Friday, December 28, 2007

Building the Modern House - an owners tale by Dan Akst

Daniel Akst is an author and journalist who has written several articles covering the recent prefab and Re-Modern movement. His articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and he's even written about modern homes for This Old House. Most significantly he has built his own modern house and written extensively about it. These are a worthwhile read for anybody building their own modern home. Dan first offered up his story in a three part article that appeared in Money Magazine. You can read the text of these articles on his own web site here: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 He also wrote a shorter account with more of a design emphasis for Metropolis Magazine that you can read at the on their web site: link. Its interesting that at the end of this article Dan calls for the production of decent house plans for modern homes: ...If they did, they might want to use a stock plan; but here is another reason why more interesting houses don't get built, even by individuals who care about good design. Most of the house plans sold through books and on the Internet are awful; a few decent ones are available (including some in the Life magazine's "Dream House" series) but virtually none are Modern, unless what you really want is a chunky-looking "contemporary" with diagonal wood siding. The absence of good Modern stock plans means that people who want this kind of house have to hire an architect, at fees ranging from a few thousand dollars to perhaps 15 percent of the construction cost. Although Modern architecture remains suffused with the rhetoric of idealism, even relatively prosperous families who are thinking of sponsoring it will beg off unless the entire clanking apparatus of home-ownership--all of it geared to the lowest common denominator of design--can be brought around to accommodate something more interesting. Modular housing might be one answer. Another would be the publication of some first-class stock plans that specify standard materials to achieve quietly fabulous results. Incredibly this is just what we have set out to do, and our customers have in fact done. Dan's article was in the November 2002 issue of Metropolis. Our plan site went live on November 4th, 2002. He's also a good novelist - I've read a couple of his books and enjoyed them. More info about the rest of his work on his web site

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Project Outrage

Project Outrage is an effort of The Slow Home site to gather the collective voices that are dissatisfied with the status quo in housing. Collecting testimonials of the experience of individuals in the form of a blog Project Outrage creates a record of evidence which is usually lacking when it comes time to demonstrate to developers and other key housing players that there is a market for other solutions. Please check out Project Outrage at their site and tell your story. Sign their Declaration: We demand an end to poor construction, bad design, misleading marketing and environmental neglect in the housing industry. Neighborhoods and homes should be built for people not excessive profits. They should be healthy, vibrant, and not require long commutes. They should uplift the spirit and gracefully fit our needs. We believe that everyone has an obligation to create thoughtful, responsible, and sustainable places to live that leave a positive legacy for future generations. If writing is not your thing and you have a photo of a development or mcmansion that you hate, then post it to their Flickr Group. If you are a facebook user Project Outrage has a presence on Facebook as well. Previously on LamiDesign blog: The Slow Home Project

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Letters from Sweden - land of modern, land of prefab

In my previous entry I introduced Scott, my correspondent from Sweden. An American builder relocated to a suburb of Stockholm, he landed in an alternate reality where modern housing was everywhere, commonplace, even dare I say unremarkable. None of the stigmas or resistance we have come to associate with building a modern house were present. Every builder offered solid modern design in the range of homes they sold, and were more than happy to sell you one. On top of this prefabrication techniques were the norm. Sizable portions of the houses Scott saw being built were put together in the factory, and the standards for wiring and plumbing seemed to be designed to make this easier, not more difficult as it is here in the US. Scott made it his personal mission to learn more about how they were building houses with the hope he could distill what it was in Sweden that enabled this and was apparently missing stateside. Click through below to continue reading.. Scott began by telling me about the typical process by which houses in Sweden are built: "...the majority of new construction is built like this. I would call the house panelized - but it is "way way panelized" and is a total package. The houses come on trucks from rural places in Sweden. The windows are in, the insulation, wiring, wallboard where possible - every thing - the pipes, the wiring systems, the doors, stairs ... everything has been engineered and rationalized to reduce labor, find energy and material economy and work with the method of construction where stuff is pre-assembled as much as possible inside a building and then "erected" or installed on the site under very compressed schedules. These houses go from slab to dry in and locked inside of a week - the fit out and installation of everything else is really much like what I've seen in the USA - you just can't squeeze that much more out of what happens on a building site ... other than make it a total package and schedule the deliveries in the most rational way. For instance you have to install the interior ceilings after the house is up - however you can load the sheetrock in the room as the sub floors go down (and they do) which cuts down own lugging stuff around." Lets contrast this with the US. There are some companies doing panelization, but typically it is only carried as far as the rough framing. Wall panels come to the site with studs framed and sheathing on. Its a short cut on rough framing, but the siding, insulation, utilities, and interior finishes still need to be added. The LV House is a good example of this. More recently the prototype Loblolly House has won awards for its integration of building systems into the panelization. But lo and behold - this is standard practice in Sweden. Wall panels come to the site with siding on the outside, wall board on the inside, and wiring and plumbing in place within the walls. Why can't we do that? One of the issues are our standard practices for electrical and plumbing work. They do not lend themselves to these field connections between adjacent panels, where as the Swedish standards are designed to ease these very conditions. > But the majority of prefab in the USA is in the form of modular construction. Modular construction reduces the field connections to a a few major utility connections when the boxes are placed on the foundation, but otherwise are much more complete when they arrive at the site. Granted, this is not the reason why modular is more popular in the US. Modular housing here grew out of motor-home construction, which was a more permanent version of a trailer. When the flimsy construction of motor-homes became an obvious problem in the US it was put under a nation wide spec known as a HUD Code. At that point the industry split into factories that continued to build motor homes under the new rules, and factories that adapted to building to local site built construction codes which became the modular industry. That has dominated the US prefab business ever since. Its popularity here is due to administration - not because it makes construction sense. And how could it make construction sense? Shipping a house in big pieces is tantamount to shipping air. There is a reason why Ikea ships furniture in a flat-pack. The shipping is so much more efficient for flat goods, than big boxy hollow goods. The challenge becomes how to complete as much of the house as possible while still being able to ship it flat. Whole houses arrive on two trucks rather than 4 or 5. Next we'll get into more detail about how these houses go together. Previously: Letters from Sweden - conversations with an expatriate builder

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Letters from Sweden - conversations with an expatriate builder

A few months ago I got an email from a fellow by the name of Scott Hedges. He was a builder/carpenter/cabinetmaker as it turned out, and a fan of modern, a Dwell reader from nearly the start. He was from Michigan, but he was not in Michigan, at least not for the time being. A career move had taken his family to Sweden where he was being a keen observer of the building trades in the region around his home. He wrote me on this one day, towards the end of September because I imagine he could not contain it anymore - he had to tell someone, someone who would even care! I suppose he thought that guy, the one with the house plans, at least he would get it - and so I in turn have to share it with you, my readers, because like Scott I know that at least you would be somebody that would care, that would get it. What Scott found as he settled in to his new life in Sweden that the thing we modernists in the USA were struggling to find, swimming upstream, fighting to realize, a decent affordable well designed modern home, was flowing like milk and honey in Sweden. This opened up a correspondence between Scott, myself, and economist Jeffery Rous from University of North Texas and my design partner on the IBU competition entry. Over the course of the following weeks we poured over copious photos and web sites that Scott had accumulated and tried to come to terms with why what we struggle with so desperately here in the states comes with such ease and grace in Sweden. These are the Letters from Sweden and over the next few weeks I'm going to try to share with you the most significant parts of our correspondence as we all came away convinced that there was much to learn from the practices Scott observed. images from the Gotenehus (Yeah-ten-eh-hoose) website Here is what Scott said in his first introductory email to me: The reason that I'm writing though is that my family and I've moved to Sweden and have been very impressed by the state of modern and the rather unremarkable way it lives here. What I've seen in Sweden about home building and home buying strikes me as very different than what I'm aware of in the USA... Simply put the market place here is full of modern homes, and every larger house company offers them ... I guess part of my surprise stems from years reading in Dwell about "wow wouldn't it be nice if" ... and the stories of super talented creative people .. who are trying to put a product out there and risking your lives doing it ... and then I show up here and the locals want to know what is the big deal? ... "ho hum" which of these 100's of kinds of modern houses would you like delivered in a month, sign here". What would we all give to have hundreds of models of modern prefab houses available from vendors today? Why there? Why not here? Stay tuned! This series will continue.

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Virginia Plat House - framing up

An update today from the owner of the Virginia Plat House. The wall framing is up, and it looks like just a little bit more work on the window side and they will be ready for the roof framing to start. The work looks very good which is always a pleasure to see. What a beautiful scene! Look at that sky. There are a couple more high res shots from this day in the Flickr set for the VA Plat House so take a look.

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