Industrialists Without Factories

My theory: the wrong people are behind the prefabricated housing movement in this country. The idea of manufacturing architecturally sophisticated houses in the United States has been for the most part advanced by architects (and yes, shelter-book editors). But what if the industrial designers had ­gotten the prefab bug and decided that if they could design cars, computers, or sophisticated medical equipment they could also design houses? What if a firm like IDEO or Design Continuum had taken on the challenge? Would we be further along? Industrial designers, after all, are trained to think about multiples, about how to take a concept to the point where it can be economically mass-produced, about how to choose materials and processes that make sense in a given set of circumstances.

Architects largely think about buildings as one-of-a-kind creations, although plenty of them have walked away from that notion. But even those who have figured out how to standardize their house plans and set up a “fac­tory” aren’t exactly General Motors (of course, GM isn’t exactly GM anymore, either). Los Angeles Modernists Marmol and Radziner are producing relatively affordable Palm Springs–style houses in a factory setting, but if you look at the videos on their Web site, what they’re doing isn’t manufacturing. They’re building indoors.

After nearly a decade of prefab mania, the movement is still just that; it’s not an industry, not in this country. So, at the outset, I wasn’t especially enthused when Barry Bergdoll announced Home Delivery: Fabricating the Mod­ern Dwelling as his first blockbuster as chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. Inspired by the 1949 exhibition of Marcel Breuer’s house in the museum’s sculpture garden, Bergdoll has chosen five architecture firms to fabricate houses that would be displayed not in the garden but in the vacant lot just west of the museum. (Never mind that the Jean Nouvel tower that will eventually fill the lot is a more legitimate product of industrial processes than any of those buildings.) But when I  checked out the show’s Web site, where the participating firms have been documenting their progress, and took notice of what Philadelphia-based Kieran Timberlake was attempting, I thought, Well, maybe this MoMA show could be a watershed.

Last year, a lovely house by Kieran Timberlake called Loblolly caught my eye. It sits on a scenic stretch of the Maryland shore (it’s named for a local variety of pine tree) and is largely composed of components assembled off-site. Its sophisticated kit of parts includes components called “smart cartridges.” These preassembled units contain the house’s essential systems: radiant heating, plumbing, ventilation ducts, and wiring. The firm has taken on the complex, unglamorous aspects of prefabrication that most architects shy away from. Back in 2001, Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake got a research fellowship that allowed them to pursue an idea. “We realized in looking at cars and planes and ships that there were very small components coming together in these bigger chunks and blocks and assemblies,” Tim­berlake tells me during a visit to the firm’s office. “And I think we felt very strongly that buildings could be constructed the same way.”

The first product of the fellowship was a little red book called Refabricating Architecture (McGraw Hill, 2004). In it they argue, in essence, that architects should be more like “process engineers,” pivotal players in the making of things. Then Kieran Timberlake sets about acting on its manifesto. Loblolly, erected in 2006, was built on an aluminum scaffolding system called Rexroth, manufactured by Bosch. The Cellophane House, designed for the MoMA show, relies on the same system and was to be clad in a transparent curtain wall entirely of Smart Wrap, an extra-heavy-duty Saran Wrap that can be layered with photovoltaics or printed with a glare-reducing pattern. In the end, two of the walls will wind up as glass to, as Timberlake puts it, “get some operability in the window systems.”

In renderings, the Cellophane House is stunning for its naked functionality. What’s most interesting about it, however, is not its style but the end run the architects are making around the biggest obstacles to real prefabrication in this country: the lack of manufacturing capacity or the capital to create it. “Our approach has been to try and find off-the-shelf components,” Tim­ber­lake says. Whereas Boeing might outsource aircraft parts made to its specifications, the firm can approach its “mass-customization” ideal by making do with what the marketplace can provide. By sourcing sophisticated industrial components (such as the impeccably calibrated Rexroth system) from its German manufacturer, the architects can pretend they have a technologically advanced factory at their disposal.

Recently, I paid a visit to the factory where the bits of the Cellophane House are coming together. It’s a company called Kullman, in Lebanon, New Jersey, about an hour from the Holland Tunnel. In the past, this 80-year-old firm was known for the elegant stainless-steel diners it manufactured. Today the company’s bread and butter is what Kullman project engineer Geoffrey Cros­san calls the “communications line.” Every five or six hours, workers turn out a drab shed designed to house switching stations for Verizon.

The Cellophane House is not on an assembly line. Its main components—three “chunks” (front, center, rear) fitted together into four 20-by-28-foot modules, plus a rooftop canopy—are loosely grouped on the factory floor. “The system is very easy,” Crossan notes. “You can put it together with an Allen wrench.” He makes the process seem as straightforward as assembling a chair from Ikea, but it’s not. David Riz, a senior associate at Kieran Timberlake who is overseeing the assembly, explains that the Rexroth frame isn’t intended to support a building, “so there’s no real strength data for it.” The hardware supplied by the manufacturer, while adequate for its intended use as scaffolding, isn’t resilient enough to ensure the structural soundness of a residential building. Kieran Timberlake had to order custom-made connectors from a company in Brooklyn and add cross-bracing. The cladding, whether Smart Wrap or glass, is held in place by a system made by Schüco, a curtain-wall company. The Kullman crew was “shocked” when that system arrived in boxes of component parts. Apparently, it’s not so easy to assemble. Progress on the house was delayed until a trained Schüco team could be marshaled to put the frames together.

Riz invites me to climb the staircase that has been installed in one of the modules. It’s made out of a translucent acrylic. The goal was to have a staircase more beautiful than the one in the Apple store in New York. The steps were fabricated by a CNC-milling machine. “It took thirteen hours for three treads,” Riz says. “Frankly, everything is an invention. There’s no product that’s off the shelf.” Or as Timberlake says, “By bringing some of these disparate pieces together, we’re finding out some of the supply problems.”

In Philly, Timberlake told me, “Everyone wants to get from here to here,” as he diagrammed a sharply climbing diagonal line with his finger. “But the only way to really get there is stair stepping.” Back at the factory, Riz and I sit at the top of a translucent staircase that for the moment leads nowhere. The view of Kullman’s endearing but decidedly low-tech production facility suggests that between the dream of prefab and the reality there are a lot more steps to climb. Kieran Timber­lake is attempting the ascent. The architects have ­recently embarked on a partnership with a Los Angeles company, LivingHomes, that will market single-family and multifamily homes based on the Lob­lolly. But for now the Cellophane House is just an experiment, a demonstration of what happens when architects think more like engineers, or perhaps industrial designers.

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