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The Modular/ Pre-Fab Structure – Sustainable Design for the Future

This past week, I was in Boston for the GREENBUILD show and had the benefit of joining USGBC President, Rick Fedrizzi and This Old House host Kevin O’Connor for a reception at a current This Old House home in Weston, Massachusetts.    This eco-friendly home reminiscent of barns bui

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This past week, I was in Boston for the GREENBUILD show and had the benefit of joining USGBC President, Rick Fedrizzi and This Old House host Kevin O’Connor for a reception at a current This Old House home in Weston, Massachusetts.    This eco-friendly home reminiscent of barns built centuries ago, is actually NOT old.  In fact, this house is NEW and pre-fabricated off-site.  It is a modular craftsman style home which utilizes old timber and other reclaimed parts (such as dilapidated barns, faded road signs, and ­yellowing photographs).   I had the benefit of being there as Fedrizzi present the architects and homeowners with the USGBC LEED Silver plaque. 

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Click here to view a video: http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/video/0,,20231041,00.html

I recently posted about cheap and fast materials designed for second and third lives, or made to completely biodegrade.  The history of creating building materials from organic means is not new, and there is so much conversation about bio-based polymers and renewable resources. Plastics from corn, energy from sugar…  When linoleum was first introduced in the U.K. around 1860, it was made using linseed oil, cork dust and a natural fiber canvas primary coat.  This material was 100 percent biodegradable, and one of the first sustainable manufactured flooring systems. In the last 60 years, the majority of flooring coverings (carpet and many hard surfaces) have been petroleum-based.  I applaud the flooring industry from increasing levels of renewable and recycled content in their products, and I also applaud the move to a world where all synthetic fiber flooring is reused for a second life.  We are well on our way.

If you want to learn more about the origins of cheap and easy materials, pick up a copy of Dr. Pamela Simpson’s book called Cheap, Quick, and Easy: Imitative Architectural Materials, 1870 – 1930.  Here Simpson examines the use of faux materials in construction, including the rock face concrete block and linoleum.  In today’s world of LEED® certified buildings, we are once again looking for our materials to be cheap and easy and NOW, more than ever before, incorporate recycled content.  

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Dr. Simpson was my professor at Washington and Lee University.  Under her direction, I studied Architecture – taking 3 classes on the subject from her.  A memorable learning was about the turn of the century (does that still mean 1900?) practice of the prefabricated home, a lesson recently renewed when I first visited Greensburg, Kansas earlier this summer and again when I met with designer Todd Oldham in New York City just a few weeks ago.  

In the early 1900s, the Sears Roebuck catalogue order department store distributed a craft house (also known as a Kit House). Buyers would call and order an entire house, right down to the last nail, directly from the catalogue. Enjoying the convenience and affordability of pre-fabricated dwellings, buyers would receive all of the necessary supplies in shipments by rail car (a typical house could fit into two boxcars) for assembly either by the new homeowner or a local contractor. These houses came in a wide variety of styles, designs and prices. An Internet search tells us that more than 100,000 kit houses were built in the United States between 1908 and 1940.  

Enter sustainability and the evolution of design. The town of Greensburg, Kansas was devastated in 2007 by a tornado that flattened the town and reduced its population from 1,800 to 900. Committed to rebuilding their town, citizens embarked on a sustainable rebuilding effort. And last May, it celebrated the opening of its first LEED® Platinum building – the 5.4.7 Arts Center (Mohawk was pleased to be involved by providing the carpeting for this project and we look forward to being involved in the Greensburg School in 2009).  The importance of this building is significant in many ways, but one major point of interest is that is was designed and built by the graduate architecture students at the University of Kansas. And perhaps even more interesting still is that the Arts Center was assembled in an airplane hanger outside Lawrence, Kansas (home of the University) and shipped via truck down to Greensburg.  A LEED® certified pre-fabricated building…

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When I met with Todd Oldham and Tony Longoria last week at Todd’s studio, I learned that he is involved in creating pre-fabricated and sustainable apartments.  Todd is currently working with a design home developer to create a pre-fabricated apartment where you can actually “plug in” the bathrooms or kitchens. Designed with all aspects of environmental responsibility, these units will be cheap, easy and sustainable.

Pre-fabricated dwellings are making a come back. From the art center in Greensburg, Kansas to entire apartments, pre-fabrication is affordable, sustainable and proving their value in helping make the “going green” process much easier and accessible to your average American.