2022 AIA CA DESIGN AWARDS
Special Commendation: Design for Equitable Communities
Architect: Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects
Project Location: Los Angeles, California
Photographer: Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects
EYRC’s Leimert Park Community Fridge project was designed and built by ten young practitioners in collaboration with the Leimert Park Chapter of Los Angeles Community Fridges. In 2021, the firm’s Design Justice Committee worked with LACF organizers to create a structure that could protect and improve the functionality of an existing community fridge. The design added 85 sf of storage and housing for the refrigerator, all beneath a simple roof of corrugated plastic.
“An incredibly thoughtful project that serves the needs of the community in an equitable way.” – 2022 Design Awards Jury
The system is designed to be adaptable, durable and easy to construct with affordable, low-impact materials consisting primarily of 4×8 plywood sheets. It was quickly embraced by the community once installed, with its plywood baptized with coats of paint in bright colors. The modular design also helped fulfill organizers’ goals to establish a repeatable framework for equitably distributed food and supplies that communities can manage independently, emphasizing horizontal resource-sharing at the neighborhood scale.
The architects’ approach was to research and understand cultural, social and economic contexts and align with stakeholder goals. Rather than impose outside ideas, they evolved an organic design response.
Leimert Park has long been a tight-knit space for Black Americans in South LA, with local businesses lining Degnan Blvd. The Community Fridge sat at its heart, adjacent to (and drawing electricity from) the Black-owned and -operated Hot and Cool Café.
By fulfilling a genuine and uncontrived need, the project was not only celebrated by residents but actively cared for and maintained.
The project exemplifies how a structure with a small footprint can have a large impact. As it exists underneath the overhang of an existing building, it did not have much if any ecological impact on its surroundings. The shelving allowed for tidier storage of food, avoiding errant trash polluting the ecosystem.
The only water necessary for upkeep of the project is the water needed to manually irrigate the herb planters. The planters are vertically stacked and have drainage holes so that any water dripping from the plant above may be used to water the plant below. Neither potable water nor grey/blackwater are used or stored in the structure.
The project was completed at minimal cost. A builder who follows assembly instructions can easily replicate the structure with materials costing $1,700 total.
The first two modules are identical in size with open, flexible shelving to accommodate a variety of products and an optional latched door for secure storage. The third, smaller module serves as an endcap to the overall structure, utilizing surface area otherwise left unused. The third module was also designed specifically to separate hygiene products from food, with this slight shift in location creating a clear delineation.
The only energy used for the project is the power necessary to run one refrigerator.
The Community Fridge presents a new paradigm to foster better health—physical and emotional—in poor neighborhoods. It is an accessible antidote to food insecurity and the stress that accompanies it. People can participate in various ways and take pride that their community nurtures its own.
Strict adherence to efficient use of low-cost materials made for better environmental results. The structure consists primarily of plywood, corrugated plastic sheathing for the roof, and metal hardware. No concrete was used. The wood was purchased from a local wood supplier a half mile from the office. Working with local businesses allowed us to reduce our carbon footprint in transportation.
The storage system was meticulously laid out as a kit of parts from a standard plywood sheet, with minimal waste. Digital fabrication was eschewed in favor of basic power tools.
A key ambition for all who worked on the Community Fridge Project was to bring about real change by creating a model that can be replicated by other stressed communities. The storage system is comprised of separate modules, with inherent flexibility for individual use and in combined arrangements. Only the simplest parts are required and a clear assembly instruction booklet is made available. Even the transportation and on-site assemblies were designed for ease: each module is sized for the bed of a standard pick-up truck and tied together on site during the installation of the roof system.
One challenge was enabling flexible usability while maintaining overall structural stability, which came to interrogate the role of adaptability itself as a design concept. After a few weeks of operation, it became evident that the movable shelves made to accommodate differently sized products ended up leaving the structure less stable than it might have been with fixed shelving.
Ultimately, flexibility was most critical not at the point of day-to-day use, but at the point of use-conversion and relocation. To that end, it was the project’s ease of disassembly, transport, and reassembly that eased the transition into its current use as a community garden storage facility and library.
The Community Fridge project was incubated and given birth by the Leimert Park community—the firm only assisted in its gestation. Its success lies in its appropriation by the neighborhood. The original fridge, decorated with a mural by a member of the community, is emblazoned with the words Free Food and Comida Gratis. Since its final installation in Leimert Park, the storage structure has been painted in a rainbow of exuberant colors.
Just as the Community Fridge grew out of a bottom-up effort by the residents of Leimert Park, this project was a bottom-up effort by the firm’s staff. It was not a directive given by the firm’s partners and leadership but a collective attempt to help the larger community of Los Angeles, prompted by witnessing systemic socio-economic disparities exacerbated by the pandemic.
This genuine desire to contribute to our shared community allowed an intimate relationship to form between those who gave their time and skills to the project and the Leimert Park Community. This facilitated an integrated design process between designer and stakeholder. The simple yet elegant design adopted and adapted by the community created a place to celebrate, not stigmatize, mutual aid and the distribution of healthy foods.
Los Angeles Community Fridges describe themselves as “a network of decentralized, independent refrigerators and pantries that provide food and vital supplies to our communities through mutual aid.” The fiercely community-oriented framework around open accessibility and resource distribution differentiates the fridges from institutionally-affiliated community engagement efforts.
Accessibility not only meant availability, but the possibility for autonomous adaptation by other neighborhoods. This informed the flexible structure and use of readily available materials, but also underscored the importance of an accompanying instruction booklet to maximize the design’s distribution as a public resource.
Many of the more functional lessons learned stemmed from the design’s simplicity and modular base, which encouraged experimentation and modification. A subsequent iteration for the El Sereno Community Fridge, for example, incorporated recycling and trash receptacles and a community bulletin board as add-ons to the original design – offering solutions to issues that might have not been addressed as swiftly were it not for the replicability of the structure.
Organizationally, identifying existing community infrastructure underpinned the project’s success.. Even if it involves more initial growing pains, true longevity rests on respect for, and maintenance of this communal foundation.
Our firm is proud to have established the groundwork for future collaborations and eager to continue serving our community.
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