modular housing

There are a lot of really quite nice modular housing products designed by architects.  The state of standard residential design and construction is so deplorable and the potential promise in alleviating this through manufactured housing is so great that it is difficult not love these projects.  On a number of projects we have flirted with either complete or partial modular, if not panelized, construction to save time and money.  However, in each case we were proposing the design of a one-off, custom house – a process not suited to the advantages of the factory-built house.  In each case we later decided against modular construction for a number of reasons.

The recent designs by very talented architects are certainly a long way away from the double wide manufactured home, both in design and technical quality.

Pugh + Scarpa Vail Grant House

Marmol Radziner Desert House

And, there are an awful lot of websites and magazine articles fervently debunking the negative stereotypes of manufactured housing. Maybe their time has finally come.

However, I can not find myself jumping on the bandwagon.  Modular construction at its best allows for most of the construction to take place off-site and may be well suited for projects with very short building seasons or environmentally sensitive sites.  However, the high-design modular prototype that is flogged so relentlessly in architecture journals and websites is not generated from these conditions.  Rather it is proposed, en masse, as a solution to America’s dreadful housing stock.  I fail to understand how generically designed buildings, without input from clients or site-specific conditions, is any better than crappy builder plans of Tudors, Victorians and ranches.  I think the notion is that if we only lived in cool, Modern-looking homes then we would all be better off.  This is about the worse kind of ideological architectural language snobbery I can imagine.

So my protest against modular construction is in two forms:

1.  Modular prototypes are merely products, not architecture.  If they are generic and designed for imagined sites then they are no better than any other “model” homes.  This kind of work dumbs down architecture, both as a profession and an art.  It substitutes taste for invention and usually low-paid repetitive work for the skilled labor of carpenters, masons, roofers, etc.

2.  Modular construction of custom houses is an architect’s attempt to be even more of a control-freak over the building process than a set of drawings and specifications enables.  Rarely does the cost of construction, when you include everything including all utilities, foundations, etc. have significant savings over conventional construction.  Cutting the builder out of the process of making buildings again posits the building process as product design, and the proliferation of these designs online and in the design press compounds the notion that architecture is largely a visual medium.

Working with a good builder allows the architect and homeowner to craft the building over the life of the construction.  Changes are made, conditions are modified, serendipitous events become buildings.

Douglas Cutler Connecticut House

Specht Harpman zeroHouse

I certainly know that not everyone, in fact hardly any one can afford to build and live in an architect-designed custom home.  I can’t.  But I think it is ridiculous to think that the dreaded expanses of cookie-cutter suburban homes would be any better if the cookies had a different shape.

I would advocate an architecture that is site-specific, client-specific and instilled with the hands of the people who put the building together.  Later in life LeCorbusier’s pure white villas gave way to brutalist, “messy” buildings like the houses at Jauol.  The project was not a constructed abstraction direct from the architect’s head to the site.  Rather, it was embodied with the work, the opinions and the craft of masons, carpenters, glazers, etc.  Their work was not perfect, it was never intended to be, for a building is not prototyped product, it is a living, expressive entity, beautiful and functional in the least, and in the finest work, transcendent and poetic.

For my part, I will spend my time working on projects with real clients, challenging or not, on real sites, challenging or not, and making real buildings, with all the thrills and disappointments working with dozens of carpenters, painters, electricians, and craftsmen entails.

30th and Glenarm Condos, Northeast Denver Housing Center, Denver, Colorado

I recently passed by a project that was completed a number of years ago that was designed by myself, with Arcadea as the architect-of-record.

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This project started as a national AIA Young Architects competition in conjunction with Northeast Denver Housing Center and the convening of the AIA convention in Denver.  My wife, Kate Iverson, and myself conceived of the winning submission of a series of small, market-rate condos and some ancillary retail space for this site in Five Points, in Denver.

ND sketch 8.25

The character of the neighborhood has changed rather dramatically from the time of the initial competition to the final execution of the building five years later, to the current situation.  Once a challenged, under-served neighborhood with the parallel problems of unemployment and crime, the place has now been significantly upgraded by the local light-rail service and some questionable gentrification.  Some of the newer projects, like this one, were carried out by local non-profits on empty lots and greatly improved the neighborhood.  Many simply displaced existing residents.

Our solution to the problem of the site was to try to tie together the disparate scales of buildings on the adjacent streets and make a tough, but street-friendly building.  I think it has been successful on the architectural level, but on the socio-economic one, I am not the one to judge or maybe even comment.  So many things are beyond the reach of the architecture to positively effect.  We should at least stick to the “first do no harm” motto.

Sunshine Canyon house, architecture and interior design, Boulder, progress

northpatio

We are in the final stretch of construction on the house up Sunshine Canyon outside of Boulder, Colorado.  I was the Project Architect and lead designer for this project when it started at the office of Arcadea, and the project migrated with me as I started my own office, M. Gerwing Architects.  Because of the extensive amount of excavation, the project has taken a long time to build and I have now worked on it longer as M. Gerwing Architects than I did at Arcadea.

The photo above is from the North Patio looking south along the terrace that runs along the east face of the Living and Dining Room.  The terrace is 2′ square buff sandstone pavers, the wall stone is Oklahoma Brown veneer stone.  You can see that the wood panels have not yet been installed along the window wall – that should happen this week.

The plan below shows the enclosed area of the Main Level shaded.  Located on a steeply sloping site, we opted to make terraces at both the north and south ends of the house to make usable outdoor space that does not sit above the landscape, but rather can alongside it, with the ground level immediately adjacent.

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The heavy, dark walls in the plan are the large, surrounding stone walls, within which the house enclosure dances along, sometimes aligning with those walls, sometimes creating a new line of window/doors that look at the view through the piers of stone.

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This is a photo of the Master Bath, still very much in construction.  The same sense of nested enclosures that are at play in the overall plan of the house are here in microcosm.  The overall bathroom has a number of layered spaces, all finished in travertine tile of differing scales, a more refined version of the exterior stone.

As the final finishes are being completed, the eclectic mix of old and new, modern and traditional, is finally becoming more apparent.  The interior carpentry and cabinetry is being installed and lighting will soon follow.  My thanks goes out to the Owners, who with their infinite patience, have made the process enjoyable and the final product something we can all be very proud of.

Sunshine Canyon house – designed by Mark Gerwing while Principal at Arcadea, construction coordination by Mark Gerwing, M. Gerwing Architects.

Design Team – Arcadea: Mark Gerwing, David Biek, Brian Nelson, Stacey Root

Landscape Architect – Hidelly Kane, Peaceful Valley Studios

Contractor – Cottonwood Custom Builders: Jeff Hindman, Owner; Scott Reardon, Project Supervisor

why I became an architect:

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“That very night in Max’s room a forest grew

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and grew-

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and grew until his ceiling hung with vines

and the walls became the world all around”

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This is still basically what I do everyday – imagine another world within the world.

Where The Wild Things Are

Story and Pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1963.

Happy New Year everyone

DesignBuild Challenge 2

Another image from the DesignBuild Challenge that took place Saturday, April 5th.

I have been thinking alot about critical regionalism as defined by Kenneth Frampton in the essay of the same name written in 1984. At the end of the essay, he posits seven summary points, with number two exerpted here:

(“In this regard Critical Regionalism manifests itself as a consciously bounded architecture, one which rather than emphasizing the building as a free-standing object places the stress on the territory to be established by the structure erected on the site. This ‘place-form’ means that the architect must recognize the physical boundary of his work as a kind of temporal limit – the point at which the present act of building stops.”

Spruce Court condominium design and architecture, Boulder

Construction is coming along on a interior renovation of a 1970’s condo in west Boulder.  The existing building was a warren of small spaces with little light or order.  By reconfiguring the stair to run along the space of an existing skylight shaft, the new design bring light into the center of the project and defines the spaces as a referent to that stair.  The rhythm of new openings and light patterns along this stair modulates the rooms throughout the day almost like a giant internal sundial.