Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Prefabrication experiments - 143 - visions of the future - 04 - Flexibility and adaptability : The Suitcase House by Gary Chang

Mechanization, mass-production and the accompanying commodification of building culture drastically changed domesticity. The dwelling was forever more technology driven and a vessel for enjoying services and amenities.  Standard of living was anchored to the idea of convenience and lifestyles were projected to be increasingly dynamic. Diversity in matters of family type and composition was to become the norm. Houses would need an integrated capacity to adapt to this intensifying change.

Twentieth century architecture is fraught with projects proposing dwellings that could at once transform and adjust to varying conditions, lifestyles or context. Further the theme of mobility accompanied adaptability and flexibility to advance the idea of a multifunctional house. A sample experiment, «suitcase house» proposed by the Palace Corporation in 1945 was an easily assembled, demountable and transportable dwelling unit suited to the needs of migrating populations.

More than half a century later, another «suitcase house» was proposed by an architect exploring the notion of multiple functions and their time-based interaction.  Gary Chang designed the multi-use house with the idea of spatial transformation in mind. Known for his 24 room variation of a 344 sq ft apartment, (see  24 Rooms Tucked Into One by Virginia Gardiner  in New York Times; January 14, 2009), his design for the suitcase house is a veritable architectural transformer. The house’s piano nobile is cantilevered into the landscape by an opaque foundation prism. The two-storey house is anchored to the Chinese landscape in a town named Badaling just north of Beijing. The house is a simple manifestation of an open plan structured by a series of structural porticoes. The box frame structured plan is reconfigurable accommodating up to 14 people in numerous functional scenarios. The multifunctional strata can be adapted by manipulating screens, which divide the open plan into a series of rooms. The house’s foundation is where most of the multiple functions are concealed. Trap doors access these chambers used for sleeping, working or relaxing. 


Built in 2001, the utopian longhouse employs a stratified section of served and service spaces. The service spaces housed in the lower container are closed off to the surrounding landscape while the relationship between the living spaces and the environment is filtered by a matrix of varying filigree screens.

Suitcase House confirguration

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Prefabrication experiments - 142 - visions of the future - 03 - Project FROG's manufactured kits

Assembling a predesigned and manufactured kit-of-parts into quality buildings has integrated architectural discourse, at least, since Joseph Paxton's iron skeleton Crystal Palace in 1851. This elemental construction method influenced both architecture and construction schemes such as Charles and Ray Eames's Case Study House 8, directing a reform toward architecture assembled from mass-produced and catalogued components. Beyond both these prototype projects, prefab experimentation with this type of kit building methodology was extensive and is perhaps even at the heart of current building culture as architects pick and choose from industrialized and catalogued parts while much of the building’s integration is handled on-site. Construction documentation has become ever more complex because architects must design and envision the assembly of disparate elements produced by various manufacturers. Off the shelf methodology has created a rupture between design, production and craft as building systems are increasingly complex.

Leveraging these contemporary difficulties with building information modelling, Project Frog (Flexible Response to Ongrowing Growth) is devising pre-determined and integrated platforms for different building types. Designing for manufacture and the simple on-site assembly of all building systems circumvents the entanglement and lack of efficiency synonymous with on-site construction. Harmonizing design and construction is at the heart of this budding business model. The relatively young company (2006) is employing computer modelling to design and produce intelligent and informed parts that can be used in a variety of designs. Distancing itself from off-the-shelf component assembly, delivery, site logistics, procurement and kit installation is all coordinated by FROG.  Adaptable and designed with energy efficiency in mind, the «core and shell» platforms or the companies’ building typology sets are customizable and based on sustainable building practices.

Analogous to the LEGO® Company’s predetermined toy kits where the required pieces are either pre-packaged or conceived for each thematic arrangement, each component becomes part of the company’s collection. The pieces are stored and available in a database, increasing the potential to serve numerous types. Platforms are made available, but architects can use a cloud-based configurator to create a personalized building, which is instantly corroborated as compatible to FROG’s process. This type of prefab middleman sidesteps the «lost in translation» problems associated with contemporary building.

Company advertisement



Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Prefabrication experiments - 141 - visions of the future - 02 - printing buildings APIS COR


A remarkable and sophisticated history of construction can be conveyed through the study of unconventional building techniques conceived to speed up, streamline or simplify the building process. Robert G. Letourneau’s Tournalayer, a machine for casting houses or Thomas Edison’s continuous casting process are two such inventions that employed concrete’s malleability toward providing mass housing quickly and efficiently. Both systems used intricate moulds to form walls, floors, roofs and, in the case of the Tournalayer, integrated openings for services. 

Casting a house on site hypothetically make things easier as foundations, envelope and structure are produced in one monolithic form. Using this type of direct method reduces waste as accurate material quantities can be determined and consumed as needed. Further, today’s information technology could allow this type of cast to be numerically controlled with matter being deposited meticulously within a defined field of coordinates. 

Apis-Cor, an innovative start up company is complementing the extensive list of on-site casting inventions and has garnered our interest thanks to its innovative building printing machine. The company has to date produced one 38m2 dwelling structure in a small Russian town. The Apis-cor printer can be easily transported and controlled on any site. Most large scale 3d printers that print buildings are either portal types or scaled up Delta versions. The Apis-cor is a moveable column crane that has a printing range of 132 m2. The crane’s anchor point can be moved so as to produce larger structures.  Analogous to a computer controlled concrete pump, the printer’s nozzle is controlled to deposit a lightweight concrete mixture in horizontal strata of any shape. The company argues in favour of their lean construction process, which reduces material use and waste as material is mixed, generated and used on-site and as needed. A small mixing plant is located on site and material is transferred to the printing nozzle. A cellular truss matrix maximizes voids in the structure reducing both mass and volume. 


As was the case with other similar inventions, the efficient design to fabrication process rationalizes construction, however most other building systems remain conventional. Reducing the system entanglement synonomous with contemporary building culture needs to be fully addressed in order to achieve a synthesis of value, productivity, high quality, and functional adaptability.

From the Apis Cor website

Monday, August 21, 2017

Prefabrication experiments - 140 - visions of the future - 01 - Cellophane House

Refabricating architecture published in 2004 reaffirmed prefabrication’s appeal for architects and shared a vision for the reorganization of building culture.  Manufacturing, long thought to be unconnected from architectural design, could now be part of a holistic design to construction process with the architect firmly positioned at its core. Contemporary computerized tools triggered this revolution. Already more than a decade later, cad tools are further streamlining with cam tools giving the architect unprecedented access to the factory floor.

Kieran and Timberlake's contemporary manifest is perhaps as important to prefabricated architecture as Gropius’ work was in the early twentieth century. Gropius argued first for architecture made from manufactured components leveraged into many design options. In the same way Kieran and Timberlake’s work first on the Loblolly House in 2006 and then in their prototype design for the Cellophane House inspired a new generation of architects to rethink the factory production of houses. 

Cellophane house is one of five prototypes built to be included in MOMA’s rekindling of prefabrication exhibit entitled Home delivery: fabricating the modern dwelling (2008). The five prototypes reintroduced prefab exploration and continued the lasting conceptualization of the exhibit house prototype as a necessary component for architecture’s advancement.

The Cellophane House, a derivative of the canonical modern glasshouse proposed a five storey scaled-up «Le Corbusier’s Citrohan House» like prism assembled from a kit of industrialized parts. An off the shelf aluminum post and beam frame, manufactured «chunks» or modular building sub-assemblies such as kitchens and baths and variable skins or cladding are the three basic elements of this plug and play building syntax. The system is cleverly designed to facilitate both assembly and disassembly, to challenge traditional construction and propose flexible and modular data informed parts that can be employed for many different designs.

Beyond the architects’ exploration of Smartwrap (a trademarked structural multi-functional bioclimatic adaptable cladding capable of reacting to changing environmental conditions), the real innovation is the systems’ horizontal and vertical scalability. A statement on mass customization, the modular structure can be modulated for different site topographies, orientations and any functional layout.  Furthermore, the kit can accommodate a variety of materials to suit different needs, tastes, and budgets.

Cellophane House layers and components