Bursting Out

Using digital technology, architects Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier break free from the conventional box that has long defined prefab houses.

When the Katay family moved into their new summerhouse late last year, they not-iced an increase in traffic outside. This was odd since they lived on a dead-end street in North Haven, a beach community four hours’ drive from Sydney. “We called them ‘drive-bys,’” says Andrew Katay, an Anglican minister who commissioned the house. “Cars would just drive down this cul-de-sac then turn around and go back. There were twenty a day or more.”

The Katays’ new home, designed by New York firm System Architects, had undeniable gawker appeal. It stood on a street of brick-clad, tile-roofed cottages, a suburban Austral-ian staple that is oddly out of synch with the temperate climate. Raised on stilts to meet new flooding requirements, the Katay house resembled a Gothic beach shack that had descended from the future. To add to its incongruity, it was defiantly asymmetrical and visually blunt about its fabrication: a taut plywood rib-cage structure with folded plywood skin adorned with large graphic sunbursts. (The architects officially named it Burst *003.) On hearing that the owner was a minister, a neighbor who took exception to the design began spreading rumors that it was the future home of a new cult. “Of all the denominations that are least cultlike,” Katay notes wryly, “the Anglican church is about as conservative as you can get.”

In fact Burst *003 may be the start of a new architectural cult, based around the kit house, that capitalizes on product-design techniques and manufacturing technology to get away from the dumb box, which defines current prefab housing conventions. System’s founders, Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier, who met in the master’s program at Columbia University in 1992, purposely set about designing a house that “resists linear logic,” as Edmiston puts it, with a self-conscious grin. At their most ambitious, they hope that it will be the prototype for an affordable-housing module engineered to withstand hurricanes and floods: a prefab for the age of global warming.

Unlike with their previous projects, System had the relative luxury here of having a family friend as a client (Katay’s and Edmiston’s wives are old friends). Edmiston and Gauthier thought this project could change the role of the contractor and test the benefits of a digitally enabled manufacturing system to produce a smart kit of parts that could be put together with a minimum of skilled labor. “Prefab isn’t about saving money,” Edmiston says. “It’s about controlling risk.”

Starting with a basic 1,500-square-foot floor plan that divided the property lengthwise according to activities—public (outdoor), semipublic (living room, kitchen), and private (bedrooms)—the architects played around with profiles, using the modeling program Form Z, to derive a twisting shape that was oriented to exploit year-round sun and wind changes. With the exception of a proposed fireplace for winter use (not built), the house would be environmentally passive, requiring no powered heating or cooling systems. The semipublic rooms receive light and air through a dramatic rear-facing glass facade running the length of the building, and the bedrooms have a clerestory that performs the same function. The orientation of the windows and an overhang was also calculated to cut out direct summer sun but still allow winter sun to warm the interior. Vents in both rear- and front-facing facades were designed to take advantage of cooling afternoon sea breezes in summer, and would be closed off in winter to retain heat.

By cutting out expensive lumber from the project, System felt liberated to experiment with an unconventional structure of one-inch-thick plywood ribs connected by X-clips (folded and welded stainless-steel clips purpose-designed to secure the intersections of ribs) into a latticework of diamonds to support the twisting form of the house. “In a more conventional structure you’d have grid lines every two or eight feet,” Edmiston says. In the Burst house the latticework of diamonds is visibly bunched in some areas of the structure and spread farther apart in others, creating a more organic-looking frame. “Wind forces are much greater on the edge of the building than in the center,” Edmiston explains. “So the two edges get quite tight to give it more rigidity. In the center it opens up to respond to where we have the walls.”

The public areas of the property are similarly expressive. Underneath the house, the ribs, varying in depth, form an undercroft into which holes are cut for storing surfboards, fishing rods, and the like. Stadium-style bleachers descend to the backyard, grounding the raised structure and connecting the living areas to the outside.

The process borrowed heavily from industrial-design mass manufacturing. After hollowing out the solid model in Form Z and developing a structural diagram based on the ribs, the architects ran commands to unfold the computer model, break up the surfaces into production-size triangles, label each piece and rib, and then organize them onto sheets for the laser cutter. This information was then run through String IT, a program used in furniture design, which “nests” it—calculating an optimum layout of the various shapes on the given dimensions of the plywood sheets to minimize waste—reducing the amount of plywood required by about 20 percent. At the laser cutter this file, in VectorWorks format, was run to produce 1,100 nonidentical plywood pieces, each cut, drilled, and etched to determine its location in the house. In January 2005 these arrived flat-packed in North Haven, where a team of 12 students from the architecture program at nearby Newcastle University was prepped for a fast-build process that the architects likened to a barn raising.

At first System’s optimistic completion of May 2005 looked on target. There were no errors in the laser-cutting, and the students proved more than capable. The frame came together in three weeks, Katay recalls, built initially atop a scaffolding table beneath which the concrete foundations were sunk into the ground. The table was removed and the house settled, with a few creaks, into place. The project was delayed, however, when System determined that a large amount of blocking and cross-bracing was needed to support the structure. “Because of the angles of the ribs, it was an incredibly complicated and tedious carpentry process,” Katay says, adding that the overall cost of the project “blew out,” nearly doubling the original budget and requiring him to seek an additional loan. The house finally gained its certificate of occupancy seven months late, in December 2005. “Being a prototype it had all the virtues and excitement of a prototype—and all the challenges,” Katay says. According to System, the final cost was $250,000.

Regardless of these teething problems, the construction of their first prototype Burst house emboldened Edmiston and Gauthier to develop the idea; they have since designed a folding version of the X-clip so that the plywood rib structure could arrive in larger premade components that simply unfold into place on-site. They’ve also developed a competition proposal for a cluster of Bursts of different orientations. The design model can be reprogrammed to respond to any number of climatic conditions. “Once you understand this product you go back to the parameters and change, say, the south-facing view with weather orientation to a west-facing view with south-facing weather, run the 3-D model, and the massing changes,” Gauthier says. “It’s a very clear methodology for making a different house the same way.”

The next step is to patent elements of the design—not to protect it from plagiarism but to validate and to present the design to potential investors in the language of a business plan, a product ready to go into production. System has been in touch with a New York developer interested in proposing Burst as an affordable-housing solution. For the Katays the notion that their over-budget summerhouse might be recast as affordable housing “brings something of a smile to our faces,” Katay says. “I’m sure as they continue to refine the concept and workability of it, that will be possible.” He has little doubt of its validity as a habitat: “We love it. The bleachers in the late afternoon are in strong shade, which is part of the design. In summer it’s glorious to be out on the bleachers in the afternoon with a cold drink.”

Meanwhile the neighbors have quieted down about cults. As Gauthier sees it, the Australian suburban house is a heavy, materially wasteful proposition. Or as Edmiston puts it, “Why fit in with a flawed model?” As for the prefab house, that’s also a flawed model, too dependent on the dimensions of the trucks that deliver them, too bogged down in architectural condescension and social stigma. Burst, then, is a prefab that is a critique of prefab—a design with legs.

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