Monday, November 28, 2022

Prefabrication experiments - 353 - Montreal, Expo 67 and Operation Breakthrough

One of the most important contributions to the field of industrialized construction was organized in the late 1960s in the United States. Part of a comprehensive investment in studying options for increasing production of low-cost, accessible and mixed housing options, Operation Breakthrough received 600 proposals from all over the world. 

With George Romney at the head and orchestrating his recipe of collaborative capitalism, most of the proposals were from the USA, with some exceptions. Notable entries from Canada included the only foreign prototype to be constructed, Descon / Concordia, along with 5 other proposals: Development International, Optor Tetrahedrons,  Skycell Modular system, Hambro structural systems and Trebron Holdings. 


Four out of these six systems were linked to Montréal, Qc. Perhaps owing to the fertile ground Expo 67 had been for the presenting innovative building systems. There is evidence that organizers visited Montreal's prototype and were inspired by some of the work undertaken for the flagship edifice designed by Moshe Safdie. Habitat 67 epitomized state of the art industrialization and its potential to reform multiunit buildings. The four Montreal proposals are among the most ambitious of Operation Breakthrough with Safdie's Development International piggy backing on the architectural success of Habitat. Conceptually similar but formally distant from habitat, the proposal made use of the same type of box unit post-tensioned structure used for Habitat but with elongated 10-sided section-based prisms shaped to stack and interlock into variable aggregations. Descon/Concordia's proposal was certainly the most forward-looking proposal as it defined a complete and holistic system classifying and organising each building system and sub-system into a streamlined supply chain management system that in some ways predicted the platform theory being applied to industrialized construction today. The precast panel system would be used for the development of two sites in Jersey City, New Jersey and St. Louis, Missouri.  


The two other Montreal-linked proposals Optor (a megastructure of tetrahedrons with hub like connectors) and Skycell (modular inhabitable cells) were less comprehensive but equally ambitious. While Operation Breakthrough's success was limited to a few experimental sites, the impact on industrialized construction and offsite construction would influence a generation of architects and industrialists. The link to Montreal is an interesting anecdote and points to universal exhibits’ influence in both industry and architecture.

upper left; Deson/Concordia - upper right; Optor Tetrahedrons
below left; Skycell Modular - below right; Development International

Monday, November 14, 2022

Prefabrication experiments - 352 - 9-Tsubo Modular Dwelling

A perfect storm, modernity in architecture federated industrial production, new materials, new methods and posited a radical transformation of classic architectural paradigms. To replace Palladian regulating geometry, modernists considered vernacular principles instead; universal values of sheltering and anchoring informed new housing ideas. From Gottfried Semper to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, to Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto, locus became the inspiration to define space, function and aesthetics. Japanese traditions in particular, with ingrained material modularity and connection with nature seemed particularly in tune with modernist values. The influence of modernity on Japanese design culture was equally important, specifically when it came to training architects.  An understudy of Antonin Raymond, Makoto Masuzawa's obsession with the minimal house is iconic of the era’s architectural crosspollination. 


Working to respond to the Japanese housing authority's post war building mandates pushing mass-reproducibility, Masuzawa's 9-Tsubo proposal illustrates the relationship between a simple adaptable planning system and similar attitudes that led to Le Corbusier's Citrohan house. The small dwelling was arranged on a square grid (9 square modules made up of 2 tatami mats laid side by side). The juxtaposed 0.9x1.8m tatami mats outline the basic modular unit of 1.8m x 1.8m. This unit multiplied by three in x and y axis shapes the ground floor plan. The double height section turns horizontal space on its end and develops a vertical open space. The «double height» or la double hauteur in the Citrohan house developed by Le Corbusier intended to democratize spatial qualities of a larger more opulent structure.  The timber frame used standard timber dimensions, with panelized infill elements revealing the basic grid geometry both horizontally and vertically. The principle of the tsubo (9, 12 or  15 modules) offers a vision of how architects envisioned mass-production of dwellings; The smallest units of space would be multiplied and scaled to shape larger dwellings made from the same components. Again here the link between the Tsubo, the General Module studied in Japan by architect Ikebe Kiyoshi or even Bemis's modular coordination in the USA were the applied tenets of both the minimal dwelling and architects’ vision for serially produced dwellings. 

9-tsubo house axonometric


Friday, November 4, 2022

Prefabrication experiments - 351 - A Tilted Box

Modular volumetric construction's potential customization has been limited to stacking or clustering and has remained one of the factors for its marginal uptake in housing even as its advantages have been made clear. Working with modules that could be twisted, rotated, and even placed vertically has informed so many experiments envisioning inventive solutions for architectural space from premade boxes.


Founded in 1967, Misawa Homes is a notable Japanese producer, still recognized as a leader in the field. Their success is based on understanding the local market and investing in research and development. The company's research branch is responsible for exploring innovative technical concepts, relationships with local universities and sponsoring architectural competitions to bridge architecture with manufacturing. A competition underwritten by Misawa in 1971 was published in Japan Architect, garnered much attention and was highlighted by a unique winning entry designed by Mayasuki Kurokawa. Adrift from standardized modular boxes, the design proposed a manufactured volumetric unit completely integrated with functional living elements that would be mass produced in a factory and delivered to any site. Once delivered the module would be set on temporary foundations or a structural base, hinged and then tilted 45 degrees to fashion a two-level living space inscribed by and within the tilted box. Divided into day and night, living spaces adjacent to a wet service wall arranged the ground floor and a stair (parallel to the boxes tilt) lead to sleeping spaces. Furniture elements were integrated and showcase the proposal’s link to the well-established capsule culture familiar with 20thcentury Japanese architectural prefab. The 45-degree section defined an oblique vertical space directly aiming at a skylight that opened the space inundating the house with daylight or a starry nocturnal sky.  


In multiples, each box would be inverted, juxtaposed, and clustered in a linear plan creating a low-density town-house block. Using a volumetric module framework to create spatial quality is perhaps the proposal's most important contribution as to this day prefab maintains the connotation of lacking diversity in manners of organization and architectural merit. Kurokawa's proposal addressed these undertones with an innovative section and a simple modular tilt.

The Tilted Box serial dwelling

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Prefabrication experiments - 350 - Prefabs from generation to generation


Prefabrication appears as a solution to building crises for designers of every generation. The twentieth century bred its lot of challenges to which both industry and architects responded with factory made proposals and narratives. Through all the experiments, it’s interesting to see how little things change from one generation to the next. The genealogy of prefab generates new ideas from old ones, repeating a history that is at once exasperating, ironic and rich in terms of how approaches are represented, explored, dropped or even simply rediscovered. 


This is particularly noteworthy when it happens within the same family. The «Société industrielle de recherche et de réalisation de l’habitat» pursued factory production of architecture through Claude Prouvé, the son of French pioneer, Jean Prouvé, related with many prefab experiments in post war housing. Another family affair, Tom Risom recently continued where his father left off some fifty-five years ago. Jens Risom, well-known for his furniture experimented with prefabrication as an open alternative to site intensive construction by tweaking an A-Frame design. Illustrated in Stanmar Leisure Homes catalogue, the fine-tuned timber kit provided an opportunity to argue that prefab in the late 1960s could avoid the repetitive mass-produced types familiar to the post war generation; further, kits would generate customization potentials and quality for a reasonable price. Published in Life magazine in 1967, Risom’s design was proven affordable at a price tag of 25000$. 


Like his father, Tom Risom has now built his own kit home on Block Island. A partnership with GoLogic, a panelized kit prefab home producer that attains passive house standards, the company provides a one stop shop for prefab / architect collaborations. The Tom Risom home continues the legacy of Jens Risom's vision of creating quality spatial relationships and detailing from catalogued components. The 2022 Risom prefab goes beyond the simplicity of a type of do-it yourself design, with criteria for high performance in matters of construction and energy efficiency; each generation addresses its own challenges though prefab’s both enduring and fluid narratives.

Left: Jens Risom house in Dwell; Right above: Stanmar Leisure Homes examples; Right below: Tom Risom House

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Prefabrication experiments - 349 - Generative design for modular building


Modular volumetric construction is an efficient process for buildings when spatial arrangements are repeated from one floor plate to another. Transportable dimensionally coordinated boxes or prisms can be factory produced, delivered on site and piled into shape. The difficulty in applying this industrialized process in more generalized terms evokes the enduring question: what kind of architecture is produced from stacking premade boxes ? Impressions of mundane, repetitive, cookie cutter designs have precluded architects’ adoption of modular construction except for one-off prototypes that have not proven viable or even credible in terms of manufacturing. 


Managing architectural singularity in modular construction is at odds with its required reproducibility. Currently, new modelling and digital technologies are offering new potentials for redefining modular’s variability. Specifically with Artificial intelligence integrating streamlined design and building, project variations are studied within the framework of generating data informed iterations from dimensional and production parameters. The Gensler Research Institute has devised a generative design tool adapted to modular building. Applied, for now, to hotel design and architecture, which has the definitive advantage of using predefined plans for rooms and even common areas, the generative software uses a simplified box as a kernel to generate multiple plans from the same encoded database. Criteria includes building typology, height requirements, floor to site area restrictions, unit dimensions or corridor widths. All of which are deployed to define floor plans according to optimized relations.  Reminiscent of Steven Holl’s publication Alphabet city in the 1980s, the generative tool uses letters T, H, I, L, C, O as basic aggregation layouts that are then adjusted to site shapes, zoning bylaws, orientation, and other contextual elements. By tuning elements with data informed sliders, it is possible to adjust their hierarchal relationships and evaluate multiple possibilities in real time. 


Plans integrate elements like exit distances and shafts for elevators creating an optimized diagram for a repeating pattern. While efficient, this type of artificial intelligence applied to building design will probably not end the difficulty in getting architects’ adoption of modular methods but perhaps only make another forceful argument against it.

Generative design tool from Gensler Institute

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Prefabrication experiments - 348 - Demountable Football Stadium for the Qatar World Cup


Impermanent and short-lived events such as the Olympic Games or universal exhibitions have certainly been the setting for the development of innovative infrastructure or edifices, and they are always the locus of important government spending. Investment and spending to organize these events culminate in the best and the worst that humanity has to offer; for some, games improve international relations, while according to opposing views their infrastructure disrupts territories and neighborhoods for a shortly lived marketing stunt. The objective of providing adequate facilities for the scale of an international competition with the least possible disturbance seems to be difficult to achieve and events often generate white elephants that still require maintenance, are swiftly forgotten, or even abandoned, once the event ends.  The concept of mobile or demountable buildings has been explored from time to time to respond to events’ specific needs and the challenges of impermanence.


Already making headlines for many of the wrong reasons: the preparations for Qatar’s world cup coming up in November 2022 have been cited for malpractices including forced labor and inadequate safety and living conditions for workers.


Responding to the temporary nature of the World Cup of Football, Fenwick Iribarren Architects have designed a modular and demountable stadium. On a site near Doha's port, the design includes elements inspired by the intermodal shipping presence in the city. The Ras Abu Aboud Stadium Structure is a modern-day colosseum designed as a skeletal megastructure infilled with ready-made boxes. The steel post and beam framework supports steel girders for roofs or platforms to create a type of scaffolding structure laid out in an oval annular shape to circumscribe the football pitch. Recycled shipping containers are carried by this steel scaffold to serve functional needs from seating to food service, concession stands, bathrooms and other amenities. The structure is conceived with spans and dimensions that are generic enough to be disassembled and reassembled in other contexts or even to be built in smaller stadium formats.  The reversible system potentially avoids the waste that comes with building a once in a lifetime transient edifice.

Qatar demountable football stadium

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Prefabrication experiments - 347 - SAMVS modular open system for dwellings


Industrialized building systems can be categorized as closed or open with the two concepts framing potential flexibility and adaptability. Closed systems are proprietary in nature and are controlled within the limits of a production system usually relating to specific company tooling, a patent or some form of intellectual property that restricts the development of interfaces with existing building technologies. On an opposing end of the spectrum, open systems are structured by the notion that building combines shared processes, systems, materials and methods which adapt freely to changing needs or to changing techniques and technologies.  Architects generally design buildings with an objective of open evolvability; the whole being detailed, assembled and coordinated with industrial products. Manufactures on the other hand are looking for distinction and usually propose systems that are linked to specific fabrication parameters. Prefabrication’s marginal use can arguably be traced to its lack of openness. 


Recently, partnerships between industry and architects in the prefab building space showcase a renewed interest in the development of open and interoperable systems to increase offsite construction’s uptake while maintaining adaptability. Architecture firm Cso Arquitectura from Spain along with construction firm TORSAN 1 have developed a house building system based on an open modular volumetric system. Each coordinated container-like box corresponds to a dwelling function and can be fitted according to a consumer’s choices and specifications. The boxes are bolted together on site and can be disassembled, removed or added to an existing space or relocated. The box's dimensional standards regulate design elements. Known as SAMVS, the boxes are produced in a factory, which reduces onsite waste, disturbance and labour. The architects affirm that the home can be produced in just 45 days and for 800$ per square meter (1800$ is a comparative average). The dwelling includes a list of ecological strategies that range from green materials to water recycling and solar panels for producing energy. The system argues for a low cost industrial approach.  It is unclear if demand will be sufficient to justify its production and if the very personalized nature of its conceptualization will once again show that open systems are more difficult to frame in a highly industrialized process.

Modular volumetric dwelling system

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Prefabrication experiments - 346 - Concrete - timber composites

Ecological imperatives are challenging the building industry's habits. Timber platform frame for houses, steel for tall buildings, reinforced concrete for fireproofed multi-unit dwellings were the accepted methods of construction since these materials and systems were normalized at the beginning of the twentieth century. Recognized as both durable and regulated, steel and reinforced concrete were generalized while timber’s use was relegated to lightweight stick building or specialized laminations for large spanning roofs for arenas or stadiums. The last few decades have changed these entrenched perceptions of steel and concrete with the rediscovery of mass timber systems specifically with CLT technology (Cross laminated timber). Timber’s low carbon footprint when compared to the high-embodied energy of steel and concrete has opened a window of opportunity for its use in any building type. Tall timber building research is profiting from both industry and policy agendas. While this seems to promulgate the same type of material silos that have hindered true innovation within the construction industry, some are looking toward hybrid systems that unite material properties to elevate quality while mitigating challenges. 


A western Canada based architectural firm recently proposed a hybrid solution for an «Office building of the future». The CEI architects design of a 40-floor structure combines the advantages of CLT with those of reinforced concrete. A central concrete core braces the tall structure, and a timber / concrete composite is used for floor slabs. Taking advantage of concrete’s compression strength and wood’s tensile strength floor slabs use these characteristics to optimize beam effect (concrete above neutral axis; timber below neutral axis) for spans without significantly increasing weight or sag as would be the case with concrete or timber alone. Mayr Melnhof Holz is a European company based in Austria that has brought this type of composite to market. XC is their prefabricated concrete-timber laminated slab offered in multiple modular sizes. The combination of timber and concrete increases fire protection and offers the advantage of increasing mass to simplify foundations specifically in comparison to all-timber buildings which often require tensile anchors to compensate for their relative low mass. 

prefabricated concrete / CLT slabs

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Prefabrication experiments - 345 - Pluralist Tower


Prefabrication, mass production and industrialized building systems cultivated the potential of a new architectural language; the repetition of components, compositions or elements over a standardized grid became iconic of modernism and its modularity. One step further, these same concepts underwrote the international style that led to the erection of similar looking buildings in every city. A globalized representation of capitalism, the curtain wall tower manifested newness based on architectural and industrial integration. Many reacted to this sameness, most strongly, in reaction to how people could live in vertical towers devoid of individuality. An enduring approach created from this reaction is the open building theory founded on John Habraken's theories of a more authentic relationship to building which inscribed the duality of collective and personal elements as two necessary systems of housing blocks. Supports (collective) and infill (individual) founded many experiments where edifices no longer reflected a generic sameness but argued for individual expression outlined by a shared framework.


A fascinating tower project demonstrating this type of response is Gaetano Pesce's Pluralistic tower designed for Sao Paolo, Brazil in the late 1980s. Pesce envisioned the tower as «superimposed territories (platforms) equipped with the necessary services that may be bought by different owners who, with the help of other architects decide how to design the outer “skin” and the internal arrangement of every floor, with the result that a highly innovative building is created». In appearancea complete rebuttal of modernist values, the tower expresses the distinctiveness of its inhabitants through systemic variability. It is based on a collective structure, a tall megastructure of floorplates, onto which individuals could dictate what their part of the tower would look like; a vertical urban plan with a programmed constructive freedom. A powerful manifesto, the un-built tower underscored a willingness to combine industrial potentials with design freedom. This pluralist concept while in line with Pesce's vision of distinctiveness in architecture also continues to display the difficult relationship architects entertain with mass housing: a continuous alternation between determined or undetermined arrangements. It remains to be seen how current housing needs will swing the architectural pendulum.

Pluralist Tower model

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Prefabrication experiments - 344 - A universal modular building block

The ISO shipping container revolutionized the global economy. International logistics were standardized and regulated based on the idea of a normalized packaging and storing device. The universal box's dimensions along with its stackability were proposed for controlling multimodal cargoes. Organizing disparate variables from a centralized normalized unit has unquestionably contributed to  «platform thinking» as it pertains to  applying a shared model to complex supply chains. The container along with the juxtaposing, stacking clamps and simple assembly details has also inspired many to imagine the same type of assembly approach in architecture and construction. 


Companies like Sekisui in Japan, 369 pattern buildings - a more recent exploration on the topic - and perhaps most iconically, Z Modular, an American modular builder has proposed a chassis or rectangular prism with a structural steel skeleton that can be amassed, piled, aligned to produce an open building system. Framed by transport dimensions, the box could be used across multiple building types with medium spans. 


The modular universal connector invented by Julian Bowron and brought to market by Z Modular, fixes different corner elements in x,y,z directions to combine posts or beams to stack and clamp individual modules together. The patented modular box applies flexible planning principles to modular construction allowing interiors to be arranged similarly to those of conventional building systems. It is basically a post and beam structure with floors composed of steel decking and girders. Stacked and aligned units create spaces and perimeter faces that are free from structural constraints and in terms of spans are akin to lightweight timber or flat slab construction. Elevations can also be planned and composed with more freedom. The box’s universality makes it possible to oversee and propose common standards for the modular industry in a similar way to what was done in the structural steel industry or even in the concrete industry allowing varied producers to commercialize the same universal building block.   The Z Modular box also indirectly relates to the idea of Platform DfMA which evokes the platform principle applied to architecture through producing multiple designs based on the same kit-of-parts. 

The modular connector by Julian Bowron and Z Modular