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.

abandoned house, western Kansas

built of the really beautiful local limestone, this house is small but quite grand

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the house and the tree hold steadfastly to each other on the wind-whipped landscape

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the worn softness of the stone is a strange contrast to the brittle sharpness and geometry of the metal roof.

the southwest corner is failing as the mortar wets and dries, cracking out under the stones

A stalwart little house

photos by Mark Gerwing

Sunshine Canyon stone house, architecture and design, Boulder

Yet another post on the progress of the house up on Sunshine Canyon.  Designed by Mark Gerwing, with David Biek, Stacey Root and Brian Nelson at Arcadea, the house is being built by Cottonwood Custom Builders.

We are well past the half-way mark and the pace of finishes is picking up with most of the exterior stone already installed.  This is a photo from down the steeply sloping site looking back up at the east face of the building.

Sunshine Canyon house, architecture and design, Boulder

These are photos of a house just finishing construction up on Sunshine Canyon, a companion to the large stone house that I have posted previously.  Designed by Stacey Root and David Biek at my former office, Arcadea, it was built by Cottonwood Custom Builders.  I have been helping with construction oversight including choosing finishes, colors, etc.  Congratulations to Cottonwood for a nicely executed project – Scott Reardon, Matt Fitzrandolph, Jeff Hindman, Tom Roberts, Kim Neil, and all the others.

Loveland house, architecture, Front Range

This is an image of on-going process on a really interesting project, a departure from large, mountain houses.  This is a small, simple house centered around a beautiful existing ash tree on a property south of Loveland, Colorado.  Using the tree as the organizing center, the house arrays itself around a courtyard, using the tree as the barometer of the seasons, providing shade in the summer, revealing mountain views in the winter.

Sunshine Canyon house, ongoing

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The house up Sunshine Canyon is proceeding along.  This is yet another construction photo of the progress.  The wood panels below the windows have yet to be stained and the final roofing material, corrugated weathering steel, has yet to be installed.  More in a couple of weeks.

Sunshine Canyon house, architecture and temporality

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This is a project currently under construction up Sunshine Canyon, just west of Boulder, Colorado. It is part of an ongoing interest of mine in time and building, a kind of phenomenal temporality. By that I mean that the rather than trying to design a project that is “timeless” or certainly that has faux finishes and materials to make it artificially aged, I designed the house to be a series of linked buildings that are individually simple, vernacular forms but in combination raise questions of their making. Each building’s details and forms are not strictly consistent but rather make a theme-and-variation syncopation. Making a building with the capacity, maybe the insistence, for multiple readings and interpretations lends a layered identity to the project. Taking cues from the owners and the basic phenomena of the site, the project steps down a steep, rocky hillside, part village, part house. The courtyard creates a internalized, domestic landscape that then extends and projects itself out to the site and the world beyond.

Computer model by Mark Gerwing, 2006.