Traditional Building Portfolio

This is America's current perception of manufactured housing. Is it any wonder that manufactured housing is banned in thousands of cities and towns? Interestingly, there are entire nations where manufactured housing is banned because of just this same perception.

Katrina Cottage VIII, the first Tier 4 house, is on display at a temporary site.

 

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Manufactured Architecture

The assembly line can yet be redeemed.

By Stephen A. Mouzon, AIA, CNU, LEED

The wholesale loss of construction wisdom that began with the Great Decline (1925-1945) resulted in the collective amnesia of the Dark Ages of Architecture (1945-1980) and continues largely unabated to this day, except in the few isolated places that have been committed to getting things right since the beginning of the New Renaissance (1980-present). The first phase of the New Renaissance (1980-2005) was almost entirely spent re-collecting the lost wisdom, but as we get into the second phase, the focus has broadened to include, among other things, the disbursement of the wisdom that continues to be collected.

If we are serious about the proliferation of the collected wisdom of the New Renaissance, then all available methods of proliferation should be considered. The assembly line is arguably the most prolific method of our time for creating many objects within a tolerable degree of perfection. The manufacturing process can be used to deliver objects with embedded wisdom that is no longer present in much of the available craft pool.

A classic example is the fireplace. Today, few masons are able to competently lay a firebox, smoke shelf and flue that will predictably draw smoke up the chimney. But pre-manufactured refractory concrete fireplaces do so repeatedly, highlighting one of the great advantages of the assembly line: In order to get a large quantity of competent work from a craft pool, each member of that craft pool must be trained to a level of competence. The assembly line, however, only requires that the proper design be delivered to one point, after which time it can be cranked out indefinitely.

A second advantage is the fact that any item built in the controlled environment of a factory is more likely, given the same level of human skill, to be produced well repeatedly than items constructed in the field due to rain, temperature, humidity and lighting degradations that occur in the field but not under a factory roof. This prompts the manufacturer's question, "Would you rather have your car assembled in your driveway by a half-dozen guys you hire, or in the factory?"

The assembly line, therefore, should be a powerful tool in the proliferation of wisdom of the second phase of the New Renaissance. But until now, it has been of limited benefit, primarily because the collected wisdom has largely not yet permeated the world of the industrial designers who are producing building material and component designs. There are five levels, or tiers, at which the New Urban Guild (www.newurbanguild.com) is addressing this problem:

Proportional Size Selection
Some construction products are already manufactured properly, but are available in far too wide a range of sizes. Wood windows are a classic example. For standard window widths, there are only a few heights that are properly proportioned. Yet, most manufacturers' size charts contain hundreds of sizes, nearly all of them ill-proportioned. The New Urban Guild is working with manufacturers to pre-select only those windows that are properly proportioned.

Proper Profiles
Today, there is no reason to extrude or otherwise shape anything in improper profiles. Yet trim profiles are squashed almost past the point of recognition (for the better ones) or are composed of an illegible collection of shapes. Fluted columns are extruded from aluminum, which makes it impossible to either taper the column or terminate the flutes properly. Every clad window on the market is manufactured with the dreaded "vinyl tumor" or "aluminum tumor." Handrails are joined with grotesque plastic connectors. Plastic porch flooring looks more like the soiled diapers from which it is made than the wood that it is intended to represent.

It doesn't have to be this way. While some products such as extruded-aluminum columns simply should not exist, many others are shaped poorly when they just as easily could be shaped properly. Few people knew what the proper shape was 25 years ago at the beginning of the New Renaissance, but that simply is not true anymore. The New Urban Guild is working with a number of manufacturers interested in re-tooling to get their products right.

Building-Part Assemblies
There are some building-part assemblies that continually bedevil builders, even in places that are working hard to get things right. Most notable are the dormer, the eave return and the door surround, but there are others. All of these are characterized by corner joints that must be made in a certain way in order that the detail finish-out properly. Once the corner joint is made, however, it is a simple matter to extend the trim profiles down the wall, or wherever it goes next, because the entire problem is in the corner. The manufactured masonry fireplaces mentioned earlier have proven that a factory-built product can carry wisdom to the field that no longer exists in the craft pools.

Modular Housing & Manufactured Housing
It is a monumental challenge to convince millions of citizens that we can now produce great architecture on the assembly line. Almost as large a challenge is the re-training of the industry that created what most consider to be manufactured housing – the trailer.

Because of this, we thought that Tier 4 (Modular Housing, which is delivered to the site in several pieces) and Tier 5 (Manufactured Housing, which is delivered to the site in one or two pieces) of the New Urban Guild's Manufactured Architecture program would be the last to be tackled. However, Hurricane Katrina changed that. When Andrés Duany and I first conceived of what would become the Katrina Cottages program the weekend after the storm, the three foundation principles were that houses must be produced using every available delivery method, design must be excellent and design must be appropriate to the region in which it was to be delivered. Obviously, this was not possible with the then-current state of affairs in the American manufactured-housing industry. But, like good New Urbanists that don't even get interested in a project until someone tells them it is impossible, we tackled it anyway.

We found it to be a far bigger job than we ever imagined. It takes much longer to get each manufacturer to produce great work than we anticipated because they simply cannot see detail at this point, and training them takes time.

It is clearly very difficult and very time consuming, but it can be done. On September 11, 2006, Katrina Cottage VII became the first-ever house manufactured to HUD code (which regulates manufactured housing) that met our design requirements. It therefore became the first Tier 5 product. Shortly thereafter, Katrina Cottage VIII became the first-ever house manufactured to modular codes that met our design requirements. It therefore became the first Tier 4 product.

So producing great design on the assembly line is exceptionally difficult...the first time. But when it is done, then we can reliably produce thousands of copies of perfect architecture. Obviously, it's worth the effort on this count alone. But manufacturing architecture precisely on the assembly line also produced a number of surprising positive side effects. Our assumption was that every aspect of manufacturing architecture was likely to be a battle against the cheapest possible details. But this simply is not so.

Because mass production necessitates building lots of widgets (like columns), you really don't have to stick with the stock profiles, because they are going to build many of them either way. In this case, the Katrina Cottage VIII column design digresses from the canon in a number of ways, attenuating the columns to an unusual degree. The intent is to be charmingly provincial. The surprising point is the freedom to do details when mass-producing that could not be considered on most one-off building budgets. Other complex items, such as the handrails, can be set up on jigs that make sense when producing a large number of parts, which simply cannot be done on typical projects.

For years, the assembly line was credited with destroying building crafts, although blame for such should probably be more heavily shouldered by architects desiring what they called a "machine aesthetic." It is ironic that, at this juncture in history, the assembly line is poised to return architectural wisdom to the market on a scale so massive that it cannot even be contemplated by the few pockets of highly trained tradespeople that currently exist. Stay tuned.  

 


Stephen A. Mouzon, AIA, CNU, LEED, is an architect based in Miami Beach, FL. He is also the director of design for PlaceMakers, LLC.

 

 
 

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