Designer and artisan Peter Abrams gestures to the small hexagon-shaped unit that mimics a honey bee cell and says, “There’s a social aspect with a beehive. And there is a sense of community and structure that we are trying to make in this space.”
Abrams is talking about one of his B Homes, the portable structures that he — along with Graham Apgar — is manufacturing in his new workshop in Trenton and showcasing monthly during full moons at the D+R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center in Princeton.
The next full moon gathering — which includes music, refreshments, music, and a fire — is Saturday, July 12, 5 to 9 p.m.
Abrams calls the bee-inspired structures and his company B Home LLC. The “B” in the name, he says, “started as ‘bee,’ and then went to ‘B’ as in ‘Plan B’ to serve as an emergency shelter.” He adds there is also the idea of “be,” as in “being.”
Abrams buzzes with ideas and connects the B Houses to a variety of uses, but mainly the social, “Everyone deserves decent shelter. I see (the structures) as an emergency shelter.” Or easy-to-build and affordable buildings created for the homeless or displaced.
Their affordability is based on the fact that they can be made from handy, often recycled materials — mainly 40-by-48-inch discarded shipping pallets. The houses are also easy to build, thanks to the design plans the B Home provides online at thebhome.com.
“On our website we have the rendering and plans and as much detail as possible, including measurements and angles. We are open-sourcing everything we do regarding copywriting. It is the best way to get the project out there and get feedback. I would like to see how others do (the units) and get some feedback from them. It’s cross-pollination to get other ideas. I want to disseminate ideas and create a buzz.”
He also says he wants to see how to drive the projects for as little monetary investment as possible. While Abrams talks altruism, he also sees a business side and says that one can create hive structures for small studio spaces, and by “creating garden structures that suburbanites can have to hang out in a garden.”
Visitors to one of the full moon gatherings can enter and interact with the B Homes that include a sitting room with a table or the mobile B Bread Truck with an oven and a table for sharing.
“I built that thing for the price of the screws,” he says pointing to one of the small structures in the low metal utilitarian workshop that he is renting at 307 North Clinton Avenue in Trenton. “You’re able to sit inside it and get the feeling of the hexangular shape.”
Besides thinking about the feel of the structure, Abrams is also thinking about the resources used to create one. “We’re particular about our materials. We are looking at bamboo. It’s fast growing and sustainable. It’s a beautiful plant. It regenerates so you can cut the same piece. But we’re still on the pallets. I love the pallets because they’re ubiquitous and cheap. The challenge for me is to find the least expensive and easiest way to make (the house).”
Abrams says that his entry into creating B Homes was with the mobile bread truck. He and a graduate student from the Parsons School of Design were commissioned by Princeton University cultural anthropologist Nadezhda Savova. As a UNESCO consultant, Savova began looking for an art form that crossed international boundaries. During a visit to Bethlehem — the name means “house of bread” — she realized that bread-making and bread-breaking were universal and had the power to engage and involve.
“Her idea was to bring (bread houses) to neighborhoods. I had been working with Princeton University on a project, and she commissioned me to build it. But I had to do it my own style,” he says.
The B Bakery is now becoming a familiar presence in the region, seen over the past month at the Roberto Clemente and Gandhi Garden parks in Trenton, the annual Art All Night event, and monthly at the D & R Greenway. “It gives people an opportunity to get together in a neutral territory, a place where you can sit and talk. And kids in this area (of Trenton) don’t have an opportunity to connect with their food. So there’s an educational aspect.”
Abrams’ approach to the mobile bakery was to mimic the bee and use the hexagon for simplicity and strength. “There might be arguments from (architect and writer) Buckminster Fuller. He’d say that the geodesic uses the least amount of materials to enclose the largest space. I would say that the hexagon uses the least amount of materials for the most usable space. If you have a round wall, the space only has volume. But I use (the hexagon) more for a human habitation. It has to have functionality. It also has the strength that you get in other shapes, like the square, which has lateral force. But I like the feeling you get with a 120-degree angle rather than a 90 degree. People feel more comfortable,” he says.
Temperature is also a comfort issue. “Using a model that has 40 cubic feet of space, which is not a huge amount, heating is not that much of an issue. Once it is enclosed and air tight, it will heat. But cooling is more difficult. We incorporate air flow into the design. Warm air at the top will go out. As long as you have air going through, it will feel cool,” he says of this low-tech design that can also use fans.
While Abrams says the structures can be used in foreign lands — noting how the contained spaces can keep people cool while it protects them from malaria-carrying mosquitoes — he thinks of applications closer to home. “There’s the huge homeless population in Trenton. I see these as structures that can be used and provide a place where people can take a shower or lay their head down.”
Yet just as Abrams considers the sustainability of materials, he believes that there should be some sustainability beyond givers and takers. “I wouldn’t provide (the shelters) for free. I think people can pay for the respect and accountability and pride for actually paying something.” And that payment can come in many forms — sharing in the labor or providing services. “There is pride in ownership. By providing this structure they can get off the street and have that experience,” he says.
In addition to making the B Homes, Abrams is busy working on commissions, including creating decorative planters from used tires for the Trenton Downtown Association and other clients
While known to many in the region for his design work that uses metal cables to create fire pits and furniture and for his establishing the influential Trenton Atelier (more to follow), Abrams was born in New York City and raised on 77th Street and Columbus Boulevard, near Central Park and the Museum of Natural History (which he frequented).
He says a lot of the sensibilities that he uses to think about designs and their social applications “might come from growing up in a very diverse neighborhood and city and being exposed to certain realities at a young age.”
Says the 53-year-old artisan: “My father was a salesman, sold women’s shoes for different companies. My mother was a banker and worked for the First Women’s Bank. I have a younger sister, Julie, who just turned 50. She works in numismatic in New Paltz (New York). My brother is a day trader on Wall Street,” he says.
Abrams is married and has three kids and a dog. His Dutch-born wife, Francine, is an architect but has recently begun providing health counseling.
“Francine is the reason I am in Princeton,” he says of his wife, who moved with her family to the United States when her father took a position with the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., He then came to Princeton to work with Corning-Besselaar (now Covance).
Abrams and Francine met at Colorado University, where she was a student and he was visiting a friend. They met again in New York City, married in 1994 (in her parents’ Princeton backyard), and lived in New York in a one-room apartment while he was working in metal fabrication in Brooklyn. When they were expecting a second child, they decided to create a new life in Princeton. “Her folks were here and we had been coming for weeks,” he says. That was in 1997.
“Originally I got a job at the Johnson Atelier in the fabrication department, making other artists’ work. I was a hired gun. It was a great place after hours. You could work on your own stuff. But I got fired, moved on, and opened up a shop at the blacksmith shop on Olden Avenue (in Trenton and one of the only blacksmith shops in the state). I was doing fire bowls out of wire rope. It was a natural synergy. Trenton’s the birthplace of wire rope. I was also making things out of iron and found objects: picture frames, furniture, couches, chairs, coffee tables, fire bowls.”
Those bowls, he says, were one of his great pleasures. “I like it because it brings people outside and creates a community. It’s just a fire. But it creates moments that you don’t get when you’re sitting around a television.”
Abrams says his design and art background started at Cornell University and continued at Evergreen State College and the University of Wisconsin in Madison — where he became a member of the sustainability-oriented Nottingham Co-Op. His major study was art glass blowing, which he also pursued in Biot, France, a glass making center. “The reason I don’t do (glass blowing) is that the infrastructure is so high. You have to a have a vat of liquid glass and a large gas bill.” Other studies, he says, included dabbling in architecture and some engineering, which, to his displeasure, “required actual work. There’s not a lot of wiggle room in the engineering department.”
Accustomed to city life and work, Abrams eventually became more and more involved in Trenton and rented studio space in the building owned by the late city entrepreneur, artist, and two-time mayoral candidate Frank Weeden.
With an interest in having his own space in Trenton, Abrams discovered an abandoned property nearby at 20 Allen Street. He — along with two partners — purchased the property for $10,000 and in 2005 created the Trenton Atelier. It was an enterprise that brought artists into the center of the city and a community that involved artists, college students, recently released prisoners, and anyone wanting to join in.
While it created an arts movement, it also created headaches: when the partner relationship went sour, Abrams faced bills and back taxes alone. “I got burnt out. I had been working with Princeton University and was moving on. My wife was not interested. I was trying to make everyone happy. The shop had issues. It was broken into five times in one month.”
Yet he does not discount his intent. “I was always trying to create an ideal artists’ community. So I would rather try and fail.”
Abrams says his recent return to Trenton is simple and that the new place suits him. “Princeton is not for me. Trenton is where I belong. There is not really a place in Princeton to throw them around and make the mess that I make. The space is a great place. My tires literally come from across the street. Everything is here. There’s a lot more leeway. I have the whole space for either theater or music to generate revenue for the space. And we’re looking for people who want to invest some time and energy into building a gallery.”
A quick look at Abrams’ B Home website provides plenty of pictures, designs, and thoughts. It also includes something one wouldn’t connect to city-oriented activist: a paraphrased quote from Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century American author who wrote about his two years of living alone in the wilderness along the banks of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.
While Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods to live deliberately,” Abrams writes, “I went to the hood to live deliberately.”
When asked about the thought, Abrams says the connection to the naturalist began when his parents — whom he calls “two wonderful, loving and supportive” people — started sending him to a camp in Maine. “That got me my taste for the outdoors.” As for Thoreau, whose “Walden” deals with living frugally and with meaning, Abrams says, “I think he has some really good ideas that are not articulated. I remember reading him a while back and it resonated with me. When I put that post up, I was coming back to the ‘hood’ and creating what was necessary to do my work and provide a space for others too.”
His work also seems to be going beyond mimicking bees to learning firsthand from them by adding a hive into the mix. “A good friend of mine who keeps bees up in the Sourlands offered me a hive. As someone who works in found and free, it hit my stringent criteria. I guess it goes back to the mission of creating the most with the least, providing space to do ones work, and to be.”
It sounds as if Abrams was writing Thoreau’s September, 1852, journal entry on bees: “It taught me that even the insects in my path are not loafers, but have their special errands. Not merely and vaguely in this world, but in this hour, each is about its business.”
B Homes, Open House and Full Moon Gathering, D &R Greenway, Johnson Education Center, 1 Preservation Place, Princeton. Saturday, July 12, 5 to 9 p.m. Free. thebhome.com.