Home Delivery: Wrapping It Up With The Cellophane House

Four years ago I was invited to speak about prefab housing at a conference in Austin, Texas. I was building prefabs at the time, and was one of the early bloggers about modern prefab; I thought I knew just about all there was to know about the subject.

Then Steven Kieran and James Timberlake got up to speak and I quickly learned how little I really knew, how they were a generation ahead in sophistication. I first learned terms like "mass customization" and "chunking"; followed analogies to the automotive, aircraft and shipbuilding industries, and fell in love with the first drawings of the Loblolly house, which I have followed in these pages ever since. I saw that prefab wasn't just about building in a factory, but was about reinventing the way we build, not just where.

"Chunking" is what car manufacturers do; they have subassemblies that are put together into modules, and then put together into the finished product. Builders already do a bit of that, buying pre-hung doors and nail-in windows. KieranTimberlake take it to the next level on the Cellophane House:

"All of the components of the house including the wall partitions, stairs, bathrooms, NextGen SmartWrapâ„¢ facade, and walkways are fabricated independently and simultaneously, so the assembly of individual housing components is not dependent on the completion of the others. We refer to these as "sub-chunks." These sub-chunks are individual housing components that are part of a larger portion of the building. For example, the louvers on the roof and its adjoining stud wall are assembled at the same time, which is not possible in typical construction. Each aluminum frame chunk is filled with the completed sub-chunks. A traditional stud wall can take weeks to construct if it is built in succession, but the partitions and panels in Cellophane House take just a few days to assemble."

The chunk's structure is an extruded aluminum section that can be put together with reversable connections, so that it can be taken apart and rebuilt in different forms. The design is built around standard lengths, so modification is easy (compared to conventional deconstruction).

Such a flexible system also allows for "mass customization". The architects write:

"A common perception of "prefab" housing is that originality and site specificity are lost in the manufacturing process. A goal of our project was to design a system of building that has a flexible set of rules that enable multiple outcomes, as opposed to one that relies on repetitive details. Throughout design development, we aimed to eliminate "one of one" situations, where a single design solution is applied to a unique scenario. The connectors we designed to use with a commercially available frame extend its capabilities beyond its intended use, and the end product can be scaled and customized to meet the needs of the individual consumer. "

The house is wrapped in NextGen SmartWrap, a concept that the architects first demonstrated in 2003. They imagine printing a wall to suit, with light diffusing patterns and photovoltaics printed in as required. The idea of filling it with phase changing materials and illumination are not quite ready for prime time, but probably soon one will be able to order up a wall with all kinds of thermal storage and insulation, lighting and power generation much like you do a custom T-shirt.

I am impressed but unconvinced by the stairs, made of acrylic, lit from within with LEDs, and fitted together with mortise and tenon joints requiring no fasteners or adhesives; They seem like they were done because they could be done, but do not really fit in with the philosophies of using reuseable materials.

I suspect that there are many who would say that this house is the antithesis of green design, using elaborate computer programs and Building Information Management technologies to design, expensive aluminum sections to build, and the most sophisticated plastic and silicon high-tech cladding on the planet.

On the other hand, you can take it apart with a wrench, it generates its own power, and the basic structural system can essentially be used forever. It is also a demonstration of pushing the technological building envelope to the very edge; like so many things that came out of the space program that are now part of our everyday life, there are ideas here that in ten years will probably be part of every building. ::Cellophane House at ::Home Delivery


Other Posts in this Series on MoMA Home Delivery:

Home Delivery: The Micro Compact Home Comes To America
System3 House Installed at MoMA Home Delivery Exhibition
Home Delivery : BURST*008 : TreeHugger
Home Delivery : Digitally Fabricated Housing : TreeHugger
More on Kieran Timberlake in
Kieran Timberlake + Living Homes= LBS
What Makes a Building Green? Kieran Timberlake Architects
The Wired Home Goes Green: First Pix of Loblolly House
Loblolly House: Pictures at Last
Loblolly House in Architectural Record