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Mattawa, WA, 1998

As a result of our work with the Maldonados in Okanagan County in 1997, Washington’s Migrant Housing Task Force invited us to participate as technical and design consultants on a project it was developing in the town of Mattawa on the Columbia River Valley. Mattawa is a small rural community that had long been about 2,000 people. Orchards that were established there during the apple crop booms of the 1980s, however, were finally coming into production in 1998 and migrant workers were flooding the town. The town’s population increased eightfold almost overnight and this growth so overburdened its services and infrastructure that it was declared to be in an official state of emergency by the Washington State government. Mattawa needed, among many other things, new schools, a new sewage treatment plant, and most immediately, a temporary housing community for these workers.

Governor Gary Locke had seen shipping containers used as temporary emergency housing during his visit to China and Japan the summer before, and was intrigued enough to put the idea forward as one of the project parameters. A Yakima manufacturer who had experimented with the idea of shipping container housing became our partner on this venture in addition to Grant County, a leader in affordable housing in Eastern Washington.

The need to house at least 300 migrant workers changed our traditional means of involvement to a research and consultancy agenda, which emphasized faculty expertise and student research projects on each of the phases. The focus of the consulting and research was on manufacturing processes and details, as well as the economy’s production, site deployment, and infrastructure (the area of most concern to the clients given Mattawa’s already limited capacity). To complement our existing experience, we invited David Riley, at that time an architectural engineering professor in the UW CAUP Construction Management Department, to join the team. His own dissertation and research interests had been in lean production processes and the economies of construction sites.

In collaboration with Riley, we designed an efficient infrastructure layout for agricultural production in the region that accounts for the basic needs and the social patterns of the labor force, which is primarily made up of migrant workers from Mexico. Collecting social pattern information became a student research project. We had them fan out among the camps along the Columbia River to interview workers about their living patterns, needs, short- and long-term goals, and resources. This research turned out to be one of our most important contributions to the project. Much of Washington State’s earlier project programming turned out to be based on information that did not apply to the specific community the project was trying to serve.

As a result of this research, we found that smaller groupings of containers—four as opposed to the service hubs of six or eight originally proposed by the county—were more desirable for the variety of social spaces they could establish on the site. To meet the State’s and Grant County’s desired density, we came up with a staggered pattern for the smaller hubs which proved to be more space efficient than the larger hubs, yet generated a richer social pattern of use. We discovered that car ownership among the migrants was much lower than originally assumed; smaller parking lots increased the common space available for social activities.

Despite many of the limitations on direct student and community involvement that this large and complex project presented, the experience had a profound impact on the subsequent projects of the BASIC Initiative. The collaboration with Riley was so fruitful we continued it in AIHI, and his area of expertise had an impact on the pedagogical focus of our programs and seminars. Until this collaboration, we had been working from the assumption that each site and community had its own unique history and conditions which framed our approach toward materials, construction and sustainability, and community processes. After this project we began to incorporate new parameters of programming, adding the material and production efficiencies of building to the list of things students should engage when designing and building a facility in any of our programs. In addition, the goals of repeatability and standardization emerged as key elements that would allow practices and technologies introduced by each of our buildings to be more easily adopted by the local community.

Equally significant was the development of a research agenda to test new appropriate technologies, new material systems, and construction technologies, and to explore the impact and possibilities each of these created in the design process. These new paradigms resulted in the addition of new research seminars to BASIC’s curriculum that act as both preparation courses for the design/builds as well as post-build opportunities to revisit and reflect on the experience in the field. In the seminars, all aspects of the design/build pedagogy are open to investigation, and this program format has become integral to our AIHI projects.