Thursday, February 15, 2018

Prefabrication experiments - 153 - Open Building - 04 - M.A.D.I. Unfolding House

According to a report published by the Preparatory Committee for the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in June 2016 at least 2 billion more people will require adequate housing by 2030. As global urbanization continues at an extraordinary rate, more alternatives for affordable, flexible and adaptable housing solutions are required. The problem of adequate and flexible housing solutions makes a case for rapidly deployed systems that are agile enough to be established in differing geographic and social contexts.

Architectural history provides a varied corpus of ideas for housing developed specifically for times of crisis. The inclination to serve the 99% without access to design services is a persisting leitmotif in architecture. Architects proposed innovative deployment strategies such as collapsibility to effectively provide simple dwellings. From Eero Saarinen’s unfolding house to Herbert Yates plydom agriculture workers’ housing, folding and unfolding an adaptable form of mass housing integrated both architectural discourse and prototype production.


Looking to leverage both contemporary crisis and the essence of quickly deployable structures, Italian architect Renato Vidal has developed an unfolding A-frame. Combining two archetypes of architecture, folding and the simplicity of the A-frame structure, the architect develops a simple multi-purpose building system that can be transported and adjusted to any site. A hinged panel composite system of cross-laminated timber with a metal facing begins as a 20-foot standard container.  Once it arrives on site, the container is literally «unfolded» by lifting the ridge into place which produces a compression triangle arch positioning the oblique sections in place with the U-shaped floor and lateral half-walls acting as a tie beam. Five standard sized 20-foot sections are juxtaposed to form the basic 80 square meter dwelling and aligning additional sections results in dwellings of various sizes. Placed on point foundations such as screw-in piles, the structure can be moved and removed as needed reducing site disturbance. Multiple organisations are possible both in terms of size and planning as the a-frame’s interior volume can be designed to suite client needs. Although not proposed as such by the architect, the gable wall ends could potentially by designed and even built on site to suit local materials and individual desires.

Renato Vidal's M.A.D.I. Unfolding House

Friday, February 2, 2018

Prefabrication experiments - 152 - Open Building - 03 - Levitt Technology Corp's Manufactured Row-housing System

Operation breakthrough launched by the US government’s Housing and Urban Development in 1969 was one the 20th century’s important vectors for promoting innovative urban strategies as well as  the industrialization of construction. Bringing together academics, architects and industries to project the future of housing produced a diversity of prototypes. From National Homes’ post-tensioned superframes to the iconic Shelley checkerboard stacking, all sought to Increase efficiency and productivity in the construction industry while offering planning flexibility to suit the multiple and varying needs of modern lifestyles. Although not usually linked to industrialized building systems, even William Levitt and Sons proposed a building system that combined the ideal of manufactured sub-assemblies with the need for personalization. 

William J. Levitt is best known for his onsite standardized construction methods synonymous with post World War 2 American suburbanization. The onsite assembly line specialized construction tasks and had workers follow each other from house to house replicating specified and specialized tasks. A model of process efficiency Levitt controlled every part of the building process from procuring elements and building products directly from manufacturers to the incremental scheduling of each house. Levitt and sons produced thousands of uniform dwellings. Even as this process was perfected, operation breakthrough allowed Levitt to imagine a reformed building method combining standard parts into an open model of industrialization.


Levitt Technology Corporation worked in partnership with architects B.A. Berkus and Associates along with manufacturers and suppliers. The proposal employed staggered volumetric singlewides as the basic modular building blocks.  Identically dimensioned service core (wet) boxes with standardized plans and served space boxes (dry) with variable plans were juxtaposed or stacked in a linear massing of solids and voids. Elements such as entry door porticoes, bay windows, window canopies and patio or deck volumes could be added to the basic box system to vary each dwelling’s identity; a type of mass customization based on user preferences. Rhythmic extrusions and intrusions projected a dynamic streetscape while the decorative elements concealed the proposal’s repetitive nature.  The simple timber stick construction leveraged the heritage of American building culture with standardized mobile home production to produce replicable medium density low-rise housing process.

above left: Shelley Construction System; below left: National Homes' Superframes; right: Levitt Technology Corporation's System 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Prefabrication experiments - 151 - Open Building - 02 - Ecologic Building System

Since the early twentieth century the discussion surrounding the streamlined use of industrialized building systems followed two confronting trajectories: the benefits of standardization and the horrors of standardization. The acknowledged idea that a certain amount of standardization was essential for easing production was repeatedly challenged with the similarly accepted argument that normalization reduced the potential for a rich built environment. Further, a number of theorists argued that standardization would lead to a small number of producers taking control of the market reducing the potential for a shared building culture leading to quality degradation and monotonous buildings.

Looking to address these longstanding questions, Laurence Stephan Cutler and Sherrie Stephens Cutler argued in 1974 for an open construction strategy, which would lead to an efficient, intelligible and collaborative building system for housing construction. Their Ecologic building system was a reaction to closed loop systems reasoning that open systems based on prefabricated assemblies and components could be distributed objectively. The system considered three progressive scales and deployed grid modularization toward a great number of design variants.  Standardized parts complied with the dimensionally strict and coordinated grid. Building on this idea of system scalability, components were proposed for each project scope: Honeycomb wood structural panels for single-family dwellings, lightweight easy to assemble cold-formed nailable steel framing for low-rise collective housing and a hybrid of off-site and onsite half-tunnel concrete formwork system for large collective housing blocks.  The three basic structural strategies or building blocks were part of a larger conceptual framework evoking an industrialized kit of parts capable of generating quality buildings for the masses. 


Identified as a necessary approach to allow user flexibility and adaptability the authors pursued a form of do-it-yourself language for architecture. Inspired by a particularly fertile time in the development of industrialized building project stimuli (operation breakthrough, In cities technology) the Ecologic system was more of a design process promoting the use of a grid to achieve variable plans. The strict standardization required by the system’s inventors would allow freedom in planning, however the regular components hardly would allow for some sort of material differentiation returning us to same basic debate of how to standardize without dictating form.

Three scales of development - Ecologic Building System

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Prefabrication experiments - 150 - Open Building - 01 - Adaptable Building Products


Prefabricated or industrialized building systems can vary from small building parts and pieces to entire factory produced buildings.  Since the late 1800s industrialized production methods have completely reformed building culture. Systems have been added to buildings in order to increase architecture’s comfort and hospitality. With the introduction of mechanical systems, construction evolved into an entanglement of catalogued disparately produced pieces. Complete integrated and industrialized systems have remained fairly marginal in their application in typical construction. One of the enduring inhibitors of a greater market share for factory made buildings is the proprietary nature of their components. Factory produced systems often are regulated closed loops and their adaptability over time is difficult as parts which need to be replaced, serviced or adapted are unobtainable as companies evolve, change or even fold. 

Building systems such as structure and envelope and particularly mechanical systems are rarely produced with the idea of change in mind. Buildings are generally designed as fixed prototypes affording little retrofitting options. As building culture evolves and lifestyles multiply it seems more than ever desirable to imagine building components that can be produced and used in an interchangeable fashion at either a micro or macro scale to allow open interaction and universal adaptability over time. Further, the potential to share and integrate mass-produced parts into any building strategy makes an argument for an open source methodology applied to building construction.

Whether contemporary or historic examples, systems that facilitate change have been part of architectural theory since modernity as the open plan associated with modern architecture was ground zero for buildings that allow for change. The next ten prefabrication experiments will look closely at the interaction between building parts, systems, integration and the potential for change at every scale from infrastructure to interior fittings. From the perspectives of change and open source architecture we will pay particular interest to building components that imagine innovative ways of producing adaptable spaces. The moveable electrical outlet produced in the 1940s known as the Electrostrip exemplifies this conceptual framework. Using the common baseboard as a network for wiring and for spatial organisation electrical outlets are positioned and repositioned with ease with no re-wiring required. 


The reconfigurable electrical outlet - Electrostrip

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Prefabrication experiments - 149 - Future visions - 10 - Building Foundations

Earthworks and building foundations symbolically and physically anchor buildings to their location. Whether buildings seem to grow from their context or float over their sites, local ground conditions and bearing capacity dictate the manner in which a building’s vertical loads are transmitted to some type of footing. Akin to the manner in which a snowshoe spreads a person’s weight onto a larger surface area, building foundations and footings distribute loads onto a larger footprint. Foundations require soil that is stable enough to support loads and that it remains so, in order to keep the building standing throughout its life. 

Traditionally concrete, stone or in some cases carbonized or treated timber, were used to affix a building into position. Rot resistant materials such as concrete and stone are more commonly employed as foundations are susceptible to water infiltration, frost heaving, or soil instability. Recently, insulated concrete formwork is integrating conventional construction as the formwork reduces waste while increasing the wall’s thermal performance.

As ecosystems become increasingly fragile, researchers are developing innovative ways to improve foundation strategies. Rising flood plains, melting permafrost, sinking water tables are just some of the issues pressuring traditional monolithic foundations. A research group lead by architect Dr. Martyn Dade-Robertson from Newcastle University is proposing a type of bacteria to reinforce soil weaknesses by creating a type of bio-concrete, which could respond to changing conditions over time adjusting support structures as needed. 


Before integrating this type of self-adapting soil becomes common, lightweight, multipoint, space frame and modular structures are also being used in fragile conditions to reform standard concrete foundations and footings.  Platforms are built from triangulated structures onto which buildings are attached as a structure to a large raft. Triodetic structures, a Canadian firm well known for their space frame assemblies, has begun marketing and employing this type of raft foundation for a diversity of applications. Space frame foundations can be tailored to different sites. Buildings can sit lightly on fragile soils reducing local soil disturbance. Assembled from steel tubes and connectors, this type of foundation could conceivably be adjusted to changing conditions over time. Further this type of dry assembly of prefabricated components allows the structure to be dismounted and redeployed in other conditions.

Multi-Point foundation system by Triodetic