Story of the Month

November 2022: Constant Innovation

Our Story this month reveals the beauty and power of a woman leading—in a way Barb Oliver calls “Constant Innovation.”

Barb Oliver

A woman on a mission

Barb Oliver, Director of Operations/ Volunteer Coordinator, with Sound Foundations NW is both fearless and caring. She grew up, like many of us, with our culture’s stereotypes of what women should do and what men should do. “My Dad wouldn’t let me use a hammer, she comments, “because I was a girl.” And now – – – here she is, in a situation where she daily oversees a busy, buzzing construction process. Sound Foundations NW constructs tiny transitional homes for the homeless, hundreds of them.

One of her favorite experiences, Barb explains, is “teaching.” Since all the homes are constructed by volunteers, she has lots of opportunity to teach. A favorite task, she acknowledges, is teaching women to use power tools. “It empowers them!” With a gleam in her eye, she shares how much she loves this work. “It’s like watching a flower bloom.” Many of the volunteers, both women and men, have never worked in construction before, and have never held a power tool. Here they get the satisfaction of developing new skills – as well as – the satisfaction of seeing a tiny home grow from a pile of lumber to a home, using a wide assortment of tools. To know that they had a hand in creating this home – is precious satisfaction for the volunteers.

Barb oversees around 20-25 volunteers, six days per week. Our volunteers are indeed our most valuable resource,” she explains. Folks who have no experience in construction use power saws to cut 10 Ft. long 2 x 4s into rafters, position shingles in place on roofs, paint, install flooring, build steps, and lots of other tasks.

While some volunteers have no experience with construction, others have extensive experience.  When a person with a great deal of experience in construction tells Barb, “We should be doing this (a specific step in the process) this way, “ she responds in one of two ways:

  • “Yes, we could do that. In fact we have tried that and this was our experience:. . . .  .” so we changed to the way we are doing it now, the way it is described in our manual.”     OR
  • “That sounds like a good idea. Let’s do it the way you describe it and see how that works for us, and, if it works well, we’ll write it into our How-To Manual.”)

Barb expands on this because this is one of her leadership principles:

“We set a tone here that ‘Everyone’s ideas are welcome!’

Instead of a lot of ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it,’ conversation, we have

Constant Innovation! ”

Inside one tiny home

Barb says, “I live by the ‘Law of Abundance: ‘Ask, and it shall be given.’”   “Regularly,” she explains, “I ask myself ‘What can I do to help others?”  This is the message she shares with young people who are identifying the principles that will guide their decisions.

“It was this question, ‘What can I do to help others?’ that I was asking myself when I learned about the need for a Director for this organization,”  Barb told us.

When she responded to this need and accepted the role and responsibility of directing Sound Foundations NW she faced an empty 15,000 square feet of warehouse space.

“I’ve always been very organized,” Barb acknowledged – so – she set to work envisioning what needed to happen in this space, what steps were required, and what the sequence of those steps should be.  With a drawing board and cardboard cutouts representing the steps in the process, she designed an assembly line for creating the tiny homes.  That design, along with some of the innovations that volunteers have contributed, has been used by volunteers to build over 260 homes.   The photo below shows how some of those tiny homes have enabled a Homeless Camp to become a vibrant community.

Of course, it takes more than a building, to create Community.  Barb is clear about that.  Based on her research, and her lived experience with tiny homes, she has this to say about homelessness:

“Homelessness is not about a lack of a house. Homelessness is about a lack of COMMUNITY.”

On the Sound Foundations NW web site:       she elaborates on her understanding of “community” and the relationship between homelessness and community.

How is “community” developed?

There is no set of rules established by some one or some organization that says this is how you will live together in community.  Instead, Barb says, ”It is what happens inside the village.  The village provides an environment for the formerly homeless to teach each other about community.   She explains that the tiny home villages are all self-governed.  “Each week they meet to establish the rules of their village, work through any conflicts, and plan events.”  As they do this they are gradually building trust with one another. “They also all take turns doing security shifts which involves not only walking the village to make sure everyone is safe, but also cleaning the kitchen, bathrooms, showers, laundry facilities, and picking up litter inside and outside of the village.”

Keys symbolize a Tiny Home to some residents.   “Now I can go to a job interview and know that my sleeping bag will still be here when I return.” One resident explained.

As cities all around the Globe seek to end homelessness, tiny homes, and especially Barb Oliver’s deep knowledge of community do, indeed, offer HOPE .

“We share our unique build system with any non-profit or municipality who wants it free of charge.  Currently our system is in use in 22 cities in the United States as well as three other countries outside of the US.”

Fortunately for us – prior to our “press time” Sound Foundations Northwest volunteers achieved an amazing goal!  Barb Oliver got to lead the celebrations.

WE DID IT!  Sound Foundations NW has now built and donated over $1 million of tiny homes to LIHI and the Tiny Home Village community!!