Prefab home designs push the envelope
When I was studying architecture in the 1960s, I was fascinated by a group of British designers, Archigram, whose fantastic architectural concepts questioned the form and function of city and building design and championed new technologies and materials, especially prefabrication and plastics.
Two of their most famous projects were Plug-in City, a giant mega structure with relocatable prefabricated modules, and Walking City, which included 40-storey self-contained buildings with telescoping legs that could move around the world.
I thought about Archigram recently while judging an international design competition, for a 400-square-foot prefabricated home.
Prefab 2020 — organized by Architecture for Humanity Vancouver, a not-for-profit society — attracted 285 teams from 26 countries.
Besides myself, other jurors included Oliver Lang, an award winning architect and a former architecture professor at the University of B.C.; Maged Senbel, a teacher at the UBC planning school and associate at Studio Senbel Architecture and Design; Kristina Lee Podesva, most recently artist-in-residence at Langara College; and Duane Elverum, an Emily Carr University professor.
Submissions ranged from the provocative — cantilevered modular housing above city streets — to the practical (prefabricated modules as infill housing) to the outrageous. The “Para-site’’ entry consisted of attached housing pods to the exterior walls of buildings.
Meanwhile the “Hummer Home” entry demonstrated how to construct housing out of Hummers.
According to Linus Lam and Patrick Chan of Architecture for Humanity Vancouver, one of the goals of the competition was to demonstrate that prefabricated housing need not look cheap or ugly, and thus overcome the social stigma associated with it.
Another goal was to illustrate how compact living can be smart living, contributing to a more sustainable future.
Submissions were judged on their overall concept and design, prefabrication creativity, and social and environmental impacts.
Given the high quality of the submissions and range of ideas presented, the judges had a difficult time agreeing on which projects were worthy of special recognition.
The task was made all the more difficult by the fact that some proposals were more realistic and could be easily implemented in various locales around the world, while others were deliberately fantastic and put forward as provocations.
While the submissions originated in more than 100 cities and the ideas were varied, there were a number of common themes. Many entries explored how we might put housing where it does not normally belong — above streets, between buildings and in spaces currently used for parking.
Others illustrated how modular housing could be hoisted onto rooftops, thus giving new life to a variety of buildings. Another popular theme was the floating of prefabricated buildings on water.
Some submissions such as the Drawer House blurred the line between housing and furniture with a high degree of builtins and expandability.
Anyone who has ever spent time living on a boat or in a recreational vehicle knows that these structures make much better use of space than conventional apartments or houses.
While prefabricated construction is effectively used in other countries, for a variety of reasons it has never really caught on in Canada.
The response to Prefab 2020 demonstrates that given new technologies and attitudes, now may be the time for greater use of prefabricated construction to create more sustainable and affordable housing.
To view submissions, visit the website at www.prefab2020.wordpress.com/ 2009/09/17/winners-shortlistedentries-announced/.
One of two runner-up entries, Thick Skinned Regionalism by three London architects, proposed modules that would float on the Thames River in the British capital.
The winning entry, submitted by Mobius Architects of Krakow, in Poland. This proposal sited prefabricated housing modules on the roofs of older Eastern European public housing highrises.
One of two runner-up entries, by Blackwell Architecture of Vancouver, of ‘an elegant, contemporary West Coast laneway house.’