Earlier this week, I slept in a parking garage in Atlanta.
The next morning, I showered and brushed teeth in that same parking garage. After that, still within the confines of the multi-level parking structure, I enjoyed a light breakfast of orange juice and a granola bar while checking my email.
For the next three months, a select group students from the Savannah College of Art and Design will pretty much be following the same routines as residents of SCADpad, an experimental adaptive reuse project-cum-micro-housing community-cum-art exhibition held in a partially redundant parking structure on SCAD's Midtown Atlanta campus.
As I wrote yesterday, SCADpad is an exploration of how redundant parking garages in urban areas — and there are many of them — can be repurposed into affordable, sustainable micro-home enclaves. And as part of this exploration, a team of SCAD students, alumni, and faculty collaborated on the creation of a “sustainable community for artful living” complete with a trio of mobile tiny houses, one of which I had the opportunity to test drive for a night before the first group of SCADpaders officially move on in to their new digs.
Each 135-square-foot SCADpad unit — SCADpad Asia, SCADpad Europe and SCADpad North America — is special in its own way. In all honesty, it takes a solid hour just to take in the interior design, furnishings, and art created by the SCAD community, students and alumni, for each unit. For me, however, there was just something about SCADpad North America.
While it sports a relatively minimalist exterior (courtesy painting graduate Julio Garcia) compared to the other units (particular SCADpad Europe with its cooper roof, eye-popping "I lobe you more than tomorrow" signage, and travertine tile-inspired wood paneling), I was immediately attracted to its emphasis on sustainability. It was also the first SCADpad dwelling that I had the chance to step into on a guided tour with Scott Boylston, professor of Design Sustainability at SCAD. No disrespect to the other units, but it was love at first sight, as they say.
SCADpad North America is the only SCADpad unit to have a greywater filtration system tied into its shower and sink. And most conveniently, SCADpad’s community garden is located directly behind the structure in so that the recycled water can be used for irrigating a wide variety of herbs, veggies, and ornamental plants housed in handy-handy powder-coated steel modular pots designed by Eric Grey. In addition to natural sunlight peeking in through the multi-story car park, light for the plants is provided by an innovative fiber optic sun harvesting system.
The unit also has its own vermicomposting bin, alongside traditional rubbish and recycling bins, to generate nutrient-rich fertilizer for the garden. Back inside, other sustainable features include a dual-flush toilet, LED lighting, Energy Star appliances, and more. Like the other units, SCADpad North America has 3 1/2 inches of fiberglass batt insulation with an R-value of 11 in the walls, ceilings, and floors.
From the minute you walk in the front door, it becomes obvious that SCADpad North America — much of the interior art work and design elements were created by Louisiana-born artist Marcus Kenney to reflect the “American spirit of self-determination — is heavy on the found/salvaged/vintage/recycled. The result is weird, wild, warm, wonderful, and massively charming with highlights that include flooring (and the interior side of the unit's door) made from vintage wooden ruler/calling cards and interior walls hand-pinned with tiny strips of surplus leather arranged in a distinctive Navajo pattern.
And then you look up. I’m not sure quite how to describe the ceiling of the unit’s main living space other to say that it’s literally eye-popping. An intense, intricate installation composed of thousands of buttons, beads, notions, leather strips, fabric, feathers, fur, twinkling lights, and a few errant plastic eyeballs, the ceiling grabs you and doesn’t let go. It’s all very Eye of Sauron meets “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in the American Southwest.
Like the other SCADpads units and the SCADpad community as a whole, nearly everything — from the cutlery to the cups to the organic cotton bath linens to the lovely handcrafted vegan bath products — inside SCADpad North America is SCAD-produced, leading to the sensation that you're standing inside a fully functional living space by the way of the world's coolest design store. And then there's the unit's compact bathroom (sink, shower, commode) which, in-line with overall rustic-funky Americana/urban camping theme, boasts a gorgeous landscape painting by Katherine Sandoz that wraps around the entire space (Sandoz also created the bathroom's turtle shell inlaid mirror, the aforementioned hand-dyed organic cotton bath towels, and other accessories found throughout the unit). It's almost like showering in the great outdoors. Almost.
Now, on to the big question: what was it like residing in a gorgeously appointed urban cabin installed in a park garage, even if just for a single night?
Aside from the slight panic that set in when I realized there were dozens of eyeballs glaring down at me from the ceiling, it was nothing short of lovely. For a single person, 135-square-feet (plus outdoor living space) seemed perfectly manageable (four would be a crowd). I never once felt claustrophobic as the ceilings were high and there was plenty of room to move around. And the gentle roar of Atlanta’s freeway system just a few hundred feet from the garage, was reassuring, even soothing — a very apropos white noise machine. I slept soundly.
Installing an iPad-controlled smart window system in lieu of regular blinds was a nice, tech-forward touch and provided instant privacy at just the touch of a button. I was, however, left wondering how a lack of conventional, operable windows would affect the unit on sweltering days. Each SCADpad unit is equipped with mighty but small HVAC systems (Mitsubishi mini-split systems gracefully concealed in the ceiling of each unit) and ventilation fans in the bathrooms. Plus, one could always open the front door for natural airflow. Yet the ability to throw open the windows for a nice cross breeze isn't a possibility in the prototype units. Maybe a design consideration in the future ...
And my other main other concern revolved around a near-absence of storage space in the prototype units. There were indeed clever pull-out drawers under the sitting area/daybed along with some kitchen storage in SCADpad North America. However, I do wonder if additional shelving or some other smart storage solution could be added in future replications. The tiny house trend is all about living deliberately and doing away with the unnecessary stuff that keeps us tied down. But as I dozed off to sleep that night in my gorgeously appointed micro-dwelling, both inspired and exhausted, all I could think was: so, where would my books go? My shoes?
In the end, SCADpad is a prototype concept — not a definitive answer to urban micro-housing but a dialogue starter. Over at the SCADpad website, you can follow this dialogue as SCAD students move into the units for short-term residencies and share their experiences via social media. As an outsider who helped break in one of the units for them, I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.
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