thoughts on post-fire construction

The devastating Fourmile fire is finally coming under control and, as we reported in an earlier post, the County’s code allow for rebuilding in the same location at the same size and height.  I have been in touch with a few local architects who would all like to help out in any way we can.  Some thoughts about how these efforts might take place:

We would like to offer to design/redesign the lost home of emergency responders for free.  Many of the architects I have spoken to have already expressed interest in this and we hope it can be of some help.  The County has waived Site Plan Review requirements, so this is a fairly straight-forward design and document process that we think will result in a higher quality of both design and construction for these heroic firefighters.  I still have to line up consultants who are willing to donate their time but I believe this will be forthcoming.  I will release a list of participating architects and consultants soon.

In light of the number of homes that need to be rebuilt, we would also like to come up with some ideas about how we might exercise some economy of scale to keep construction costs down and allow folks to get more bang for their buck.  This could take a couple of forms:

1.  Modular construction – you are all probably familiar with this and you may be likewise acquainted with my criticisms of this process.  Basically this is a semi-custom design and construction process where the building is subdivided into a number of trailer-sized components, built in a factory, and shipped and then assembled on site.  My chief objection to this process has to do with the exporting of labor – the factories displace the work of local carpenters, framers, and other tradespeople.  As the construction economy has been so terribly lately, I would not champion a method of construction that might make this situation worse.  Not to mention that some of the people who lost houses are probably the same tradespeople that could use some work as well as a new house.

Marmol Radziner's modular desert house

2.  I think this method has a lot of promise.  Panelization also breaks the  building down into components, but does so at a much smaller scale – that of walls, not whole structural sections.  These panels could be built down in Boulder or Longmont and this kind of construction could continue without the weather interruptions common to the mountainous sites for which they are intended.  Key to the potential cost savings here is the development of a series of semi-standard panel sizes that can be configured to accommodate differing sites and maybe existing foundations.

Eames House - a model for panelization?

(photo by Eric Wittman)

3.  Bulk purchasing of materials.  There certainly is money to be saved in purchasing in quantity and pooling some efforts, even among different contractors, could be utilized to reduce construction costs.  This would allow a great variety of designs and styles but some similar material expressions.  You can see a great example of this in the Floral Park Historic District in Boulder.  A one-block collection of houses built in the 1940’s was constructed using identical brick and similar window sizes and styles.  These materials and components were purchased in bulk by the builder and not only saved the homeowners considerable money but also lend the neighbor a kind of theme-and-variation consistency that has only improved with time.

Floral Park Historic District, Boulder

4.  Design Build partnerships.  Many of these already exist and it may makes some sense for architects and contractors to form new partnerships to speed up the design/cost/construction process.  We have done this process quite a few times in the past with Cottonwood Custom Builders resulting in considerable savings of both time and money.

I  don’t know if any or all of these efforts will come to pass and there is serious talk about forming a non-profit of architects, builders, and engineers to help out.  If you have other ideas or would like to be included, either primarily or by simple reference, please let me know.  I think that simply doing nothing would be a bit of a disservice to the efforts of the emergency responders and pooling our efforts may help create a new community of homes in the mountains that can be energy efficient, thrifty, and beautiful.

Boulder County Land Use Department is holding a brownbag lunch/discussion tomorrow, 9/14 at 11am in the Administrative Services Training Room of the County Courthouse (east side) to identify the issues we need to address and the questions we need to answer.  This is a brainstorming session and everyone is welcome.

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housing in rural America

I find no humor in the popular joke about tornadoes ability to always find mobile home parks to hit. If you have spent any time at all in rural America you will certainly know that mobile homes and their newer cousins, manufactured housing, represents a significant portion of the housing stock and increasingly so. I am not talking about the fancy modular designs so popular with hip architects these days, but the generic, artless single- and double-wide dwelling.

What is interesting here is not necessarily how bland or cheap these can be (they are certainly no worse than the crappy builder suburban houses most of us live in) but what people do with them. This is especially true of the first generation of mobile homes, the ones with wheels still attached and towing hitches still present. I am not talking about the more recent manufactured housing units,

but rather the older mobile homes that have been converted into stores,

or more commonly, added onto and expanded as housing.

There are a lot of issues surrounding this type of housing, its sustainability, costs, cultural significance, etc. but I am going to stick to a really simple, maybe even dumb, architectural question. The issue that all of these structures have had to deal with is the conversion from essentially a mobile unit to a house on the ground – how does the foundation/base work? As a design that when parked on a site doesn’t really look “finished” as a house, the owners of these older mobile homes are compelled to address this issue first.

Typically these sit on concrete blocks, hopefully on poured concrete pads, supporting only the point loads of the undercarriage. As these are meant to be transported, these older units had an undercarriage not unlike a trailer (newer manufactured housing units are carried on flat-beds and do not have an undercarriage as such). To keep critters out from below and provide some insulation and a sense of being a more traditional house, this space between the bottom of the mobile home and the ground is usually filled in with something.

That something ranges from very flimsy stamped-metal siding sheets, to wood trellis, to concrete block and even occasionally a fully concrete foundation.

You will note that the dark horizontal band on the end of these older units is the tow hitch still there, extending out. I kind of like these, they look like they are still ready and willing to hit the open road, neither really houses or recreational vehicles, but something quite apart. Just hitch them up, tear of the the skirt trim and away we go!

Maybe it is just the passage of time, but the older units didn’t really look so much like houses and were quite small and so owners have added extensions, porches, changed siding, etc. Over time these have witnessed a great and joyous kind of variety, a blank slate for people’s needs and creativity to be fleshed out.

That is considerably less so than the newer generation of manufactured homes that try so hard to look like a “normal” house and in doing so tend to diminish their nature as mobile, or formerly such. But make no mistake, they are. For when you fail to make the payments, they come and take your house away and it ends up in the used house lot, like so many clunkers:

This is not the photo of post-tornado or post-earthquake disaster, but rather an economic disaster that strikes harder and faster in rural America than anywhere else and can leave you “homeless”.

Outside of Farmville, Virginia is a growing compound of mobile homes that my wife has seen change and evolve over twenty years. Starting with a single unit, it has grown to three or four connected ones and the entire original structure has been surrounded by brick. A recent visit reveals that the brick is making its way around to the other units as well, completing the tranformation of these mobile homes by brick, the “noble” masonry of rural Virginia. A lot of hipster urbanites like to make fun of mobile homes and by extension their owners. Rarely have I ever seen owners more proud and industrious and better deserving of the name “homemaker”.

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.