Changing Skyline | Green, clean, and pretty prefab

Architect Stephen Kieran thinks his stylish forest retreat is a house of the future, as beautiful as it is easy to build.

Posted: June 15, 2007

TAYLORS ISLAND, Md. - Architect Stephen Kieran recognizes that putting a house in a forest can't help but be an aggressive act. You have to conquer land happily occupied by trees and animals, then disembowel the earth for plumbing and electrical lines. And yet Kieran was determined to design a stylish weekend retreat for his family on the Eastern Shore that would tread peaceably on the fragile Chesapeake Bay landscape.

As much as any man-made shelter can, his new house gives the impression that it has taken root on its own initiative among the tall trees. The three-bedroom structure rises from the sandy ground on husky wood pilings that resemble the trunks of the region's distinctive loblolly pines. It's camouflaged on three sides by a lacy scrim of long cedar slats. You would never suspect that Kieran's all-natural beach shack, dubbed the Loblolly House, is actually a child of the machine.

Designed on a computer in the Philadelphia office of his firm, KieranTimberlake, the house's 3D construction specs were e-mailed to a custom builder in New Hampshire, who turned out a flat pack of precision-cut panels embedded with all the necessary pipes, wires and windows. Those panels were shipped south to Maryland on the beds of standard 81/2-foot-wide tractor-trailers.

Then, in a six-week whirlwind that might be described as a modernist barn-raising, the pieces were snapped together to form Kieran's weekend haven. If it hadn't taken three more weeks to get the bamboo floors stained the exact shade of green as the local cordgrass, he could have moved in immediately.

Kieran can now relax in Loblolly's comfortable living room, with the garage-door-style windows raised to full height and nothing between him and the sky. The room feels like an old-fashioned, open-air sun porch, albeit one furnished with key selections of mid-century modern domesticity.

But then Kieran launches into a riff about parametric modeling techniques and advances in CAD-CAM programs. Without that technology, he argues, his house would never fit so effortlessly with nature. He's convinced that his tiny country place represents the future of residential construction: the custom-designed, prefab, sustainably built smart house.

"Historically, construction has been done in a sequence," Kieran explains. "You'd pour the foundation. You'd measure it. You'd verify the dimensions. It was as if you were weaving a building together."

He's through with all that.

Thanks to advances in computer programs, which got a big boost with Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, virtually every part of a house can be factory-made with the precision tolerances of aircraft components.

Just don't call Kieran's prefab house modular. Through years of research, KieranTimberlake has pioneered a different approach. Its factory-made buildings are broken down into flat panels, or cartridges, that can be slapped together nearly as easily as an Ikea bookcase. There are "smart" cartridges, larded with radiant heating, ducts and wiring, and "dumb" panels, packed with insulation, windows and the exterior skin.

Ever since Sears, Roebuck & Co. shipped its first house kits across the country in 1908, architects have dreamed of perfecting an affordable, prefab house that can be mass-produced. Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, and Jean Prové all tried their hands at factory-made houses - and failed.

"It's the Holy Grail of modern architecture," says Kieran. He believes he has the problems licked, though.

Most earlier attempts at prefab houses turned out to be unmarketable duds because the architects couldn't keep the costs down or make the assembly truly simple. Ambitious do-it-yourselfers discovered that some kits, like those from Sears, were nothing more than a truckload of precut construction materials. Once the kit arrived, the parts had to be assembled piece by piece, just like a conventional house.

But computerized design, which has already transformed the way big suburban builders operate, is starting to filter down to custom projects. By standardizing the components into factory-made panels, Kieran says, construction can be speeded up on the ground, lowering the cost of construction. Waste is reduced when houses are assembled in factories. Kieran says he threw away only 7 percent of Loblolly's construction materials, down from the industry standard of 40 percent, increasing its "green" quotient dramatically.

In the last few years, computer-savvy architects have been racing to market ever more sophisticated prefab homes. It's now possible to choose from a wide selection of modernist designs that could easily make the cover of Dwell, the shelter magazine for the flat-roof-loving classes.

Kieran, and his Walpole, N.H., collaborator, Bensonwood Homes, won't disclose the cost of the Loblolly prototype, but they believe their flat-pack, panel concept has the potential to put custom-designed prefab homes within the economic reach of the kind of people who subscribe to Dwell, much as Whole Foods did with organic produce.

Part of the savings come from reduced shipping costs. Kieran argues that it's more efficient to ship flat panels than modular boxes full of air, especially when all the systems are embedded in the panels at the factory. The downside is that panel assembly may take slightly longer on site than modular houses.

To prove their point about panels, KieranTimberlake is hooking up with LivingHomes, a Santa Monica, Calif., company that specializes in marketing prefab homes by big-name modern designers. The company, founded by software mogul Steve Glenn, hopes to use KieranTimberlake's flat-pack approach to become the Design Within Reach of housing. Wired magazine was so taken with the idea, it featured the Loblolly House in its January issue, under the headline, "Plug+Play Construction."

From the start, Kieran saw his weekend house as an opportunity to promote the architectural theories that he has developed with partner James Timberlake. Since their firm debuted with a green Shipley School building in the mid-'80s, they have argued that architects need to get better at integrating a building's systems with its aesthetics.

They pushed those ideas at the University of Pennsylvania's Levin Hall, which is outfitted with an elegant two-ply glass curtain wall that doubles as a channel for air handling. In 2003, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum gave them a show to demonstrate the advantages of using a building skin embedded with an array of wiring.

Loblolly House, sited on four acres, is probably their most perfect marriage so far of theory and aesthetics. Its geeky functionalism is offset by the beauty of its richly textured materials and poetic composition. Marguerite Rodgers, who has molded such elegant Philadelphia hideaways as Rouge and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, helped by softening the interiors with a palette of earthy colors and taming the spare modernism with a judicious infusion of Asian antiques.

The original working idea for the 1,800-square-foot house was the cordgrass duck blind favored by local hunters. Enclosed on three sides by cedar slats that have been arranged randomly to create the impression of sunlight dappling through the pines, the house offers an unimpeded view of the Chesapeake from its fourth side, like the hunter's hideouts.

Instead of installing standard windows on that western exposure, the architects developed an improved version of Levin Hall's two-part glass wall. While a row of French doors runs the length of the house on the interior side, a layer of milk-glass garage doors can be brought down on the outer side to serve as a sunshade.

When both sets of windows are closed, they act as heat collectors, trapping warm air in the gap between the layers and channeling it through the house. If it gets too hot, Kieran simply raises the garage door, letting the heat escape.

Should he decide to fling both sets of doors open, the house turns into a breezy porch.

Kieran purposely placed the living room and kitchen on the top floor, so it would have the best views. On occasion, he says, he's looked up from his culinary efforts at the stove to see a bald eagle cascading on the currents outside.

In a machine designed for living, you can't get much closer to nature than that.


Changing Skyline | Factory Fabulous

The following Web sites offer more information on prefabricated, or factory-built, modern-design homes:

www.fabprefab.com

www.livinghomes.net

http://design.walkerart.org/prefab


Changing Skyline |

Inga Saffron blogs about Philadelphia architecture at http://go.philly.com/

skyline.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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