Yan Krymsky, Mohsen Ghanbari
For Yan, the design director of our Los Angeles studio, and Mohsen, a project designer, the opportunity to innovate was the latter, born of a desire to address a humanitarian crisis in their city. According to a 2019 report, their county is home to upwards of 59,000 homeless people, with 36,000 of those residing in Los Angeles proper.
In late 2017, they received a request for a proposal as part of a city initiative called A Bridge Home, to convert the ground floor of a city-owned office building into a temporary housing facility. As Yan and Mohsen began touring shelters in preparation for the interview, they were struck by the disconnect between the furniture provided and the intended users. “We realized that there was a complete lack of design,” says Yan. “There wasn’t anyone thinking about the experience from the perspective of the individual,” he continues.
Yan (left) and Mohsen
Yan (top) and Mohsen (bottom)
“We realized that there was a complete lack of design. There wasn’t anyone thinking about the experience from the perspective of the individual.”
The tours revealed some key insights. “One thing we heard was that there’s this balance between the need to offer security and privacy,” says Yan.
They learned that most shelters were designed for two-week stays when, in fact, many residents stayed at facilities for three to six months—or longer. Shelters frequently relied on low-quality furniture or pieces targeted for other uses, like university housing. There weren’t solutions that addressed these users’ unique hygiene, privacy, and security challenges, including the detrimental effects of not having personal space for upwards of six months.
“It’s about how to get as many people inside as quickly and cheaply as possible,” says Yan. “There isn’t anyone raising their hand and saying, ‘Are we improving their situation?’”
And so they applied for an Innovation Incubator grant to do just that. Their project began with a central premise—bringing dignity to supportive housing—and a key question: “Could a large manufacturer create a low-cost system that would give operators more flexibility and clients higher quality furnishings with increased privacy and personal space?”
The grant acted as a catalyst for the design of a purpose-driven solution. Yan and Mohsen began by exploring the challenge with commercial furniture manufacturer Steelcase. They also talked to industrial designers and other stakeholders. From these ongoing conversations, they seeded an idea, eventually pursuing their own path to create a cost-effective, easily deployable modular unit. “We weren’t out to solve the world’s problems,” says Yan. “We thought—let’s shine a light on this and see if there’s a market for a systems approach to this.”
This exploration resulted in their design of DOME, a modular system with a residential (versus institutional) feel. Key to the approach was a design that was storable, reusable, and durable—made to last forever (and not end up in a landfill).
Each unit includes a long twin bed with space for storage underneath, a 6-foot-tall lockable wardrobe that doubles as a partition, an outlet, and a step light to illuminate the aisle and reduce the need for overhead emergency lighting at night. An optional fabric canopy can be added to fully enclose the unit for operators that favor greater privacy for residents. “What really differentiated this was that it was trying to create a more dignified setting,” says Yan.
If the Innovation Incubator grant was the catalyst, what followed was pure momentum—particularly as others from the Los Angeles studio got involved to help produce and market the now patent-pending product. Yan and Mohsen commissioned a mock-up from Shield, a custom fabricator. And they exhibited at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles, which attracted plenty of praise for the novel approach and garnered media coverage, to boot. This year, the concept was recognized as a finalist for Fast Company’s “World Changing Ideas” Awards.
A physical model of the DOME units was on display at the A+D Museum in Los Angeles.
“It has been a great experience, and a new thing for all of us in the office—just trying to learn as we go,” says Mohsen. Now, they are pursuing several leads for an actual installation, and are hoping to cast a wider net for other innovative residential opportunities in the community, be they interim housing facilities or tiny homes.
Both Yan and Mohsen report being attracted to our firm’s investment in research before taking on this project. “I think Innovation Incubator is extremely valuable, because you need something to help you set that time aside,” says Yan. Adds Mohsen, “I think research should constantly be implemented into actual projects. For this Incubator, the value was identifying a necessary project and starting the research at the right time.”