Gregory Kloehn Designs Homes for Those in Need

Gregory Kloen with a work in progress [photo: Rachel Walther]

Gregory Kloehn (Glass 1998) is working hard to build a better community -- literally. At his West Oakland live-work space, he is engaged in an ongoing project to build mobile shelters for the homeless residents of his neighborhood.

His efforts have attracted attention from all over the world, and from all types, from off-the-grid survivalists to the media (he’s been featured on Inside Edition, Rachel, and many other shows) to green-minded micro-home design enthusiasts.

Read the San Jose Mercury News and KQED features on Gregory Kloehn.

What was the first tiny “mobile” home you worked on?

The first was a home made out of a (new) dumpster, in 2010. The idea was intriguing in the same way that Tetris is: How can I best utilize a six-by-six-foot space and still have room to move around?

At first I intended to keep the construction bare-bones -- a shower, a toilet, a kitchen with a sink -- but then I started thinking that if I was going to spend all this time with the project, I should go luxury. I put in a real hardwood floor and granite countertops. If you only need one square meter of hardwood, it doesn’t cost much.

The finished project attracted a lot of attention.

It really took off! A friend shot some footage and put it up on YouTube, and I started getting calls from all over the world -- New Zealand, Japan, Germany. They ran the gamut from off-the-grid survivalist types to people like Rachael Ray: “How cute! It’s got a granite countertop!”

A lot of people ask questions like, “What’s your angle? Are you poking fun of people who live on the street?” I was just trying to challenge myself. I also found myself wishing I could plop the container in downtown San Francisco and see how long I could live there and get away with it.

If you go to the financial district and set up a tent, you’ll last five minutes. But what about a dumpster?

Where’s the dumpster home now?

It was taken to New York last summer to film the Rachael Ray segment, and I decided to keep it back East. There’s an art foundation in Brooklyn that lets me park it in their yard, and so now, when I go to New York for work, I can live in it while I’m there.

In addition to my own design projects I work on a freelance basis doing metalwork, plumbing, and basic construction. And helping other artists with their large-scale projects.

What is it about home design and construction that is compelling to you -- and so many other people?

Everyone wants to live the dream and own their own home. And the tiny dwellings I’m making aren’t cookie-cutter-subdivision houses where you just choose the wall color and the cabinets. I design every aspect. Which makes it more of an art project.

So, would you call this work art, design, construction, or all of the above?

I just want to keep breaking down definitions -- to keep crawling back to the artistic side from the practical side.

How did you come to live in West Oakland?

When I first bought my property in 1999, it was a burned-out hull. It wasn’t even zoned residential. I bought it while I was graduating from CCA(C), so, from being in art school and working with glass sculpture, I found myself thrust into learning real estate development.

It was a great experience, but there definitely moments where I was cringing, wondering “What did I do?”

By 2006, the neighborhood had turned around, and I sold some of the lots for a quite a bit of money. Everyone was telling me that it had been a brilliant strategic move, but I didn’t go into it to make money; I just wanted a studio.

But now, since I own the remaining property outright, I just pay taxes and water. That financial independence really frees me up, both money-wise and time-wise.

How did the neighborhood begin to influence your projects?

I was watching the homeless people and the structures they build, and found it all pretty impressive. The whole green movement toward tiny homes was emerging, and I thought “You wanna talk green?!”

These folks don’t have cars or electricity; they’re building shelters for themselves entirely out of garbage and recycled goods.

I started gathering the same stuff they use and bringing it back to my studio to make tiny homes for them. I use screws and glue, to make them a little more permanent. And wheels, so they’re mobile.

How are these shelters different from the dumpster home?

They’re basic survival shelters. Everything other than the screws, nails, glue, and wheels is from the streets. I use old carpet, refrigerator shelves, pallets, plywood. The materials I find dictate the shape. I’m making one now entirely out of bed frames.

I pop in some windows and accents outside, add trim. I use paint I find on the street. Paint is hazardous waste and you have to pay to dispose of it, so I find a lot of perfectly good cans of paint illegally dumped in my neighborhood.

When I’m done with a shelter, I push it out into the street, give someone a bottle of champagne and a home, and watch them push it away!

How do the homes fare once they’ve been given to someone?

With a mobile dwelling like this, a person is never entrenched. They can wheel the home away from areas where the city is getting aggressive about clearing out homeless encampments.

And maybe they’ll keep it a little bit nicer and neater. They’ll care for it more because they know it’s not going to be swept away.

How did you transition from working with glass, which was your CCA major, to construction?

I put in two years toward a bachelor’s degree at Evergreen State College in Washington, then left to move to Amsterdam, and stayed there for four years working for a company that assists big-name artists who are constructing large projects for exhibits like the World’s Fair. I was working a lot with wood and metal and tools, and my interest was piqued.

When I returned to the U.S., I sublet an apartment in Oakland. Friends asked me what I wanted to do, and I told them I was thinking about art school. They said, “Well, there’s a really good one right here!” and that’s how I found CCA(C).

What I enjoyed most about the school was the free rein I was given to do a little of everything: casting glass, ceramics, metalwork, printmaking.

Were there any faculty members who made a particular impression?

The ones that stand out in my memory are Michael McClure and Clifford Rainey. Michael was a good teacher and a crazy guy! I appreciated Clifford’s old-school teaching style.

I also loved Bud Schmitt. He was a studio tech -- about 75 years old, smoked a pipe, and wouldn’t take any lip!