Photography & video — Aleksi Poutanen
Text — Enni Sahlman

Tackling youth homelessness with design experiments: A Home That Fits



Can design solve a huge wicked problem in society? Cities are full of empty, habitable spaces. Helsinki City youth department is trying to find homes for homeless youths in unexpected places.


The youth community home in Kannelmäki closed its doors a few years ago. Soon the former youth home will transform into apartments for young people, but henceforth no one will be forced there. This time young people will live there on their own terms. In turn, the hundred-year-old villa on the island of Vartiosaari will house young people over the summer, and the retirement home’s residents will have company from young flatmates moving into the house. The City of Helsinki Youth Department’s “A Home That Fits” project has produced an excellent idea: using existing space and buildings that may not immediately come to mind when dealing with youth homelessness, for housing.

An even greater thought exists in the background: what if the methods of design could be used to solve a large, structural problem of society? The issue can be understood in more detail with the help of trials. Instead of waiting for the one perfect solution to arise, design makes it possible to quickly try out different options. Several countries are dealing with youth homelessness. Could Finland set an example with this experimental problem-solving model?

The designer helps build a community, not walls

The project, which began in spring 2015, includes a designer who helps transform the new living locations into functioning communities. The project team, strengthened by the designer, also seeks spaces that might not at first seem habitable. Shipping container living is a good example of this: no one wants to live in a container for a long time. However, for a student who has just moved to town, a few months of affordable container living helps save up the deposit for a longer-term apartment. Many locations, such as a youth home already in previous use, do not really need physical revamping. This means the designer can focus on people and opportunities instead of walls, and ensure that the shared living of a group of flatmates goes as smoothly as possible.

“Designers are used to wild thinking and aren’t shackled to certain formulas. Personally, it is often too easy to just fall into thinking about constraints,” says project manager at the Youth Department Miki Mielonen.

Young people without an apartment are themselves closely involved in the planning process. In Kannelmäki, the young people will form a group, and together with the designer and the adults of the Youth Department, come up with the ground rules for living and choose their future flatmates.

The most important work method is the shared experiments done by the young people and organizers, and even ideas that feel difficult are not shot down. The task of the designer is to make sure that the trials, which provide valuable information about what works and what does not, move forward. Problems that arise in the constantly evolving project are solved as they come.


In the best case, several problems are solved at once: the young person gets an apartment, empty space is put to use, and young people get to use their know-how in developing new homes. The pilot sample for Vartiosaari’s trial living was compiled from construction students, who will live on the island for the summer and renovate the old villa and its environment at the same time.

Apartments need young people

There have been more than enough willing partners for the project: they nearly form a queue. The trials and experiments being conducted at present are meant to be cultivated into continuous practices, that will provide permanent solutions to the metropolitan area’s youth homelessness.

The project has strengthened the belief that young people want to – and can be – involved in decision making. Several young people have expressed their desire to come and help, not because homelessness personally concerns them at the moment, but because they know someone whose situation is not as good as their own.

Young people should be trusted, as Vartiosaari’s beautiful old villa demonstrates. When young people are renovating their summer home, it makes the island nicer to visit for other citizens too.

“It is easily thought of young people that you can’t let them here, they will destroy this place. We want to show that the opposite is true: young people are needed to hold this place together,” designer Pablo Riquelme concludes.


Key lesson: Putting surprising spaces into use can help solve any problem: container living can be a good temporary solution for homelessness, and an old youth home quickly transforms into new apartments.

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