Home Work: Contemporary Housing Delivery Systems

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Northeastern University, April 3, 2010

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Although this conference was called Home Work: Contemporary Housing Delivery Systems, it could have been called The Search for the Holy Grail. The allusion, made only half in jest, captures the idealistic belief of many of those presenting: armed with the right high-style, low-cost building systems, architects can reclaim the housing design kingdom lost to bottom-line builders and developers.

The first of three panels looked at the history and mythologies of architect-designed prefabricated housing. Efficient production, they suggested, can bring Modernism to the masses and create an authentic contemporary vernacular. Peter Christensen, curator of MoMA’s 2008 prefab housing exhibition, Karrie Jacobs, former editor of Dwell magazine, and Matthew Littell of Utile provided a survey of the technical explorations, formal investigations, and utopian aspirations that have inspired and frustrated designers for generations.

The second panel presented four delivery systems based on very different models. Houston-based Hometta sells stock house plans by up-and-coming young Modernist architects — for up-and-coming young Modernist buyers missing the money for a custom design. Bluhomes manufactures panelized houses that can be ordered online and unfolded on site. And Northeastern’s Peter Wiederspahn is developing e3Co, a foam-block and plywood building system reminiscent of larger-than-life Legos.

Joe Tanney of Res4Arch offered the most convincing evidence that prefabrication can help architects battle the purveyors of vinyl-clad Colonials. His custom-designed modules are based on a rigorous analysis of programmatic needs and production constraints; over the past decade, he has produced a stunning series of completed houses. Abstract but accessible, well-appointed but affordable, they hint that the Holy Grail might be within reach.

The third panel, however, laid out the vast terrain still to be conquered. Affordable-housing developer Peter Roth described the economic and political challenges that tend to defy architectural solutions. Architecture department chairman George Thrush and conference organizer Ivan Rupnik contrasted the single-family focus of the prefab effort with the need for a broad range of multifamily options. And David Wax of Free Green reminded the room full of designers that they can’t create their own markets but must respond to ones that exist. Good intentions and great design may not be sufficient to fight the dark forces controlling development — and to deliver the iHouse Thrush suggested we should be searching for.

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