Healdsburg artists Linus Lancaster and Ken Berman design innovative, portable shelter

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The tiny house movement continues to sweep across the nation with ever more adorable iterations of adult-sized dollhouses, spawning a cottage industry of TV shows, books, special publications, and untold numbers of Pinterest and Instagram postings. Now two Sonoma County artists have each come up with a prototype for a micro-dwelling that shrinks the concept to a whole new dimension of minuteness.

Coming in at under 50 square feet, these portable shelters are big enough to allow a full grown man to roll out a sleeping bag or sit upright, and can be hitched to a bicycle and moved around.

The mobile shelters, functioning as tiny trailers for two-wheelers, are the brainchild of Healdsburg’s Harvey Brody, who advises and supports homeless artists. He challenged fellow artists Linus Lancaster, who teaches at Healdsburg High School, and Ken Berman, who also is an architect, to design and build full-sized mobile shelters with the hope that they might open a conversation within the community about how they could be used to help the homeless.

The mobile shelters are included in a new exhibit that opened this weekend at the Paul Mahder Gallery in Healdsburg. Dubbed “A Place to Call Home,” the show, on display through May 22, features art aimed at “shining a light” on the challenges of living without a home. The exhibit includes works by the homeless, including photography. Several homeless clients were given cameras to document a day in their lives. There also are works by local artists and students. A documentary on Healdsburg’s homeless by Healdsburg High graduate Marcus Cano will be shown in the gallery at 7 p.m. May 18.

“We are hoping that by presenting these in the art exhibit, we will be giving the city, and businesses and community members an opportunity to see how they could function and if it’s possible to have several within the community for use as a stopgap until we have housing in the form of a shelter,” said Colleen Carmichael, the executive director for North Sonoma County Services, which is sponsoring the exhibit. “But they’re only a short-term solution to a long-term problem.”

Newly renamed Reach for Home, the nonprofit provides outreach to assist both the homeless and people at risk of becoming homeless.

Brody said he got the idea for a mobile shelter project after Carmichael showed him an article about two artists near Sacramento who were making shelter pods and giving them to the homeless.

“The idea was to use local artists and cover them with art, to make them so attractive that people aren’t turned off by seeing a homeless person, and the city will be less likely to confiscate them,” he said. “Art in this sense acts as a buffer between the homeless and those people who are not totally thrilled by having homeless people in their community. We need solutions. It’s a pandemic problem.”

Design challenge

Berman, who also is an architect and avid “maker,” at first was daunted by the design challenge, which was unlike anything he had ever done. “I design buildings. They’re static things, not dynamic things. But designing it was almost like designing a car.”

He nonetheless took up the challenge and set to work in January in his Sebastopol home workshop. Experimenting with designs and materials, he settled on a rounded rig he calls “The Turtle.”

Reminiscent of an old-fashioned teardrop trailer, “The Turtle” is tricked out with strings of LED lights, a tiny rooftop solar panel, a locking storage area and a tech box with a battery to serve as a charging station and tablet holder for watching movies, checking Facebook or listening to music. The outside is sheathed with a vinyl print of his original art, which can best be described as maker meets steam punk with collages of gears, rivets and other bits of machinery.

He designed it to be so cool that it won’t stand out and scream, “I am homeless.”

“We thought if it was too specific to the homeless, we would be missing the point,” said Berman, who partners with his wife Clare Monteschio in an architecture and design business they call Red Maple Workshop. “We’re trying to make this universal so no one feels ostracized or somehow marginalized.”

He’s already applied for a patent and imagines multiple uses for the portable shelter, from a mobile office or playhouse to a camper or even temporary shelter during natural disasters.

Inside it is a snug nest measuring 8 feet long, 40 inches wide and 4 feet tall. The floor is well insulated and carpeted for comfort.

He approached the design like an architect, consulting first with a homeless woman who confirmed his instincts to make sure it had ample windows. He also put in a skylight and designed the entrance in the form of twin doors that open at a wide angle — almost like patio doors in miniature — to allow someone to move a large object inside, such as a bike. The glass within the doors also pops out as a safety exit and to add to the cross ventilation.

He used common hardware store pipes to create a handle that will screw onto the back of a bike.

Berman, who also sells skateboards customized with his urban art, said the turtle design and windows make it feel less claustrophobic.

The downside is the weight. At 150 to 200 pounds, it may be too heavy for the average person to haul very far with a bike. Aluminum would be more lightweight but too hot. A plastic material he investigated wound up being too expensive. He spent $1,000 in materials and estimates labor would cost another $3,000. But he figures that could be brought down with wholesale materials, volunteer labor or other production efficiencies.

Berman wound up hacking out a grand prize-winning model of The Turtle at the North Bay Make-A-Thon in Rohnert Park in March.

Less than 100 pounds

Linus Lancaster, who teaches art at Healdsburg High, came up with a different design for his bicycle-driven camper. He also found materials, cost and weight to be a challenge and was trying to keep his camper at or below 100 pounds.

It is a boxier, more traditional house shape with a peaked roof that allows for 5 feet of headroom, enough for someone to stand at a bend and dress or move around. It’s 7 feet long and 3 1/2 feet wide.

“My hope is that it will have a fold-out kitchen outside with a portable stove and a few groceries and odds and ends, like a teardrop trailer,” he said.

Lancaster, who also teaches construction arts in the school’s new Construction and Sustainability Academy, spent $700 in materials and anticipates getting his students to assist with constructing more of the mobile shelters while improving on the design, possibly with dormers to increase the space and bring in more light.

“With each set of technical challenges it’s an exciting way to work and a little nerve-wracking, but that’s what keeps it interesting,” he said of the race to turn his design into a full-sized prototype by the gallery opening.

How the mobile shelters may be put to use is still a question. Berman suggests that having people invest in them, even at a nominal rate, will lead to a greater sense of ownership and therefore, will take care of them. They can be free to decorate and personalize them in any way they choose.

He sees The Turtle as an alternative for those who resist the restrictions of shelter life.

“An important tenet of being human,” he said, “is being able to choose. The homeless should also have a right to choose where and how they’re going to live.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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