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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Self-Fab House


Left: Biodegradable Vacuum Formed Modularized Shelter. Center: InflateIt. Right: deBox.

I recall the first time I discovered a brand-new book that appealed to my latter-day Metabolist sensibilities: with a title from Talking Heads, Houses in Motion was proposing lean, mean and mobile utopian aggregations. [1] This last decade has seen a groundswell of exhibitions, books and design competitions promoting innovation in small, efficient and readily fabricated or assembled dwellings. [2] It has seen an abundance of critically inclined and exuberantly designed deployable structures born of the chance encounter between between Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House and Krzysztof Wodiczko’sHomeless Vehicle on a CNC milling bed. What a fruitful union that has been, with offspring of shockingly diverse genetic make-up distributed across the globe. Today, four U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlons later, and the first European equivalent in the works, it appears that throughout the global architectural community there is a concern and interest, if not obsession, with the development of compact, self-sustaining dwellings.

The Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, or IAAC, is making sure to cover all its bases in this department. It is one of 19 contestants in the European Solar Decathlon, scheduled to take place in Madrid this June, and it is also the sponsor of several ideas competitions on the topic of ecologically self-sufficient dwellings. And the IAAC has just published the results of the second of these competitions (a third is on the way), showcasing the work of over 100 submissions by students and young practitioners for the design of a Self-Fab House.

Self-Fab House: 2nd Advanced Architecture Contest [Actar, 2010] introduces the overarching theme — the self-fabricated house situated in both a local-place and global-network, created by the digitally savvy for energy-starved earthlings — through a series of brief texts by the IAAC's director Vicente Guallart, the contest’s director Lucas Capelli, and co-directors of the masters program Marta Malé-Alemany and Willy Müller. With contestants hailing from around the globe, an equally international jury included such luminaries as Aaron Betsky, Yung Ho Chang, Sheila Kennedy, Greg Lynn, François Roche, Michel Rojkind, Ben van Berkel, and Jacob van Rijs, along with IAAC faculty.

deBox, Boehm Architecture.

Within this mini-tome — the trim size is just 4.75 by 6.25 inches — the editors have loosely categorized the submittals into six categories: do it yourself; auto and bio-generated; materials and construction; recycled and readapted; modular and prearranged; and digitally fabricated. This is ambitious, and the results are uneven. Despite noble efforts at organizing the vast number of projects, the editors have clearly strained to find a worthy distribution of projects among these headings, with some projects making no sense in their assigned category. The confusion is aggravated by mediocre to downright nonsensical translations of many project statements, translations that a native speaker’s proofreading would have quickly cleaned up. In several of the editors’ category introductions, for instance, “as long as” repeatedly appears where “as well as” clearly was intended. And for another example, the concluding text, by the first competition winners, discusses four "combats" — an undeniably off, and off-putting, word choice, since it seems that what they meant was "challenges," as in "challenges to the status quo."  

In addition, the diminutive layout, in which whole competition panels are reduced to postage stamps, renders it nearly impossible to decipher explanatory texts or appreciate much of the work. In the cases in which contestants have evidently engaged in serious research, the shrunken scale of the images reduces the work to eye-wash. In fact, without the aid of a magnifying glass, many projects are completely incomprehensible. I encourage the editors either to include a slim magnifying sheet in all future editions if they value the content of the contributors’ proposals, or confess a disinterest in anything other than gloss.

More troubling still — a particular dilemma of the competition call, and thus of the vast majority of the submittals — is the inherently sprawling byproduct of any aggregation of these self-sustaining houses. For the most part the proposals are situated (either explicitly in the project description or implicitly through the renderings) in uninhabited territories, cultivating a romantic myth of the lone survivalist pioneer and the existence of vast expanses of virgin land upon which we should be encouraging these developments. The glaring naiveté and nostalgia for the primitive hut, demonstrated by so many of the projects, is deeply troubling. This perhaps explains why the competition organizers have shifted scales for their third competition: this year the brief calls for a focus on the self-sufficient city, inviting proposals that address future conditions of buildings and cities in ten and fifty years, and further into the future. 

Aeroform, n:dL.

But all conceptual problematics and editorial glitches aside, the intention of the organizers is to be commended, and the abundance of optimistic proposals is noteworthy. And many of the projects are admirable, either for formal elegance (i.e., Maria Anton Barco’s "S.O.S. House: Emergency Kit," which proposes a "bioclimatic" building in which vegetation eventually covers the plastic skin), or for conceptual or procedural propositions (i.e., "deBox," by Boehm Architecture, which transforms abandoned big-box stores into communal settlements), or for the rigor of the research informing the proposal (i.e., the “Biodegradable Vacuum Formed Modularized Shelter,” discussed below, among the competition winners).

The submissions ran the formal gamut, from container-like boxes to polygonal crystals and organic assemblies to human termite mounds. Many proposals explored now commonplace techniques of creating undulating forms through differentiated rib structures or egg-crate CNC-milled parts. Perhaps these techniques are inevitably part and parcel of any “self-fab” modus operandi and should be accepted as such. But if so, then new challenges (rarely taken up here) lie in the areas of material exploration, integration of regenerative systems and site strategies.

Contributors explored every form of novel or waste or recycled material, including bottles, bags and bubble wrap (“Micro projects for Collective Lodgings,” by ETSAM student Sierra de Hita); tires (Vecino’s “Wheel House”; Cabanon’s “Borie Project”; and Factory3 Studio’s “I'll do by Myself”); inner tubes (Torres Sanchez + Kukucska’s “Eco-Inflatable House”) and inflatables (object-e architecture’s "InflateIt"); and nanogel-filled and algae-breeding skin assemblies (“Self Sustainable Housing,” by Lithuania’s Stankevic and Spilevski). Some entries (such as Jittakasem’s “Under Skytrain House,” OURoffice’s “City Camping,” P3D’s “FloodHouse,” and n:dL’s Denari-reminiscent "Aeroform” billboard house) even created or braved the urban context for their self-fab house. 

InflateIt, object-e architecture.

The biggest struggle for many project teams seemed to be getting beyond the mere listing of the latest technologies and gadgets and achieving a true integration of these systems. Few if any derived a new architecture that is both in synch with and informed by these new technologies. Projects such as "Forest Regenerator" (by Yenerich and Schiavoni, of Argentina) and "Hydraminds" (by Geotectura/Artecoop, of Israel) attempted to conceptualize their site ecosystem and building systems in symbiosis. The projects that achieved the greatest resolution and depth recognized the mammoth task at hand and used this competition to concentrate on one issue within the larger self-fab question, while also understanding the need to situate their proposition within networks of economic, material and energy logics, among others. 

The jurors awarded three prizes and two honorable mentions. The first prize was awarded to Ming Tang and Dihua Yang, professors at the Savannah College of Art and Design, for their “Folded House," which employed bamboo components assembled into ruled surfaces framed to create a broad range of spatial enclosures. This was a simple scheme that evidently benefited, in the judges' eyes, from evading a larger set of questions about infrastructural self-sufficiency or programmatic specificity. They appreciated its use of locally available materials, its constructability as a “prototype” and the potential for “self transforming and re-informing structures.” Jurors were also impressed by the renderings, which integrated various configurations into landscape settings.

Folded House, Ming Tang and Dihua Yang.

Second prize went to Luis Aguirre Manso, a graduate of the ETS Arquitectura, at the University of Valladolid in Spain, for his formally elegant yet primitive “Harvest Home,” which proposed using supple bamboo and other organic materials to create shelters for displaced Colombians. Jurors complimented this scheme for the balance between its light-weight bamboo structure and the massive hearth the structure encloses. Aguirre also explored how the construction of these dwellings might fit into a larger economic and ecological picture, giving the project added clout.

The third-prize winner, though formally inconclusive, involved full-scale prototyping of biodegradable plastics: the “Biodegradable Vacuum Formed Modularized Shelter” was designed by students Shinya Okuda, Alvin Kung Yick Ho, and Ian Lam Yan Yu at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The jury was taken by the application of advanced fabrication methods to the biodegradable material proposed in this scheme. As a research project into new materials, it has promise. And yet, as with the first-prize winner, the project takes on only the most basic demand of architecture — shelter — and does not address the larger demands of multiple contexts.

It is interesting to note that each of these winning schemes pays attention to material (and waste) cycles, addressing recycling, biodegradation, composting and material regeneration as critical design considerations. Aguirre’s "Harvest Home," in particular, recognizes the larger cycles in which it must function, such as local economies of energy production and labor. Yet none of the three winning schemes integrates the full palette of comfort and commodity that the designers themselves — as contemporary, laptop-wielding global citizens — would expect of any house, including enclosure from the elements, modern indoor plumbing and electrical power, to name just a few.

Harvest Home, Luis Aguirre Manso.

The catalog concludes with a text describing four challenges (a.k.a., “combats”) identified by Daniel Ibañez and Rodrigo Rubio, the winners of the first IAAC competition, now engaged in research at the Institute. These four challenges are clearly within the competition call and appear to extend into the totality of research labs, design studios and other projects at the IAAC. [3] The first is “multi v. disciplinary,” highlighting the necessity of developing work in a network of cultural and disciplinary diversity. Second is the need to work with local materials and skills as well as with global knowledge systems. Third, they note that global fabrication and other kinds of distributed networks are now making advanced technologies widely accessible. And last, they argue in favor of open source and self-constructed architectures.

Certainly the projects highlighted in Self-Fab House address some of these challenges — mixing local material logics with globally networked advanced fabrication technologies and do-it-yourself techniques, all of which inform the assembly of everything from individual dwellings to larger complex communities through inclusive processes. As such, many projects propose a shift in scale “from the crane to the human,” allowing for interaction, adaptation and the empowerment of the individual over the environment. As with most utopian visions, the individual inhabitants will need to live up to their new world; theirs will need to be a very “handy” society dedicated to the upkeep of their remote and off-the-grid dwellings. The Self-Fab House presents its various self-sufficient utopias with a generally anarchic and romantic twist that would indubitably be the anathema of planners, authorities and all top-down ordering systems. The urban agglomerations of the third competition should prove an interesting counterpoint to the single dwelling. Let’s hope a magnifying glass is included in this next volume.


1. Robert Kronenburg, Houses in Motion: The Genesis, History and Development of the Portable Building(London: Academy Press, 1995).

2. On the theme of portable and mobile, Jennifer Siegal has published Mobile: The Art of Portable Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), followed by More Mobile: Portable Architecture for Today(Princeton Architectural Press, 2008). On very small projects there is the XS: Small Structures, Green Architecture, by Phyllis Richardson (Universe, 2007); Micro: Very Small Buildings, by Ruth Slavid (Laurence King, 2009), and Tiny Houses, by Mimi Zeiger (Rizzoli, 2009). On humanitarian-driven design work, there have been many recent publications, including Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises, from Architecture for Humanity (Metropolis Books, 2006); Design for the Other 90%, by Cynthia E. Smith, from the Cooper-Hewitt (Assouline, 2007); and Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism, edited by Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford (Metropolis Books, 2008).

3. From the 2nd competition brief: “On this occasion the competition aims to stimulate specific investigations into construction techniques and processes that will encourage individuals all over the world to build houses with the means available locally. We are interested, then, in everything from the intelligent application of traditional techniques to advanced digital processes in which digital fabrication entails the use of computers not only as design tools but also as tools for self-production.
The objective is to design, in any part of the world, a single dwelling or a residential building in which there is specific development of innovative construction proposals in relation to the use of new materials, the integration of energy systems in the construction, the insertion of the architecture in the landscape, or any other strategy that serves to enhance self-sufficiency. . . .”

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