Remember woodshop, that junior and senior high school “tech ed” elective presided over by a wary, dart-eyed instructor with little patience for adolescent shenanigans and a couple of missing fingers? The class that supplied you with endless grandparent-perfect gifts like pencil holders and Lazy Susans? That hands-on, more-fun-than-PE hour of the day when you got to don work gloves and a pair of safety goggles and let your imagination run wild?

Perhaps you don’t.

Like another decidedly throwback offering, home economics, woodshop is a dying breed. Once ubiquitous, few American high schools still offer it and in the schools where it still exists, it’s often at risk of being axed under budget constraints.

In Seattle, however, the sawdust is flying and the skill-building spirit of woodshop class is very much living on in the form of Sawhorse Revolution, a nonprofit education program that allows local high school students to dig and create through group craft and carpentry projects. Unlike shop class of yesteryear, however, the young makers participating in Sawhorse Revolution — offered as an after-school program throughout the spring and fall and as an intensive, summer camp-based residency program during the month of August — aren’t churning out chopping blocks and footstools. Instead, they work in small teams alongside professional Seattle-area builders, craftspeople and architects to design and build fully realized structures for the surrounding community.

Sawhorse Revolution's student carpenters building a tiny house, Seattle

Sawhorse Revolution: Kind of lIke shop class but a big, community-bettering difference. (Photo: Alec Gardner)

With an eye toward social justice, community-building and environmental sustainability, past Sawhorse Revolution projects include, but are certainly not limited to, an extensive remodeling project at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in West Seattle (spring 2013); the creation of a lovely charred cedar garden shed for the Judkins P-Patch (Seattle-speak for a community garden) in the city’s Central District (fall 2013); new housing for the resident critters (chickens, rabbits, geese) at the Seattle Children’s PlayGarden, also in the Central District(fall 2013); and beautiful new benches and an arbor at the Beacon Hill Food Forest (summer 2014).

Last but not least, there’s Fortnight Summer Camp, a summer camp program held at Smoke Farm in rural Arlington, Washington, where Sawhorse Revolution students embark on full-scale fort-making projects. (The Stranger published a fantastic article about the camp in 2013).

Sawhorse Revolution's student carpenters building a tiny house, Seattle

The Nest, a micro-housing project designed by Sawhorse Revolution's student contractors, is currently in the build stage. (Photo: Alec Gardner)

Tiny houses that make a big difference

In the fall of 2014, Sawhorse Revolution kicked off what’s perhaps its most meaningful project yet: Impossible City, a collection of off-grid tiny homes and other structures that, together, will eventually form a moveable eco-village of sorts for one of Seattle’s most well-known homeless encampments, Nickelsville.

Like high school woodshop, the very notion of a self-governed community for the homeless might seem a touch antiquated, bringing to mind the tent cities and “hobo camps” of yesteryear. In affordable housing-strapped Seattle, however, established homeless encampments like Nickelsville — named after former mayor Greg Nickels — are very much a reality. Presently, there are three large, city-recognized camps with more on the way.

For many, these encampments, usually hosted on private or church-owned vacant parcels, are preferable to shelters as they often offer more security, stricter rules and a greater chance of successfully transitioning out of homelessness and into housing arrangements of more permanence. And while these formal encampments are indeed ephemeral in nature — Nickelsville and its 40 to 100 residents relocates roughly every 3 to 18 months to different sites on the fringes of Downtown Seattle with its current location being on South Dearborn and 10th Streets — they do offer residents a more lasting sense of community.

Having already completed one salvaged street sign-sided micro-home for the Nickelsville community with a second transportable tiny house — dubbed “The Nest,” the project is mentored by Olson Kundig Architects — now under construction, Sawhorse Revolution has taken to Indiegogo to raise funds for additional micro-housing projects that will improve the quality of life at Nickelsville.

Portable housing for Seattle's Nicklesville homeless encampment

Sawhouse Revolution aims to tackle a trio of micro-housing models as part of Impossible City (Rendering: Sawhorse Revolution)

A cooking area for Seattle's Nickelsville homeless encampment

A modular outdoor kitchen would give Nickelsville residents a dedicated place to cook and prep meals. (Rendering: Sawhorse Revolution)

On Sawhorse Revolution’s shortlist?

For starters, students would design and build a variety of tent-replacing micro-shelters, some inspired by disaster relief housing, that would be either collapsible in nature or extremely easy to move considering the transitory nature of Nickelsville itself. Also on the list is a solar hub for recharging devices and battery-powered gadgets like flashlights, a modular community food cooking/prep space and composting portable latrines.

Sawhorse Revolution notes that sanitary bathroom facilities would be the most difficult to execute but are also incredibly vital. Rental porta-potties (“honey buckets” in Northwest vernacular) are one of the most financially draining elements for the Nickelsville community along with the costs for water, gas and generators.

In total, the community pays upwards of $2,000 per month for these necessities.

A student built/designed micro-home at Seattle's Nickelsville homeless encampment

The petite yet comfortable Green House at Seattle's Nickelsville homeless encampment. (Photo: Alec Gardner)

Saying goodbye to the grid

As part of Impossible City, Sawhorse Revolution has eyed sustainable design practices as a way to alleviate the aforementioned costs associated with setting up camp. Essentially, Nickelsville needs to remove itself — or remove itself a bit further — from the grid.

Explains Sawhorse Revolution executive director Adam in a press statement: “It wasn’t hard to realize that we really needed to engage with off-grid living practices to build for an off-grid community! That idea also inspired the use of salvaged and up-cycled materials whenever possible.”

Along with the nonprofit’s standard emphasis on “beautiful design and a user-centered approach to architecture,” Sawhorse Revolution also sees Impossible City as a chance for students to familiarize themselves with emerging green technology. While Sawhorse Revolution doesn’t bill itself as a straight-out vocational program for teens, it does instill new skills, build confidence and foster practical — and potentially career-shaping — teamwork:

The Sawhorse Revolution crew advocates that green technology can be uniquely applied to homeless encampments. Without existing, city-linked infrastructure in a camp, there’s the option for a lot of creativity to employ new technology. Plus, green technology’s modularity allows for electricity and more to be harvested anywhere, freeing the camps to move as they need to, without heavy bills. It’s certainly a challenge to engage new technology, but the group hopes that this application of innovative design methods can inspire others. Besides, in bringing sustainable building and solar energy knowledge to a new generation, this project is doing more than simply applying green technology to a good cause. The Impossible City also allows students an incredibly rare and meaningful opportunity to experience the benefits of best practice green building, passive housing, and solar energy.
While ambitious and altruistic, Sawhorse Revolution program director Sarah Smith points out that Impossible City is not an attempt to solve homelessness in Seattle. That isn’t — and never will be — the ultimate goal of its work with Nickelsville. “It's a small piece of a very large puzzle, but a (hopefully) meaningful, inspiring, and really helpful one, at least to those in Nickelsville camp,” she explains.

To learn more about Impossible City — and, of course, to help back the project – head on over to the Indiegogo campaign page. As of publication, the campaign is 91 percent funded; Sawhorse Revolution is roughly $3,000 away from reaching its $32,205 goal with 10 days to go until the campaign ends.

And because this is a crowdfunding campaign, each different donation level comes with a different perk including bandanas (“because every true revolutionary needs a trusted bandana”), t-shirts, Sawhorse Revolution insignia-stamped toolboxes and the much-beloved staple output of student carpenters everywhere, the plywood stool.

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.