there’s the least amount of cuts … make the panels, put them all together, corners overlap really nice, everything’s marked out and labeled,” said Sauerhoff.
The foam panels and plywood are glued together with a glue “dribbler” — a two-person device that dribbles out glue evenly across the panel. The glue is spread out with brushes before a piece of foam — cut perfectly to fit the wood — is stuck to the plywood. Another plank of plywood is glued to the other side of the foam. When the “sandwich” of building supplies is complete, they’re taken to the “squisher.”
The squisher is a large device weighed down by concrete blocks that are lowered and press the panels together, to ensure they are firmly glued together. For the past week, workers and volunteers have been squishing together panels. Sauerhoff said they’re waiting on roofing material.
The process, Sauerhoff said, has been a rewarding experience thus far, and praised partnerships they’ve made with the city, the port, the local carpenter’s union and longshoremen.
“It’s been absolutely beautiful,” he said of the partnerships.
Mateson, the setup manager, said he’s been making sure the shop is set up and the various processes are moving along.
“The steps are coming along well, and we’re taking care of any backlogs and we’re waiting on certain materials. While we’re waiting, we do other steps. … We’re always making advancements to the end,” said Mateson.
He said it feels good to help take a bite out of an issue as massive and harmful as homelessness, but it’s an issue that needs significantly more support.
“Many cities like Olympia actually are putting in a lot of time and energy and resources into this thing. But they’re overwhelmed, maxed out, they don’t have the funds to do more. It’s got to come from the feds to pay. Their government needs to fund housing and services and healthcare and get it together,” he said.
Loyer — whose work building microshelters may have sparked the project from the very start — stopped by the shop on Thursday.
“This is very different than the microshelters that we originally started on. Aaron has taken it to a whole new level, and it’s really exciting to watch what it is become with all the people getting involved, and the final product being such a better shelter. … It’s wonderful, it’s more than I could have have imagined it would turn into,” he said.