Is the World Finally Ready for Uhü, the Plug and Play Prefab?

©. Live Light

It’s the image that launched a thousand architecture student projects, including some of my own, the famous illustration of units being inserted into the “bottle rack” of Le Corbusier’s l'Unité d'habitation in Marseilles:

plug in unit

© Le Corbusier

And now it is the precedent for uhü, or Urban Housing Unit, designed by Addison Godine of Live light with the City of Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab and Boston Society of Architects; the prototype recently toured Boston. It is a 385 square foot prefabricated unit that looks pretty comfortable. And now, Godine and Live Light are taking it to the next level, literally, by developing it into a multi-level sixplex.

unit axo

© Live Light

Unusually for a unit that small, it is laid out with a separate bedroom area at the entry, separated from the living/dining area by a generous wheelchair-accessible bathroom. It is certainly big enough that it could accommodate a single person in comfort, whether a senior or starter. Or as Godine told Next City,

The Uhu is intended “to develop a model of housing for the workforce,” says Addison Godine of Live Light. “Developers are good at building luxury and subsidized affordable housing, but we have been neglecting the ‘missing middle.’ If Boston is going to be an inclusive city, we need to innovate ways to build housing that working people can afford without subsidies.”
plug-in unit

© Live Light

Now that the traveling show is over, Godine is looking at building multiple unit structures where the units plug into racking.

We are building one of the first "plug-and-play" exo-structures for uhüs to slot into, in an effort to realize the dream of "plug-in" architecture long envisioned by great architectural thinkers like Le Corbusier. This steel exo-structure is a grid of slots large and strong enough to accommodate uhüs, and may be pre-outfitted with access stairs, elevators, porches, utility runs, “living” walls, and solar panels.
6 units

© Live Light

Most prefab boxes are strong enough that they can be stacked directly on top of each other, which eliminates a lot of structure and the need to weatherproof the top and bottom of every unit. But the ability to pull units out of a rack opens allows for some interesting options, including sending them back to the shop for renovations and upgrades, or even renting the rack space to people who own their own box, and take it with them when they move to another city or even a different part of town. Godine also tells TreeHugger that the three-story version was done for a competition that limited the height to three stories, but by using the racking idea, there are no limits to height:

Stacking modular presents the issue of tolerance as the structure gets taller, as well as extra structure in the lower units, as you point out. Racking does not present these problems. Indeed, the units might be able to be even weaker than code currently allows

Of course there is much more to building affordable housing than the design of a prefab box; there are zoning restrictions, land and servicing costs. But Godine sees a different financial model:

The most disruptive idea we have going is that urban housing can be more of a direct-to-consumer business. Our vision is that we or another entity buys the land and develops the exo-structure, but then leaves it at that. What results is a platform for a competitive marketplace of uhüs to develop on: essentially standardized land parcels. The consumer is then empowered to choose their desired uhü, just as consumers today are empowered to choose their desired automobile. By doing this, we greatly reduce the financial investment required of the developer, and put most of the investment burden in the hands of the consumer.

This is essentially a trailer park model, where the developer owns the land and leases it to the owner of the home. So Godine is proposing what has been one of our long held dreams: The vertical trailer park.

kitchen photo

© Live Light

Godine is the first to admit that this is not entirely a new idea, but believes that things have changed.

We're not the first try this, but we believe we are at a unique moment when technology, the millennial generation, and our relationship with "stuff" are all converging to make possible the efficient production of quality living spaces, and finally achieve the economies of scale that most of the things we buy, like cars, gadgets, and clothes, have enjoyed for years.

As one who tried this kind of thing earlier and failed, I do hope he is right, that we are at a unique moment where things have changed. Will cities allow these? Will neighbors not flip out? Will banks finance? We will stay tuned.