London

Build a better homeless shelter? This long-time London, Ont., engineer is giving it a shot

London builder Andy Spriet has put his talents for design and engineering to build two portable emergency shelters that will be deployed to help Londoners who struggle with homelessness.

Seeing London's homeless problem, developer Andy Spriet built 2 temporary shelters

Andy Spriet with one of two emergency homeless shelters he designed and built. This one has two sleeping compartments. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Builder and engineer Andy Spriet believes good design can play a role in helping the hundreds of people who struggle with homelessness in London, Ont. 

Like anyone who ventures into downtown these days, Spriet has seen people sleeping rough outside, their backs bent against the cold as they crouch in doorways or curl up under plywood shelters and makeshift tents. 

He also watched with interest last winter as the city, working with the group WISH (Winter Interim Solution to Homelessness Coalition), set up temporary emergency shelters at two locations using clusters of converted construction portables. 

"You see the homeless on the streets and you're always amazed how they're still there the next morning after going through a cold night," he said. "I though 'What can I build and how cheaply can I build it and what should the concept be?'"

He began drawing out some shelter design ideas, eventually creating a concept of an eight by 12-foot structure on wheels with a small bed and kitchenette.

In this design, each sleeping unit also includes a simple kitchenette with shelves and a sink. Spriet estimates each unit can be made for about $10,000. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

But Spriet took his ideas beyond the drafting table. He actually had two shelters entirely built to his specifications in his garage, creating a real-life proof of concept. 

Spriet made a number of modifications he feels improve upon the converted construction portable. The design challenge is to make each unit cheap and easy to build. He estimates each unit can be built for about $10,000 in materials and labour.

"You're trying to keep costs as low as you can to build as many as you can," he said.

For example, his design is low to the ground with a single plywood step that slides out from beneath the door. It's a design that avoids the need to build steps and railings to each unit, which was required with the construction trailers, which are a few feet off the ground. 

He used shed siding outside, durable exterior carpeting inside and instead of a plumbing system, there's a chemical toilet and a large plastic jug for drinking water.

The interior is unfinished plywood, the roofing material a simple waterproof membrane and the interior lights are inexpensive LEDs. Each unit is insulated and can be kept comfortable during the winter using a small portable heater. 

Unlike construction trailer shelters, Spriet's prototypes can't be towed to a location. However, he says they can be easily loaded onto a flatbed truck and positioned into place thanks to six large wheels attached to the bottom. 

Andy Spriet designed the shelters to be mobile and low cost, able to be quickly deployed and put into service anywhere they're needed. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

For now, the two shelters he's build will be donated to Ark Aid Mission, one of the groups making up the WISH coalition, and to be deployed as they see fit. The emergency shelter on York Street remains in place and it's possible Spriet's shelters will enter service at that location. 

He's fully expecting the design will require some tweaking once they're in use. In the meantime, he plans to build two other shelters.

"When you look at the costs the city is spending, this might be a way to help," he said.

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