Extract from 'The Architecture People'
In Paddington where Luca and Vicki live there's no off street parking, there isn't even enough street parking as many cars take up more kerb space than the frontage of the terrace houses they belong to. They use public transport around the city of course, but keep their old car for visiting the Our Land clubs in the country and carrying the equipment to show their doco's.
The car was parked outside the house one night and Vicki had forgotten to lock it, and when she came down in the morning there was a man asleep in the back of the car. She woke him and he groggily thanked her for not locking the car, saying that it'd been cold last night. He was in his mid forties, she asked him in for coffee and something to eat and prised his story out of him.
He'd come from the country with his wife five years before, but had found it hard to get work and his wife had eventually left him; he had a drinking problem then, he explained. He wasn't very educated Vicki said, but seemed a nice bloke and he'd ended up living on the streets. He stayed in hostels when he could get one, and found unlocked cars good, he never damaged them and was usually gone in the morning with the owners unaware of how helpful they'd been. He'd never been given coffee before and asked if there were any jobs he could do, so she got him to clean up the garden and overpaid him.
Vicki has friends in the Jesuit Social Service and the Brother-hood of St Lawrence so she started making enquiries and was shocked at size of the problem. It's been estimated she tells me, that over one hundred thousand people are homeless on any particular night, and half of them are young men under twenty-five years old.
'Here we are,' she lectured Luca, 'living a comfortable life in a middle class suburb, and worrying about the environment, which is important of course but otherwise we are just like the rest of our selfish, consumer society. It's OK if you're smart like us, but God help you if you fall through the cracks like that poor bloke.'
Vicki's like me and feels personally responsible when she's confronted by things like this. I quoted that old Quaker saying to her, 'Thou feel strongly about this, thou must do it,' but do what?
On the spur of the moment she sent a letter to the local paper suggested that people should leave their cars unlocked for the use of the homeless; people could do good while they slept by allowing the homeless to sleep in their cars. She argued that most new cars have immobilisers that prevent the engine being hot wired, so if a car were left unlocked with no valuables in the car, thieves wouldn't be tempted to damage the locks to find out.
This simple idea went down like the proverbial lead balloon, most people were far too possessive about their precious cars! Luca was irritated that she hadn't discussed it first. It was a clever idea that turned conventional wisdom on its head, but you might have guessed that it wasn't one that would find popular favour. Luca thought it might make them look a bit naïve, perhaps it did but it showed she had a good heart.
Vicki found there were many good people grappling with the problem, largely in the face of government and community apathy, and of course she told Boo about the man in the car. Boo shares her mum's social conscience, and told me later it had nagged her for weeks. Instinctively her attitude was that our affluent society should be able to provide affordable housing for all, but while she couldn't solve such an intractable problem in its entirety, she thought that a good designer should be able to improve the emergency shelter aspect.
It struck my architect grand daughter that special hostels for the homeless were expensive and weren't the only answer, that many animals carried their own shelter with them. Boo had seen men sleeping in doorways covered in newspaper, perhaps only rudimentary change was needed to improve their conditions dramatically. She decided that whatever she devised not only had to be light and portable but also very, very cheap, and decided that a cardboard box might be the answer; a superior cardboard box that folded up and could be carried easily.
She didn't know much about modern paper technology, but wrote a performance specification to accompany her sketches. Ideally the cardboard should be that thick type with a corrugated core for light weight, strength and insulation, if possible the outside surface should treated to make it waterproof; it probably wouldn't be used in the open but would no doubt get wet sometimes. The joints should be slit in some way so the sides folded up into a lightweight, shallow box that could be carried like a suitcase, or on your back like a rucksack.
She sent her design and notes to Vicki together with a crude mock-up, thinking that her parents might be able to interest someone in the idea. It wasn't in any way a real answer to homelessness, she pointed out, but emergency help was better than nothing in the face of our society's inability to face up to the bigger picture.
Over the years Luca had maintained an extensive database of the Our Land clubs and their contacts, including sponsors who had been helpful. Trawling through this he found a cardboard and packaging factory in Tumut that had once been very helpful. Luca spoke to them, they liked the idea and advised him to go straight to the top, saying that the founder and chairman of the company was generous in helping good causes. Within days Luca had made a case to the founder, he was very interested and suggested Victoria should visit the factory and work up a specific proposal so it could be costed and a prototype made.
The company collected her at the airport in Albury, and she told me she had a great day understanding the limitations of the machines that cut and folded cardboard containers. Together they worked out a box of the right size and how it could be folded. She suggested there should be a ten centimetre cavity when it was folded for their few possessions, and the extra joints would help stiffen it. The engineers were quick in turn to make suggestions of their own to improve her basic idea, the machine runs would be short they explained, and the work could be sandwiched between longer commercial runs, so there should be little labour cost and low material costs.
The company discussed the other details with Luca. How many would be needed for example, and it was agreed that only fifty should be made at first so the design and the idea could be given a trial so they could learn from experience. Vicki arranged for them to be held at the Matthew Talbot Hostel in Woolloomooloo so when the hostel was full they could be handed out to anyone who wanted one.
And then one day Vicki saw 'the car man' in the street, so she picked him up and took him to the distribution centre for the cardboard company and got him a job looking after what had by now been called Sheltas. He was grateful and promised to try one for a week to see if any improvements suggested themselves.
It'd all worked out so well that Boo thought there should be classes in innovation at high school. Anyone could have good ideas and says she remembers me quoting Einstein about the over riding importance of imagination in making design break-throughs. Architects should be enrolled because design was their business, they should be encouraged to make suggestions when-ever they saw a need and leave it to people like Luca and Vicki to work out how to implement the idea in an affordable way.
Luca told me with pride that Boo was a chip off the old block, it's an expression I haven't heard for a while, and he's right, action will always be on her agenda.