We have always drawn a distinction between modular construction, where boxes are built in a factory with interior finishes installed, and flat-pack construction, the colloquial IKEA-ish name for panellized construction, where panels are built in the factory and assembled into boxes on site.
Now we have the Backcountry Hut Company, which is producing what Residential Architect calls A Flat-Packed, Made-to-Order Modular House that Doesn’t Sacrifice Design. And I was confused. Is it modular, is it flat-pack, or is it post and beam?
The very talented architect jury at the Canadian Architect Awards writes in their Award of Excellence description:
This project is beautifully done. It’s careful about its openings and its allocation of solidity and enclosure, but you don’t get a sense of claustrophobia. The modules combine to make very handsome structures that are beautifully illustrated in the presentation.
But then I look at the construction image and read the copy from architect Michael Leckie, who describes the process:
Prefabrication: the ‘kit of parts’ hut system is designed as an engineered wood post-and-beam skeleton that is then infilled with prefabricated panels. A simple nail-on window system is provided.
From a planning point of view, I suppose you could call it modular, in that they have designed a series of 10 foot wide, 191 square foot modules serving different functions that can be clipped together.
But as can be seen in the image, from a structural point of view, there is nothing modular about it, with single beams ten feet apart. In modular construction, there would be two. They are planning, not building modules.
Michael Leckie says he is “Inspired by the idea of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad of providing affordable well-designed products ‘for the many people’, and continues with references to flatpack, the popular term for RTA or ready-to-assemble furniture that is usually frameless.
So why am I going on and being so pedantic about this? Because it is a lovely building, and a lovely design, but with this form of construction, there is actually no reason to have a fixed module size of 10 foot by roughly 20 foot. When they go to do their Front Country versions that fit in back lanes and back yards, they might find that the lot only allows for 18 feet or they need 12 feet wide and the whole modular idea will go out the window.
When Resolution 4 Architects were developing their typologies for modular construction, they were limited to the sizes of boxes that could down the road, to the heights, widths and lengths that were set the rules and regulations. So they had to figure out how many different ways they could combine those boxes to make different kinds of buildings.
But Michael Leckie and the Back Country Hut Company don’t have those limitations, they can build in post and beam in any dimension they want. By designing by extrusion, taking one or two planning module designs and just adding them in a linear form like this, they are (in my opinion) throwing away the single biggest advantage of they have over modular construction, the ability to make it any shape and dimension. They actually appear to have less flexibility than the modular designs of Res4.
If you look at the work of Tedd Benson at Unity Homes, he is using the same post and beam construction with infill panels, but he works on a two foot planning grid. When he gets down to planning interiors, he goes to a three inch module. In this age of computer driven tools, this is straightforward. He can develop common base plans and easily modify and adjust them them as needed by customers. Forcing everything into a roughly 10 x 20 module is so limiting.
It is a beautiful design, and the idea of extruding out these planning modules is attractive from a marketing point of view, but it seems to me that they are handcuffing themselves to the worst limitations of modular construction while getting none of the benefits.