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A Solution to Homelessness Built by Plastics

A pilot project in Los Angeles County uses roto-molded plastic modules to build permanent supportive housing for a fraction of the cost of municipal projects.

Norbert Sparrow

June 26, 2023

A lack of affordable housing is one of the causes of homelessness in major US urban centers. In Los Angeles County, where I live, more than 69,000 people are experiencing homelessness, according to the most recent survey of the L.A. Homeless Services Authority. Encampments riddle Los Angeles and surrounding communities and there is a wearied sense among residents that the problem has become intractable. An architect/entrepreneur by the name of Charles Wee begs to differ. His company LifeArk claims it can build permanent supportive housing at a cost of $190,000 per unit, reports nonprofit media outlet LAist. Compare that with the median per unit cost set forth by municipal officials of $470,000. What’s Wee's secret ingredient? You guessed it — plastic.

LifeArk molds 8-x-8 foot modules from a proprietary high-density polyethylene (HDPE) skin with an integrated high-density polyurethane core that snap together a little bit like Lego pieces to “build” housing units. The material contains 30% post-consumer recycled plastic. The pieces are roto-molded at a partner facility in Madera, CA, where 90% of the prefab housing is built. That has helped to slash construction costs.

LifeArk has started landing contracts up and down California’s central coast, reports LAist, but all eyes right now are on a pilot project in El Monte, a working class suburb of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley. The  company is using a $1 million innovation grant awarded by LA County to stitch together “dozens of modules to create three beige-gray, low-lying buildings that blend into a neighborhood that includes an ice cream supplier and faded stucco apartment complex,” writes LAist.

Perhaps to preempt concerns from the zero-tolerance-for-plastics crowd, LifeArk notes the environmental benefits of using HDPE for the building blocks on its website. The material emits no harmful fumes into the environment and its production requires only a fraction of the energy required to produce steel from iron ore. The LifeArk modules can even be produced from 100% recycled HDPE, the company stresses, and is 100% recyclable. Housing made from the material has a 30-year lifespan with minimal maintenance, it adds.

Interestingly, the foam cores and a hull that replaces the land deck allow the modules to float. The LifeArk building system was designed to “create self-sustaining communities on water and land,” said the company on its website, and is a “rapidly deployable response that will mobilize economic development and regeneration for millions of displaced peoples around the world.”

The idea for LifeArk came into being when Wee visited a cousin who was a missionary in the Amazon. Wee was struck by how locals living along the river had to move whenever waters rose. “I decided, ‘Let me actually see if I can come up with housing that can float on the water,” Wee told LAist. Hence the name for the company. An encounter with Paul Cho, a co-founder of homeless services provider Illumina Foundation in California’s Orange County, led to applying the concept to first-world displacement.

For the rest of the story — and it’s quite compelling — read the article on LAist.com.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree. Reach him at [email protected].

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