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Attention architects. Is it possible?

by jakob clark last modified Dec 01, 2008 11:46 AM
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Attention architects. Is it possible?

Posted by jakob clark at September 30. 2008

For years now my attention has been on and off again in regards to the resurgence of interest for prefab architecture. I briefly worked with a leading prefab architect helping with marketing. Time after time I would hear clients say, "will modern prefabricated architecture ever become the cost effective solution that it claims to be?" Maybe not in those specific words, but everyone has been on the edge of their seat for a decade now wondering if this technology will push through for them. Perhaps I should note that I am in the United States; I realize prefab has done more overseas.

 

Every time I faced with this question, I have to answer "no." Modern prefab architecture has simply become a niche market, usually for those wanting vacation houses or for the couple living in an insanely expensive market with decent jobs (usually the only time savings can actually occur).

 

Whether you want to ignore it or not, the fact remains that mid century modernism promised something more. The Case Study House program promised more. Are we not being creative enough? Or resourceful enough?

 

Although I admit I have not finished the article that I am about to mention, I did recently run across a story about an architect who used your typical mobile home technology. Is this a solution? I am specifically curious about the possibilities.

 

What would be the drawbacks for reusing old trailer homes to create a new structure? I am assuming that there would be a lack of insulation, thin walls, and other quality issues. Would the frame itself be a worthy structure to start from? Could you make it a permanent home on a traditional foundation?

 

The very nature of mobile homes, with their geometric one-size-fits all attributes, seem in line with modernism. However, it's the execution and the social expectations that might have put them off to the point where designers may be overlooking a viable solution to modernism's promises: modernism for the masses.

 

I actually like the idea of buying two or three single wide homes and forming them into a courtyard assembly ... cladding them with no maintenance materials and cutting out large expanses of glass ... perhaps even long horizontal wood slat privacy fences. Can we do more with less?

 

Please forgive any ignorance I may have; That is the very reason I am asking and opening this discussion. I have very little knowledge of construction.

 

Can someone shed some light on this? Is this not being done because it does not make structural sense, or are mobile structures simply a social taboo?

 

Please forgive any typos or grammatical errors .... I am typing this at work under the radar!

 

Re: Attention architects. Is it possible?

Posted by Matthew Mueller at October 01. 2008

Interesting questions...

I think that the notion of "pre-fab" to date has tried to steer clear of the mobile home.  I believe that there is a negative stigma associated with mobile homes.  There are not too many romantic notions of living in a trailer park.

That said, I think there is a pragmatic difference between what is known as today's version of pre-fab architecture and the mobile home.  The pre-fab of today implies using a pre-fabricated kit-of-parts, some interchangeable or able to be reconfigured, to assemble a home.  The mobile home, on the other hand is simply what it's name implies: A total home, prefabricated, and then transported to it's spot with the ability to be moved again if necessary.

So which is the method you want to address?  I'm guessing that you have the desire to use the mobile home model to bring good architecture to the masses (not the weekend get-away types). 

I don't really follow why you want to re-use mobile homes.  I get the whole re-use and recycle ideology, but I don't think mobile homes are a good fit for this concept.  It would be easier (and probably cheaper) to start from scratch than to try and retro-fit a mobile home, in my opinion.

I do think it would be quite interesting to see someone seriously explore, through thoughtful use of inexpensive materials and good spatial design, pre-fabricated modules that can be linked to other modules to create a total house. 

My 2 cents.

Re: Attention architects. Is it possible?

Posted by jakob clark at October 01. 2008

"I don't really follow why you want to re-use mobile homes.  I get the whole re-use and recycle ideology, but I don't think mobile homes are a good fit for this concept.  It would be easier (and probably cheaper) to start from scratch than to try and retro-fit a mobile home, in my opinion."

 

 

Well, it's not that I want to per se, but as you point out it is a matter of reuse. I started wondering about this because I saw some old mobile homes for as low as $600 (yes $600, not a typo) on craigslist. I also understand that it is probably a bad way to go about this - more than likely the structure in and of itself is way too flimsy to create a good solid structure. At the same time, I don't know anything about construction, so these are my assumptions. Perhaps there is a way to reinforce these to be usable, but then again these reinforcements may rid of the mobile home's only positive feature: economy.

 

The other reason on my part is purely sentimental. I come from one of the poorest areas of the country. My home state is sprinkled with these things. That in conjunction with my musical roots (all musicians are broke, right?) does create a type of romantic view of the mobile home believe it or not. My happiest childhood memories were created in a travel trailer as well; not quite the same, but related nonetheless. So what if you could take something shunned by society and make it the envy of your peers? What if they could be envious of something they COULD have themselves?

 

A lot of time and attention has been spent on other, more trendy and celebrated methods of trying to solve the design + economical puzzle. I love the idea of shipping container reuse for instance, but I thought I could open up the dialog about something else (similar is shape in size actually) that litters our planet and suffers from neglect.

 

Is a shipping container more structurally sound than a trailer? I really don't know. I hope not, however, because that would signify some really poor placement of priority. Shipping containers shelter product. Trailers shelter humans. And if they are at least on equal grounds in terms of rigidness, what other considerations make the shipping contain a more popular choice? Is it purely a social stigma?

 

 

Re: Attention architects. Is it possible?

Posted by Matthew Mueller at October 01. 2008

For sure, shipping containers are more structurally sound than a mobile home.  You could roll one of those babies and it would be just fine.  They also have an inherent ability to be stackable which lends flexibility to its uses.  I think that is one reason they have been "trendy" in recent architectural works.  Something that is pre-fabricated AND structural is definitely a plus.  I don't think re-using these, however, is a very interesting social response as your idea of re-using the mobile home.

I didn't mean to down-play any nostalgia you may have about trailer parks or mobile homes.  I, too, come from an area of moderate poverty where I had many friends and neighbors who grew up in mobile homes.  What I meant by my comment was that homes have a certain "status" associated with them...like neighborhoods...and I've never met anyone who has aspired to live in a mobile home.  So society has not traditionally viewed living in one as part of the American Dream.

I like your idea of re-use.  I'm just not sure how practical it would be.  My sense is that you would have to strip away a lot of what makes up the exterior shell of the structure.  Once you do that...what do you have left that was worth saving?  The chasis? 

I fear, though, that my knowledge of this is limited.  Hopefully, some other people will chime in on this discussion.

 

Re: Attention architects. Is it possible?

Posted by jakob clark at October 01. 2008

"My sense is that you would have to strip away a lot of what makes up the exterior shell of the structure.  Once you do that...what do you have left that was worth saving?  The chasis? "

This is my assumption as well, but I would be interested to hear from someone who is more knowledgeable on the subject than me.

Re: Attention architects. Is it possible?

Posted by jakob clark at October 01. 2008

Re: Attention architects. Is it possible?

Posted by Robert Swinburne at December 01. 2008
I'm a bit late to this conversation. I am currently researching the house plan market as well as the prefab market. Here in the Northeast United States manufactured housing is very big because it is affordable. The problem seems to be that it is not necessarily "green" or particularly energy efficient. however at $50/square foot, this is what most average people can afford and are conditioned to believe is good. One must not assume that mod design (as much as I love it) is for everyone. 99% of folks are much too aesthetically conservative. The point is that modular and prefab are being done in huge numbers at costs lower than on-site traditional construction. At some point one of the major manufacturers is going to sit up and take notice and try something a bit more modern. Perhaps they already have and it didn't fly in the market. Unfortunately, mobile homes represented an affordable housing model for millions but are being zoned out of possibility everywhere. Bob Swinburne http://www.swinburnearchitect.com
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