Hopeful promise or looming threat?

I don’t know how the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) team chose the five full-scale buildings to be in the Home Delivery exhibit, but I applaud their choices. Erected on a vacant lot, the mini-village offers a diversity of perspectives about how new approaches to fabrication might have an impact on architecture and lifestyle, and in turn, how technology might have an impact on fabrication. I used the word might instead of will, because while the projects give a sense of the great force of ingenuity we can expect in the coming years, they each pose as many questions as answers.

MOMA Prefab exhibitThe ultimate question is not “How will we build?” but “How will we live?” When you visit Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, the outdoor museum attempts to help visitors understand both questions: the reconstruction of 18th century buildings make up a historical village that is occupied by actors who attempt to reenact what life was like in the old-world context. The point is to help one understand what was built, how it was built, how the resulting buildings affected life, and vice versa. I thought of this as I toured the MOMA outdoor exhibition. People acting the lifestyle suggested by the buildings would have been an interesting addition to the exhibit. Architects should never forget that homes are more about function than art and more about life than technology, but they can be remarkable indeed when they are also art and when the technology is deployed for the right reasons.

There are five homes in the exhibit, but I only went into four of them. The smallest one, The Micro Compact Home (foreground), caused my claustrophobic tendencies to surface. I toured it from the outside, peering through the windows. Still, it’s quite a feat. It’s the work of British architect, Richard Horden, who managed to shoehorn two beds, a sitting area, a table, dining space for five, HVAC, a shower, toilet, kitchen, broadband internet, clothes storage and two flat screen TVs in a very compact 2.2 ton cube. So, all the accouterments of modern living are there, but it looked to me like a too-heavy, immobile tent, not a place where one could really live. So, lock yourself in your bathroom and try to fathom what it would be like if this was also your bedroom, your kitchen, your living room and your office. If that sounds good, you’re in luck. You can buy The Micro Compact Home for around $40K-$50K. It would be pretty impressive, except there are better executions of the same idea that float or have wheels.

Burst 008I did walk through BURST 008, the work of Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier. As The Micro Compact Home drew out my spatial irrationality, BURST 008 grated on my natural irritation about bad detailing and workmanship. BURST is a cool trick that melds a design concept, parametric algorithms, plywood and laser cutters. It basically works and that should be impressive, but the result looks like a tree house built by a Carpentry 101 class. I didn’t know whether it was the fault of the design, the algorithms, the laser cutters, or the people who assembled it. The cuts were rough, the fits were bad, and I had the sense that the whole unit might not be completely structurally resolved, which made me nervous. I noted there were a few too many people touring with me for my comfort, and quickly reduced the load by one.

It is nearly always obvious and unfortunate when builders try their hand at being architects: all the skills of their real trade can’t overcome their lack of skills as designers. BURST 008 shows what happens when architects and programmers think they don’t need the skills of a builder: their good design skills don’t prevent them from abusing valuable building materials. There are good ideas here, but they aren’t yet well executed, but who knows? With the right design, the right algorithms, the right materials, a better cutting machine and improved building details, the next BURST just might take off. As it exists in the exhibition, it’s only an elaborate plywood shack.

MOMA: Instant houseThe Instant House by MIT Associate Professor Larry Sass is also not quite ready for prime time, but the execution is precise and the result is quite sophisticated. The home model that was built for the exhibit was called, “Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans.” Its design was derived from the vernacular architecture of historic New Orleans. Using exactly the same set of tools as BURST 008 (design concept, parametric algorithms, plywood and laser cutters) Sass and his team developed an interlocking tab-and-slot system. The outcome is a precise and flexible kit of parts that allows them to make everything in the building, including columns, ornamentation, and the complete structural shell, using connections and details that could be applied in large and small scale, and in the creation of numerous building elements.

InstantHouse frontIt’s a good start, but there is some work to be done before one would think of Instant House as a real building system. It creates a structural shell, but it still needs a protective skin on the outside and a more appropriate finish on the interior. It also needs accommodation for mechanical systems, insulation and lots of structural testing. Still, Instant House is a strong demonstration of the potential of bringing emerging software and cutting technology to help solve the big problems in homebuilding. For me, this one was a hit, even if not yet a livable house.

System3, by Austrian architects Oscar Leo Kaufmann and Albert Rüf, is the one you would go to if you were trapped in the exhibit in a snowstorm. It’s a complete home with a tight envelope ready for living. Like The Micro Compact Home, this isn’t a prototype; it’s a product that is being sold in Europe. As such, it displays European craftsmanship and attention to detail. The solid wood shell is made from laminated wood elements that are common products in Europe. This is an attractive, modern home and a bunker. For that, I like it. It’s also a clever system. It’s a box made up of component elements that can be configured in a variety of ways. In addition, the box itself can be attached to other boxes side by side and stacked one on top of another, or both. In this way, System3 can be a detached single family home with various size and configuration possibilities, or it could be a multifamily complex with numerous variations. If fact, it could be a village of boxes.
MOMA: System3System3 is very good. It’s also a proprietary product, and since I wasn’t there to buy a home, but to steal ideas, it bored me. The one great idea I might have stolen is the separation of the complex mechanical areas from living areas. But Kaufmann and Rüf had already stolen the idea from Louis Kahn’s distinction between “servant” and “served,” calling it “serving” and “naked,” instead. In any event, we had already developed our own version of the idea for Unity House in which we developed a “mechanical bar” with kitchen, bathrooms, and mechanical room, that serves the private and public living areas. With nothing more to steal, I moved on.

The Cellophane House by KieranTimberlake is the most ambitious and also the most intriguing building in the exhibit. Before I say more, I need to also say that our company built Loblolly, another widely-known KieranTimberlake project, and I will be co-presenting with Steve Kieran at two separate conferences this fall. So, I’m a little close for complete objectivity, but I’ll try.
Cellophane HouseCellophane is a real house, architecturally compelling, and the biggest in the exhibition by far. System3 is the other complete house and could have been equivalent in size, but it would have been rather expensive to import more boxes from Austria. Instant House and BURST didn’t attempt to show how the whole house would work, so they are more demonstrations of an automated system to produce a building shell. In those cases, how the shell would become a livable home still requires some imagination. But Cellophane has five levels and most everything a modern home requires is accounted for: bathrooms, mechanical room, laundry, kitchen, bedrooms and living area. Except for some unresolved building details (big gaps in the building skin, for instance), one can imagine living there, at least on a seasonal basis.

More than anything else, Cellophane House is a physical exhibit of a philosophy. Where Instant House and BURST are particular solutions using software and laser cutters, and where System3 is a particular rectangular building block, KieranTimberlake contemplates an approach to design and construction that could be accomplished in an endless variety of ways, with an endless variety of materials. Their approach has been to develop a process of building that is a temporal assembly of fabricated components that, if logically separated, but strategically connected, can make up a complete house in a manner that is systematic and flexible. The details and the architecture itself celebrate the distinct functions rather than acceding to the notion that buildings are defined by the massing of the intertwined elements of the building shell. Each component type is integrated into the building assembly with connections that are intended to make the building easier to construct in the first place, and easier to demount for reuse or recycling in the future. The idea is that an efficient, sustainable construction method also considers a plan for its sustainable demise. In its philosophical ideal, it’s an Erector Set, constantly regenerating into new forms.

Cellophane House (like Loblolly House) passes two important thresholds in my mind. It is first of all a demonstration of excellent, evocative modern design, while secondly also being a demonstration of an innovative approach to building construction that has few limitations. The KieranTimberlake team is definitely on the right track.

I don’t think I could live in the Cellophane House. Transparency may be a good thing in politics, but doesn’t strike me as a good idea for a private residence where a sense of security is typically an essential quality. But that’s a small quibble and a personal one. There are other Philip Johnsons (the Glass House architect) out there, who don’t mind their private lives being fully exposed. The fact that KieranTimberlake was able to make nearly every aspect of the home with either transparent or translucent materials is further evidence of the ultimate flexibility of the idea.

My main disagreement with the KieranTimberlake idea is that it assumes that buildings can’t or won’t endure. I agree that many parts of a building should be designed to be easily demounted and easily reconfigured or replaced. But I don’t agree with the goal to make buildings more transitory than they already are. It takes a mighty effort to create a house, especially one that can fight off hurricanes and can cut off heating and cooling bills. I’m therefore much more comfortable with the notion that the shell of the building should be relatively permanent, while most other aspects should be designed and built to be easily changed and upgraded.

Even this is a minor complaint, I suppose. I would just change the scaffold idea for a very strong, permanent beautiful structure that could also be dismantled and reused at the end of its long, multi-century life. (Hey, that sounds like a timberframe!) Then, I would wrap that frame with a thick (and opaque) skin that would reduce the energy requirements to a bare minimum for that long life. (Hey, that sounds like the Unity House wall system!) Everything else could be changed, improved and reconfigured at the whim of the homeowners. (Hey, that sounds like Open-Built®!)

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