Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Prefabrication experiments - 165 - Building Kits - 06 - Lightweight tensile structures



The architectural kit of parts draws attention to one of twentieth century architecture’s most famous questions: How much does your building weigh? Buckminster Fuller and his acolytes obsessed over this question conceiving both building systems and components with the sole purpose of reducing the amount of material used to optimally cover architectural space. Geodesics and tensegrity elucidated this objective isolating the productive elements of a structural system and efficiently demonstrating a new architectural language from basic parts through geometry and physics. Cables and struts effectively assembled to demonstrate the inseparable functions of tension and compression in every structural system was the epitome of weight reduction.

The purpose of lightweight structures as developed throughout history was to transport architecture and shelter to any context. From the Yurt as the archetype of mobility to today’s deployable tents, the compressive frame held together by a tensile structure obsessed another of twentieth century’s structural masters, Frei Otto. Otto employed experimental modelling techniques. Empirically conceived soap film models and large scale weighted models allowed Otto to conceive and create his free-formed architecture in a time before computer modelling. While the German Pavilion he designed for Expo67, the Man and his world exhibiton in Montreal, is certainly his most famous work, the dance pavilion at Cologne (1957), is an emblem of his quest for simplicity in spanning fabric structures.


Not designed as architectural kit per se, the structure remains a testament to the very idea of mobility and lightness, as it is simply a frame and a covering stabilized by a network of tension and compression rings and cables. The PVC-coated fabric covering spreads out from a central tension ring in a star shaped hexagon pattern. A large compression ring at the base of the structure clamps the vertical masts and cables running from the mast to the ground stabilize the system. The basic principles of a type of catenary showcase the simple principles of how compression and tension relate to create a floating covering over a 33-meter span. Anchored to point foundations, the light structure floats over and covers a performance space. The cables, masts and fabric covering are the three basic components of Frei Otto’s hovering kit(e) architecture.

Frei Otto's Dance Pavilion at Cologne (1957)

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Prefabrication experiments - 164 - Building Kits - 05 - The «Beachcomber» as a kit of canonical architectural components

Producing or making architecture from a kit of parts normally refers to the dimensionally coordinated components that facilitate or ensure an easy construction or assembly. A historic and interpretational view of the architectural kit underlines its direct link to industrialisation but perhaps more interestingly reveals how the kit strategy defined the spatial and organisational components that underpinned modern architecture.  Modern axioms such as the separation of served and service spaces developed from new functions and their centralization within spaces. Repetitive use of standardized pieces and modular grids or patterns contributed to a brand of kit language. The elements of modernisms that sought to reform traditions were linked to a rational use of pieces and space. Post-war architecture’s fascination with kit building produced many experiments, which applied a standardized approach for the masses uniting accessibility in matters of cost with the quest for architectural quality. 

The «Beachcomber» is an Australian expression of the modernist kit aesthetic applied to architecture for the masses. Developed as an affordable post war housing type, its basic components relate to a simple modern syntax combined to overlook adjacent landscapes. The Beachcomber’s stilts, vertical core and airy floating volume relate to the canonical Villa Savoye while using accessible aluminum cladding and insulated panels. A result of a partnership between Land Lease Homes (a post-war initiative in Australia to offer low-cost mortgages) with Le Corbusier inspired architect Nino Sydney, several hundred demonstration «beachcombers» were built. They inspired kit houses by the department of War service in 1964 and a Mark II display home in 1961.  The architecturally robust statement of floating over a magnificent beach adjacent property is timeless.

The perched massing of a covered space delineated by a living space volume allowed the beachcomber to have natural ventilation and work as a multifunctional canopy for the access spaces below. The three basic components of a Beachcomber, stilts, canopy and vertical core simply adapted to any site brought the spatial quality of an fresh Piano Nobile to the middle class. The simple box frame combined with platform construction made the beachcomber an unpretentious build, combining the spatial qualities of modern architecture with the most accessible and straightforward building methods: a perfect kit.

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Monday, May 28, 2018

Prefabrication experiments - 163 - Building Kits - 04 - Mobile classrooms

Along with housing, educational buildings have long been a testing ground for industrialized building systems. Their repetitive nature in matters of space requirements and organization historically made a persuasive argument for their mass production. While school interior spaces remain fairly straightforward, classrooms, gymnasiums and a myriad of services from libraries to swimming pools and cafeteria, the capacity to receive and serve a varying number of students has often been addressed by modularity in matters of design and construction. As the need for housing is linked to demographic fluctuations so is the need for school buildings that are malleable enough to adapt to the varying needs. Among other comparable strategies, Ezra Ehrenkrantz’s SCSD system developed in the 1960s spoke to the requirement for change by deploying a dimensionally coordinated systemic approach to school building construction.

Prefab classrooms have repeatedly popped up adjacent to school buildings as a reaction to swiftly changing populations. This ability to rapidly supplement a classroom space in any context was the basis of many experiments throughout the 20th century. Challenging the emergency approach of crudely adding a box, professor Theodore Larson from the University of Michigan propositioned a steel-framed reversible modular kit of parts in 1951 based on the Unistrut building system. The simple steel skeleton covered in a smartly orientated glass curtain wall defined the very essence of the modernist zeitgeist: the flexible and adaptable open plan.


Recently Los Angeles-based Studio Jantzen have developed a related concept. Using a timber post and beam structure, the project endeavours to redefine an aesthetic potential and intends to be a more sustainable version of an almost disposable building typology. The series of rigid frames echoes what Larson had proposed. The large roof overhang defines a canopy to control interior lighting while offering an uninterrupted relationship with the outdoors. Both projects from different eras critique the container-type classrooms, which offer little spatial and environmental quality. Studio Jantzen’s modern details including floor to ceiling glass, sloping roof spaces, and exposed structure further relate the two projects tectonically and reveal the simple modernist axiom of interior/exterior links allowing the classroom to be more of a setting rather than a set space concentrated in one direction.

Left : Larson's project (1951) - Right : Studio Jansen's kit (2017)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Prefabrication experiments - 162 - Building Kits - 03 - Modular Housing System



Scaffolding and industrial racking systems employ agile, flexible, reversible and sometimes universal connectors toward modular and infinitely variable arrangements. Industrial systems from the steel Uni-strut to Bosch aluminum framing assembled in a myriad of options inspire and speak to the ideal of a type of do-it-yourself architectural kit geared toward an inclusive and integrated customizable building strategy. Relatively recent experiments by Kieran and Timberlake (cellophane house) and the canonical example of Charles Eames’ Case Study House no. 8 elucidate how off-the-shelf components could be utilized in mainstream construction. The ready-made architectural pieces highlight a conceptual ideal of a no cuts, no waste, no nails, no frills, and a no special tools approach to productive construction.


Kithaus, a 2005 experiment designed by company co-founders Tom Sandonato and Martin Wehmann makes use of linear aluminum members and dimensional standardization to systematize an infinitely variable grid based on compatible parts. The company proposes a box-framed micro dwelling assembled from the patented Modular Housing System. The interlocking post, beam and panel system was conceived as a critique of conventional and high waste timber stick framing. MHS proposes a design “tool box” based on a 4-foot grid used to coordinate floor, wall and roof structural insulated panels which can be assembled and disassembled to and from the aluminum post and beam extrusions. Each structural element is extruded with a male-female tongue and groove section. All linear members are prefabricated to the correct dimensions. The square profile comes in several options with differing extruded profiles on each face (corners, mid-span posts, end-posts). A type of curtain wall frame, the infill panels could be made from any material. A concealed bolted connector allows the grid system to be deployed in x,y and z axes. The patented masterlock connector uses a bolted clamp that grips onto the tongues of the extrusions to create a tight-fitting friction joint. The infill strategy although not be ideal for energy efficiency as the system does not eliminate thermal bridging, the aluminum structure could be adjusted to apply insulated panels on the outside of the structure. The easily dry-assembled kit architecture aspires to eliminate construction complexities and become totally reversible and reusable.

Modular Housing System's basic component - from the company website








Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Prefabrication experiments - 161 - Building Kits - 02 - Jean Prouvé at Maxéville and the Maison Alba

«if planes were assembled like buildings they would never fly». This simple excerpt repeated and referenced over and over, positions one of modern architecture’s most proficient designer’s attitude on construction’s archaic production methods. Jean Prouvé helped establish and directed a factory for six years (circa 1944-1950) exploring and prototyping industrial building systems. The Factory at Maxéville (a commune in France) produced a plethora of experimental architectures.  Trained in the art of metal- working, Prouvé brought his passion for making to the factory floor. His conceptualization of building construction is inextricably linked to metal work as metal components are mass-produced and their ingenuous assembly is an overture to multiple interpretations based on simple pieces and parts. The Maxéville experiment united architects, designers, industrialists and tradesmen under one united banner giving each an equal stake in streamlining architectural design with production. This hands-on collaborative process was central to Prouvé’s work and conveyed a materiality rooted in moulding, folding, assembling: each part informed the whole.

Within his extensive creative research, the use of discernible components was posited as the leitmotif of architecture’s potential industrialization. A small but emblematic project, La Maison Alba, was commanded by an infamous French solidarity movement founder, Abbé Pierre as a house for better days to relieve the country’s housing crisis. Designed by one of Prouvé’s young apprentices Maurice Sylvie, Alba sandwiched a service core between an aluminum (AL) stressed skin roof and a reinforced concrete (béton armé BA) base. The envelope employed timber veneered heat-formed panels waterproofed with a bakelite polymer.


Touted as the house built in seven hours, the service core was completely integrated in the factory to incorporate cooking and hygiene functions. The core also supported the house’s main beam, which carried the roof’s stressed skin panels. Anchored by the circular core, the small 6.5 x 8.77 m plan divided two zones (night and day) including two bedrooms and an open living space.  The reinforced concrete base was cast with perimeter seating and low shelving creating an architectural device from a structural element. This simple built-in furniture elucidates how Prouvé’s work transcends disciplines and embraces an overall coherent architectural strategy. 

maison Alba's utility core