Beyond the Trailer Park -
Out of the Box - Design Innovations in Manufactured Housing at the Field Museum
-by Lynn Becker
(Originally published in slightly different form under the title "Pod Sweet Pod"
in the Chicago Reader, March 4, 2005)
First of all, Stanley Tigerman told Phil Ponce in a recent Chicago Tonight interview, you've got to stop saying 'affordable housing,' because it's down-talking to the poor. Just say 'housing.'
"Affordable housing must no longer be equated with fast and cheap," says Chicago architect Douglas Garofalo, explaining CorPod, which looks back to the time when travel trailers like the 1934 Airstream were actually seen as stylish, mating its classic design to current prefab parts. The concept features a concrete shell that incorporates the conduit system for electricity, heating, and water -- traditionally (and expensively) installed on-site; the CorPod itself, which contains "a complete kitchen, bathroom, storage, utility, and entertainment technologies," is lifted by crane and fitted into the shell, which is then finished with windows, doors and stairs. While the model on display is of a three-story multi-family complex, the basic CorPod modules is designed to allow in alternative configurations for single-family housing on suburban, or even rural sites.
Pods are also the driving concept behind The LaCan Project, by David Baker & Partners, which pays homage to the theories of French psychoanalyst and professor Jacques Lacan. Baker offers an alternative of the generational segregation of much American housing , where we "go to to different locales in each stage of our lives." Here the podules - ten-by-ten-by-ten modules - are developed out of a growing need to accommodate for flexible, adaptable and multiple lifestyles. The podules come in three basic varieties - K-10 (kitchen), wet-10 (bath), and zero-10 (adaptable, universal space.) Like the CorPod, the podules can be combined in different configurations - horizontally to form a ranch-house like dwelling, placed atop one another to form a townhouse, or stacked in mainframe" steel superstructure to form a tall tower, as in the model on display, which looks very much like the start of a game of Jenga. The LaCan project has been designed with contemporary Americans in mind. Not only is it built to move - instead from moving to a new house with each lifestyle change, you just take it with you - "it can expand to accommodate growing families, or contract for empty nesters."
Manufactured housing requires standardization: because most mobile and modular homes are driven to their site, their pieces must conform to size restrictions on highways. Modules in Design Innovations could not be more than 80 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 14 feet 4 inches high. Several participants found ingenious ways around the limit. In Packed House, by David Khoury, "the package, typically a disposable husk, transforms itself into an integral and permanent part of the structure upon downloading." One half of the husk forms the walls surrounding the unit's courtyard; the house itself is lifted out of and placed atop the other half, which becomes a carport and entry pavilion.
Throughout the exhibit, photos and text compare individual designs to the homes of nomadic peoples. The LaCan project is compared to the vardo, the wagon in which the gypsies of central Europe live and travel in caravans in search of a living. The way the Bambuti tribe of Central Africa places their tents around a central area for privacy and safety mirrors the way the Boston firm Taylor & Burns arrange modular housing units to form an interior courtyard. The goatskin roofs of tents used by the Tuareg of North Africa let sunlight enter while deflecting heat and glare, similar to the way the clerestory windows in Ali Tayar's House Nine allows light to enter while minimizing heat from solar gain in summer.
MINiMAX, by Sumo architects Yolande Daniels and Sunil Bald, is likened to the domed yurts of Mongolian nomads, in which lattices expand like a baby's gate to create more space. In contrast, MINiMAX works like an accordion. Once on site, the end panels fold down to form extensions of the floors, and portable exterior wall sections slide out over them on motorized tracks, creating the Living Room on one end, the Master Bedroom on the other. The center section slides out perpendicular to the long side of the house to form a 2nd bedroom, and the open space it leaves in its wake is planted to form a garden. Eight divider consoles are shipped crammed together like the pleats of a closed accordion. Once on site, they separate and roll out along the motorized track (except for the wet consoles for kitchen, bath and toilet, which remain fixed in place) to define the individual spaces of the house. There's a library/entertainment console, one for a home gym, a laundry room/office, and even a dressing room console with a Murphy bed stored in its wall.
Looking at all these high-tech bells and whistles, the question arises as to whether these designs can really be built at an affordable prize. Roberta Feldman says each entry was vetted to make sure they could be constructed affordably, but concedes, It would be very expensive to produce a prototype of many of them. At this point they read like boutique housing, but it doesn't have to be boutique if it were produced in large numbers. The Model T Ford, if they only produced one or a hundred, would have cost a fortune.
"Maybe we should be questioning why we're not building houses the way we build cars," Feldman continues. "We're very willing to accept cars off an assembly line. We've come to recognize our manufacturing plants that create a great diversity of consumer products and meet consumer demand, yet in our housing somehow we insist that it has to be site-build to be a good home."
To get to mass production, however, still another, seemingly intractable roadblock has to be overcome - traditional building codes, of which Feldman claims Chicago's is particularly restrictive. We have what's called prescriptive building codes, she says, which tell you, not in every instance, but in most of our code, what materials you have to use. Whereas a performance based building code, which, for example, most European nations are moving towards, will say what kind of performance they expect: a wall has to have a fire rating of 2 hours, which means a fire can't go through a wall for two hours. The city tried to encourage the industry to come in, especially to provide units in lower-income communities, and it didn't fly, because by the time they met the building codes, it just wasn't cost effective. It doesn't mean it's lower quality. It's not.
Largely that is to support unions, Feldman continues, which I believe in. We're in a double bind here. I think labor should get higher wages (but) - our housing codes go beyond health, safety and welfare to include other norms and other special interest groups."
However; the controversy over just one cost-saving material, PVC (polyvinyl chloride), illustrates how difficult the debate over new materials can become. "PVC is a legitimate form of piping," Feldman says. "It doesn't last as long as copper does, but it's easier and cheaper to repair." However, environmental groups like Greenpeace claim it emits deadly dioxins during manufacture and disposal, and hydrogen chloride gas in fires. While The U.S. Green Building Council currently takes a neutral stand on PVC use, it's in the midst of studying whether or not to make the avoidance of PVC products a part of its LEED certification for environmentally friendly buildings. Just last December, New York governor George Pataki vetoed legislation that would have continued a three-year-old ban on the use of PVC pipe in commercial and large residential projects. The legislation was supported by a coalition of plumbers unions, while a coalition of environmental groups joined with a firefighters association to protest the veto.
As you walk through Design Innovations, you encounter an installation, Estudio Teddy Cruz's Manufactured Site,that makes the others seem like a sideshow. It begins with the sobering reminder that 837 million of the world's people are essentially squatters. Lacking legal title to the land they live on, their homes, packed into densely overcrowded shantytowns, are makeshift structures built from whatever materials are at hand. Such is the lot for half the urban residents of Africa, a third of those in Asia, and a fourth of those in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Cruz describes San Diego as "the Home Depot of Tijuana," from which discarded materials such as wooden pallets, garage and refrigerator doors, tarps, plywood - even entire houses slated for demolition - make their way across the border to be re-assembled into housing for the poor. Inspired by "the resourcefulness of poverty," Cruz's concept is a third-world revival of the Sears catalog house. Families would receive a kit with an assembly manual, a snap-in water tank, and 36 frames that can be placed in a variety of configurations, serve as frames for concrete poured on site, or to incorporate materials found nearby. Cruz would pair San Diego non-profits with local Mexican government officials to funnel money to the maquiladora industry - corporations that have built plants in Mexico to take advantage of a labor force characterized by low wages, no health care, and no unions - which would fabricate and distribute the kits, to give back to the communities it exploits.
Ironically, it's here, among the poorest of the poor, beneath the interest or attention of zoning or unions or battling trade groups, that experimentation in manufactured housing may have its greatest freedom to develop solutions that really make a difference.