Saturday, October 3, 2009

Prefabricated Housing is ready for another look

Today's Vancouver Sun Story on the 2020 Pre-fab housing competition

Michael Geller
Special to the Sun

When I was studying architecture in the 1960s, I was fascinated by a group of British designers, Archigram, whose fantastic architectural concepts questioned the form and function of city and building design and championed new technologies and materials, especially prefabrication and plastics.

Two of their most famous projects were Plug-in City, a giant mega structure with relocatable prefabricated modules, and Walking City, which included 40-storey self-contained buildings with telescoping legs that could move around the world.

I thought about Archigram earlier this month while judging an international design competition, for a 400-square-foot prefabricated home.

Prefab 2020, organized by Architecture for Humanity Vancouver, a not-for-profit society and sponsored by Azure, a Canadian art and architecture magazine; Interior Design Show West and the Architectural Institute of B.C., the competition attracted 285 teams from 26 countries.

Other jurors included Oliver Lang, an award winning architect and a former architecture professor at the University of B.C.; Maged Senbel, a teacher at the UBC planning school and associate at Studio Senbel Architecture + Design; Kristina Lee Podesva, most recently artist-in-residence at Langara College; and Duane Elverum, an Emily Carr University professor.

Submissions ranged from the provocative -- cantilevered modular housing above city streets -- to the practical -- prefabricated modules as infill housing -- to the outrageous. ''Para-site'' attached housing pods to the exterior walls of buildings. Hummer Home demonstrated how to construct housing out of Hummers.

According to Linus Lam and Patrick Chan of Architecture for Humanity Vancouver, one of the goals of the competition was to demonstrate that prefabricated housing need not look cheap or ugly, and thus overcome the social stigma associated with it.

Another goal was to illustrate how compact living can be smart living, contributing to a more sustainable future.

Submissions were judged on their overall concept and design, prefabrication creativity, and social and environmental impacts.

Given the high quality of the submissions and range of ideas presented, the judges had a difficult time agreeing on which projects were worthy of special recognition.

The task was made all the more difficult by the fact that some proposals were more realistic and could be easily implemented in various locales around the world, while others were deliberately fantastic and put forward as provocations.

While the submissions originated in more than 100 cities and the ideas were varied, there were a number of common themes. Many entries explored how we might put housing where it does not normally belong -- above streets, between buildings and in spaces currently used for parking.

Others illustrated how modular housing could be hoisted onto roof-tops, thus giving new life to a variety of buildings. Another popular theme was the floating of prefabricated buildings on water.

Some submissions such as the Drawer House blurred the line between housing and furniture with a high degree of built-ins and expandability.

Anyone who has ever spent time living on a boat or in a recreational vehicle knows that these structures make much better use of space than conventional apartments or houses.

While prefabricated construction is effectively used in other countries, for a variety of reasons it has never really caught on in Canada.

The response to Prefab 2020 demonstrates that given new technologies and attitudes, now may be the time for greater use of prefabricated construction to create more sustainable and affordable housing.

To view submissions, visit prefab2020.wordpress.com/2009/09/17/winners-shortlisted-entries-announced/ on the Internet.

- Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, planner, developer and Simon Fraser University adjunct professor. E-mail: geller@sfu.ca

© The Vancouver Sun 2009

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