Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Prefabrication experiments - 290 - Trade literature and associations - 01- Catalogues

Catalogues, trade journals, pattern books are a valuable part of communicating building knowledge. In large part, these traditional paper publications have been replaced by on-line versions containing standard examples and precise data about every conceivable component involved in the erection of edifices. Their usefulness is central to rationalizing building design and construction. Architects use catalogues to pick and specify ready to use components and creatively assemble these disparate elements into an original vision of a building. 


It can be argued that such catalogues have impeded industrialized building system’s comprehensive application as the catalogue is essentially an all-encompassing industrialized building kit offering an infinite number of possibilities and arrangements. Perhaps the best known version of a universal building part book, the Sweets building catalogue first published by the FW Dodge Company in 1921 included company and manufacturer literature for all building elements in one uniformly and largely accessible publication. Last printed in 2012, putting an end to a century of issues, it has been replaced by an on-line edition. Organized according to the Masterformat classification system (MasterFormat is a standard for organizing specifications and building products in North America), the on-line version offers a one-stop shop for everything building: for specifications, procurement, cad drawings, BIM models and material data sheets potentially harmonizing a building's systematic documentation process. The Sweets catalogue is now a virtual object library for architects to easily access, detail, assemble information in a coordinated virtual design and construction process. A building's contractual documents are no longer limited to passive elements such as drawn or written instructions or notes, but can be connected in real-time to on-line databases for monitoring their correct integration. The building is progressively being envisioned as a comprehensive object connected to on-line performance-based catalogues to monitor the building products' cost, characteristics and eventually even service life advising owners of replacement time or replacement features and criteria. 


The ten following posts will explore the trade association as part of the larger lobbying force in architecture that spawned the catalogue as the basis for marketing products for architects. More specifically we examine organizations that share knowledge, guide building culture and federate their member companies and political partners toward democratized visions of industrialized construction.

Sweets sample page (top) Sweets on-line database (bottom)


Monday, June 14, 2021

Prefabrication experiments - 289 - Modular city building - 10 - Vertical support structures

An acute need for affordable housing, specialized labour shortages and the digitalization of architecture and construction are outlining a new era for modular and off-site construction protagonists to argue for construction’s industrialization. As was the case between and after the two world wars in war ravaged nations or for supplying the needs of the baby boom, factory production was touted as the way forward to quickly supply affordable, sanitary and adequate living quarters. Today’s circumstances present a similar state of crisis (environmental, migratory, sanitary) leading governments, trade associations, and professionals toward prefab and a new harvest of experiments ranging from mass produced models to one-off prototypes both making the case for applying manufacturing principles to building construction. 


Architects specifically, have rediscovered the modernist tenet associated with providing affordable housing that examines the relationship between production and habitability. The concept of habitability was linked to personalisation; staunch modernists, Gropius, Le Corbusier and their harsh functionalist critics such as N.J. Habraken posited similar visions that industrialization and individuality could be synchronised through generic frameworks complemented by customizable parts or planning principles. From this basic vision, the open building theory, the argument for supports and infill, and the notion of adaptability percolated architectural academia and spawned a great variety of proposals pursuing the systemic separation of shared structure and personal interior dwelling systems. These ideas were represented in a number of formats, however LeCorbusier's famous sketch of a hand inserting an individual unit into a vertical structural racking is perhaps the most notable. He offered an ideological simplification of how a modular city could be structured.


Founded in 2013 by architects Dayong Sun and Chris Precht, the architecture studio Penda imagined a similar modular framework onto which customizable elements would be attached or layered.   Designed forVijayawada, India, the vertical tower, designed as a generic shared infrastructure, is a recent example of the separation of supports and infill. Dwellers could pick and choose fit-out options from a catalogue.  Further the architects have a proposed a series of elements like balconies and vertical gardens to suit dwellers’ individuality. The juxtaposition of Penda’s sketch with Le Corbusier’s famous representation shows the cyclical nature of mass housing ideas for applying industrialization (generic) to architecture (specific).

Penda Studio's representation (left) ; Le Corbusier's (right)

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Prefabrication experiments - 288 - modular city building - 09 - Ready-made concrete pipes as houses

Module, modular or modules are terms sometimes employed interchangeably. A module in architecture is the smallest common unit of measure in an architectural arrangement or system. Modular construction also denotes volumetric construction, building edifices from factory-produced boxes. These boxes, labelled as modules, are stacked or aligned to structure modular architecture. All three terms delineate making from ready-to-use components in a scalable manner. Ready-to-use describes making from factory-produced components but can also suggest repurposing modular objects, products or pieces. Modular concrete drainage pipes inspired a group of architects, Summary Studio, to develop an industrialized building strategy based on the arrangement of precast concrete boxes. By examining the detailed assembly of pre-stressed concrete drainpipes to organise sewage system networks, the firm conceived a similar type of sectional modularity to produce houses. 


Pre-stressed concrete is cast into prismatic tubes weatherproofed and assembled through watertight connections. Pre-stressed concrete uses tended cables to strengthen concrete by compressing it into shape before loading it. This Gomos system proposes affordable concrete box units that would leave the factory completed and delivered to sites to be set and positioned to form either aligned linear dwelling units or as single-unit micro dwellings. This pipe fitting suggests any number of arrangements as the individual sections could be cast for and linked to any shape. Inhabiting this type of ready-made pipe communicates the concept of modular construction associated with other ready-made strategies such as container architecture clustered to achieve a type of singular grouping.


The firm proposed a first prototype, an assembly of six concrete boxes on a sloped site in Vale de Cambria in Portugal. Each unit, 2,5x5,9 m is autonomous and structurally independent from the rest of the assembly. The simple building block inspired system is intended as a low-cost solution to the enduring global housing shortages. Challenging prefab’s connotations, the sectional building units are arrayed in a playful manner to demonstrate a dynamic composition from identical components. The thin shell construction or monococque structural system optimises concrete’s monolithic behaviour and its thermal mass. Reinforced and pre-stressed in the factory the concrete boxes can be fitted and infilled with interior systems to serve any housing needs.

Gomos Building System (inspiration: left; system representation: right)

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Prefabrication experiments - 287 - Modular city building - 08 - Made-to-stock «open building»

Modularity relates to the basic definition of systems theory; distinct elements are structured and coordinated in a hierarchal manner to achieve a coherent whole known as a system. A building is made up of multiple systems: structure, envelope, circulation, etc. The dimensional normalization of systems and their composing parts through shared classifications, details, standards and assembly methods makes it possible to imagine diverse and scalable products, buildings or objects based on common systemic rules. Modular platforms, often categorized as industrialized building systems often point to proprietary assemblies, however open modular strategies can be designed to creatively use off the shelf components and conventional building methods. An open-source use of made-to-stock pieces outlines a world of possibilities, making a building or a series of buildings entirely interoperable from core elements. Scaling this type of open methodology even further, the city could be envisioned as a pattern of repeatable but customizable sub-systems.  

A 23 dwelling unit development, in Trignac, France, designed by Pritzker prizewinning architects Lacaton and Vassal in 2010 elegantly uses basic building elements to reconstruct a derelict industrial sector into a burgeoning dynamic neighbourhood for families. An entire urban field was planned within a system of low-cost, made-to-stock elements: steel profiles, cast-in-place bearing elements and concrete hollow-core slabs. The structural system, a straightforward platform frame produces 2 - 4 story buildings that can be expanded horizontally to form larger edifices contingent only to the fire restrictions imposed by their floor areas and exposed steel parts. Devoid of bearing walls, the stacked concrete slabs shape adaptable and flexible floor plates. The buildings are capped with lightweight greenhouses, also built with standard elements. Used to capture and harvest solar gains and help stabilize interior temperatures in different climate conditions, the greenhouses act as an insulating rooftop microclimate. A lightweight curtain wall of polycarbonate panels, hung from the platforms’ perimeter, makes the façades or skins as agile as the floor plans. Elevations can change without affecting structural integrity. This type of made-to-stock, architect driven bricolage (tinkering), is inspired by an industrial vernacular common to modernist architectural exploration looking to reduce costs and develop a type of modular repeatability leveraged for an flexible and open building approach.

A field of modular components

Monday, May 24, 2021

Prefabrication experiments - 286 - Modular city building - 07 - Floating urbanity


The rising sea level is one of the most threatening consequences of climate change. Melting ice sheets menace coastal cities and transform littoral ecosystems. This will render large populated territories uninhabitable and defy shoreline communities’ adaptability. Approximately 40% of the world's population lives in coastal areas and depends on them for their survival both economic and social. Building infrastructure that helps mitigate risks can help increase a community’s resilience. Planning can be combined with coastal protective measures to prolong livability and prevent areas from becoming completely submerged. This type of speculative land-farming from the oceans is not new. Buckminster Fuller’s Triton City imagined a floating urban bionetwork for two million citizens in Japan’s coastal waters as a completely self-sufficient living machine as a solution to predicted land scarceness. 


An analogous concept of floating cities has emerged from a partnership between Oceanix and architectural firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group). The project team includes specialists in every area of city building: planning, engineering, waste management, mobility and energy harvesting. The hypothetical city is a modular composition of 300-person hexagonal floating districts. The 4.5-acre hexagon cells are multiplied and arranged to construct a collective urban constellation. A large portion, approximately 3/4 of an acre of each hexagon is designated for food production.  The concept proposes thematic settlements formed from a group of six hubs relying on a common harbour. These centralized and specialized communities would be based on themes such as health care, culture or education. Loosely reconceptualizing Ebenezer Howard’s circular garden city, the hexagons are connected by loops. A surrounding external concentric loop of modular islands serves energy harvesting or water filtration. The required food, water and waste management systems are all be completely self-generated or sourced from the air or surrounding water. 


The floating islands are anchored to the ocean floor with biorock, a type of artifical limestone produced from chemical reactions between electric currents and mineral deposits.  Although all of the ideas applied to this floating oasis are credible and technologically possible, it remains an idealistic mission. Even so, many of the proposed concepts could be applied to city building in general and make landlocked urbanity more resilient. 

BIG and Oceanix's Floating Cities

Monday, May 17, 2021

Prefabrication experiments - 285 - Modular city building - 06 - Container City I

Making architecture from shipping containers showcases the salvaging of ready-made components or materials repurposed toward new functions. Stacking, clustering, aligning and juxtaposing volumetric boxes makes conceptual sense, as it is possible to imagine multiple arrangements, from a standardized chunk, spreading in every direction. Further, the unitary autonomy of each composing box makes it conceivable to define buildings as material banks ready to be disassembled and transported indefinitely or even reusing the boxes as shipping containers if need be. This cyclical adaptability can be part of both a scalable and resilient community development strategy. Especially in areas that are in critical need of rapidly developed and affordable housing. One of the first applications of container building to container urbanism was undertaken at Trinity Buoy Warf, part of London’s Docklands. The first phase of ISO container stacking was finalized in 2001. The 14 dwelling units in Container City I employed 40-foot (12-meter) volumes in a three-storey configuration with a fourth floor added following high demand for the live/work units.  Delivery, setting, positioning and assembly of the building required only four days demonstrating what has become modular construction’s greatest confirmed asset - speed. 


A design build experiment by a consortium uniting Container City and Nicholas Lacey architects, the project expresses the containers honestly, as ready-made architecture. Mod-lines (modular volumetric juxtaposition lines) connect and bridge onsite with offsite construction. In this case, mod-lines are expressed on the outside of the building as if it was a simple stacking in a port side shipment. Containers can’t simply be stacked; openings for interior systems, finishes, windows, structural connections and insulation are some of the necessary modifications that transform the steel shipping containers into viable living spaces. At Container City I, interiors dissimulate the underlying containers with conventional systems and finishes. This type of aggregation shows that modular or container urbanism has the potential to provide quality housing both rapidly and creatively. While the container itself with a modular width of 8’ (2.4 m) does not provide for very flexible living spaces, containers could be modified and juxtaposed to compose 16’ (4.8 m) wide spaces, which offer more flexibility. 

Stacked ISO containers at Container City I

Monday, May 10, 2021

Prefabrication experiments - 284 - Modular city building - 05 - Centralized Box-Unit Construction

Even with the current appeal stemming from contextual pressures, modular building and prefabrication are in some ways still mired in post-war undertones. For most, prefab invokes standardized box type architecture duplicated over and over with little regard for habitability or architectural originality. The last century spawned countless experiments or representations and even changes in vocabulary from prefab to modular to manufactured housing and to offsite construction in part to relinquish prefab’s adverse status. This reputation underscores a persistent lack of uptake in the sector. Two of the most productive experiments in industrialized construction and their links with two completely opposed political systems perhaps explain the longstanding resistance even with their specific successes. The mobile home in the USA and the large panel or box unit building in post war USSR are both part of the same vision; providing adequate housing at the lowest possible price quickly and massively. Many disregarded both types of housing or at least, marginalized it. The interest in studying both, is in relating how industrialized construction was applied in the past and how those lessons could be applied or alter present-day strategies. 


The Gosstroy in the USSR was a centralized housing provider known as the State Committee for Construction. It was formed in 1950 to organize the reconstruction effort and respond to the overwhelming need for post-war dwellings. The government owned factories would become models of component, large panel and volumetric building inspired by systems that had been previously patented in either Great Britain or France. The Box-unit building type employed modular concrete boxes stacked up to 5 or 6 levels in different configurations. The concrete box units were produced in a sequential mass production system according to particular functions: stairs, kitchens, baths, bedrooms, or living spaces. Each large box would be delivered to site and craned into position and then stacked or juxtaposed to other boxes. Joints were cast onsite to create a monolithic structure. The basic module, 2,7m x 2,7m x 5,4m in length, could theoretically be clustered and expand in every direction with scope and scale being determined by cost and acreage constraints. USSR’s unambiguously centralized vision attained an average rate of 3.5 million dwelling units per year.  

Box-unit types

Monday, May 3, 2021

Prefabrication experiments - 283 - Modular city building - 04 - Moveable modular dwellings

Methodologies from mass to lean production have propelled architectural experiments that would direct industrial principles toward the construction of edifices. Primarily, these experiments were fostered through applying standardization and replicability already used in commodity production. Military-industrial alliances, reconstruction after disasters or massive migration patterns all increased provisional demand for prefabrication. Specifically in the area of volumetric modular construction, to address housing shortages, factory produced dwelling sized chunks would be stacked and clustered into dense and low-cost variable compositions.

Along with the required dimensional normalization associated with mass production, the Toyota model and subsequent lean production tenets introduced the central concept of interoperability; The ability to leverage one type of cog or task toward a great number of arrangements according to preset design or fabrication parameters. In architecture, interoperability guided a systems theory approach where each building sub-assembly could be assembled and rearranged according to underlying ordering principles leading to a comprehensive and flexible adaptability of parts and pieces.

This idealized union of flexibility and interchangeability also sustained a new type of urbanism that conceived the city as a field of tall buildings planned as infrastructure support hubs. Manufactured modular dwellings could be attached, detached, placed or even replaced on these towers attuning to the evolving city. The Plug-in Capsule Tower (Kurokawa-1971) and Future House (Angela Hareiter-1967) famously portrayed this utopian vision for mobile citizens, moving their dwellings as required. Half a century after these foreword-looking experiments, a new generation is embracing similar themes of densifying cities though high rise modular and scalable edifices. Y design Office (a research and design collaborative) imagined an adaptable skyscraper for the centre of Hong Kong. The proposal is not only a modular support tower but is also intended to build itself. The support structure provides infrastructure connections and common spaces. Dwellings are composed from the same basic 2,6x2,6x2,6 m box-unit. They are lifted and positioned according to sizes from small (4 modular units) to extra-large (20 modular units) and plugged-into service connections that can easily be disconnected to relocate one’s dwelling. Each unit is part of an adaptable and interoperable whole as volumetric apartments could be delivered, lifted and placed or replaced within minutes.


Kurokawa Capsule Tower (left) Y Design Office (right)

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Prefabrication experiments - 282 - modular city building - 03 - Mat-building

Coined by author and architect Alison Smithson, mat-building, sometimes known as mat-housing, is a modular strategy or system based on the clustering of mass and voids into inhabitable dynamic architectural fields. The mat component denotes a limitless expanse layered over a rigorous planning grid. While not exclusively structural in nature, the grid circumscribes the edifice’s interrelated scale, span and scope.  Mat-housing usually relates to a modular aesthetic illustrated by iconic projects like Paul Rudolph’s Oriental Masonic Gardens, employing building units and volumes as bricks in an interplay of interior and exterior dwelling environments.  Along with the mat imagery, the theoretical ideal of an integrated adaptability and flexibility underscored the most notable example of Mat-building: The Free University of Berlin designed by Candilis, Josic, Woods and Schiedhelm in 1963 arrayed the basic framework of mat-building to define a campus (field in Latin) building that could evolve as needed over time.  The two to three storey scheme projected variability in plan and section across a horizontal plane characterized by a mass / void relationship akin to a Medina or medieval organization connecting public and common areas with more functional spaces for teaching.


The material heart of this mat-building was an innovative building system proposed by Jean Prouvé. Le «Tabouret» or stool building system proposed an open plan grid structural system. A square grid of large spanning beams, girders or even space frames determined floor or roof platforms: the open web structural plates were raised over spaced out columns or posts.  Together, the posts and platforms shaped the simple «stool» suggestion. Familiar to other Prouvé projects, a 1-meter grid of steel lightweight panels were proposed as interchangeable parts of the building envelope. The «plan libre» free of any bearing walls made it possible to change the building's interiors, furnishings and even functions over time.  The building as a type of matrix or normalized field made its components both interchangeable and expandable. Its expandability was put to the test in 1997 when Foster and partners were mandated to add a library and undertake a complete restoration. Thirty percent of the removed components were saved and reused as intended by Prouvé’s original structural system. 

Prouvé's open plan «Tabouret» system

Monday, April 19, 2021

Prefabrication experiments - 281 - modular city building - 02 - City in the Air


Dwelling mobility and interoperability were the basis of utopian postwar architectural projects for rebuilding Japan by young architects who in their way were the protagonists of a high modernist architectural regime articulated to technology. A Pritzker Architecture Prize winner in 2019, Arata Isozaki was an emblematic proponent of the Japanese metabolist movement, which perceived and designed the city as an organic organism. Expanding and contracting as needed, urbanity was organized around megastructures that provided the community infrastructure and services for modular clustered dwellings. The city would evolve according to a predetermined cellular structure. Dwellings were imagined as moveable commodities within the overall framework, inserted or replaced as needed. The entire city would be a type of scalable entity established from modular components. Even though Isozaki is known for much more than these ideas, The City in the Air project he designed outlined the basic elements of the metabolist architectural solution.  


In Isozaki's vision, horizontal circulation would branch out from vertical cores generating areas for horizontal dwelling distribution akin to linear viewing portals radiating from the central trunks. Further, building this new city infrastructure over the existing one would act as a type of pressure valve allowing the city to scale up or down as required. Metabolist speculative visions inspired architects and academia and repurposed the component based construction systems that were becoming familiar in Eastern European collective housing blocks to apply them to city making. Many megastructures were elaborated around a basic concept; a vertical circulation element anchored to place onto which modular units were attached leaving the ground plane free for urban networks. Perhaps inspired by LeCorbusier's Cité Radieuse, densely packed vertical dwellings would liberate the ground plane and elevate dwellings bringing them closer to light and separate them from perceived unsanitary living conditions closer to the streets.  This vision was applied in both an inverted pyramid towering proposal and an inhabitable bridge truss proposal. 


More streamlined versions were explored in many experiments and portrayed most ambitiously by Habitat 67 in Montréal by Moshe Safdie; individualized units had their own personal and private access and further the checkerboard type disposition allowed for each unit to be a singular recognizable element in the overall composition. 

City in the Air model