No need for nails

Home based on sustainable design tosses out conventional building practices

June 15, 2008|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Special to the sun

What footprint?

Years from now, the prior existence of Loblolly House may be imperceptible to those wandering the property it once occupied on Taylors Island. Having served its purpose by then, the house overlooking the Chesapeake Bay will have been disassembled, its pre-fabricated components perhaps resold on eBay to become part of another house on another shore. No rusty nails or construction debris will betray the house's former presence.

The promise of impermanence is part of the beauty inherent in Loblolly, the archetype of a new generation of pre-fabricated homes designed by the Philadelphia architectural firm KieranTimberlake Associates.

In their new book, Loblolly House: Elements of a New Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008, $40), partners Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake describe the high-tech process by which they've created a dwelling "derived from the elements of nature but organized through the artifice of architecture."

With 3-D digital technology and strategies borrowed from the aerospace, automotive and ship industries, the two architects have created a model for streamlining the construction industry by eliminating the piecemeal process of conventional homebuilding. Underlying that effort is a notion of sustainability that requires consideration of quality and cost, as well as environmental concerns.

Set among a grove of loblolly pines, the namesake retreat built upon timber pilings and clad in cedar is a synthesis of the guiding principles that dictated its design. From computer model to assembly to a seamless union with its surroundings, Loblolly was conceived as a holistic ideal, one that can be refashioned for middle-class homebuyers.

"We will consider this a failure if it doesn't actually make its way into a broader marketplace," Kieran says in a phone interview.

Although Kieran and Timberlake maintained a commitment to sustainable design throughout their work, they also realized that real and rapid change couldn't take place within the hidebound constraints of the construction industry.

"We had long felt frustration at the pace of change [within] those types of methodologies," Kieran says in a phone interview.

With Loblolly House, he and Timberlake were able to toss out any concession to accepted practice. "We didn't buy into the conventional systems of construction and the design industry as they exist today," Kieran says.

The architects chose the Taylors Island property, where Kieran planned to build a family retreat, for their case study.

First, Loblolly took shape on a computer.

In their book, the architects describe how digital parametric modeling, a powerful computer drawing tool, transformed the typical building process.

In the fragmented way homes are usually constructed, architects design a house and then carpenters, plumbers, tilers and electricians will build it with little communication among them. From the start, though, Kieran and Timberlake collaborated with engineers, fabricators and suppliers to create a digital design that precisely simulated how Loblolly would look and function on the ground.

The "chunks" that would become Loblolly House were manufactured and hauled to the site on two tractor trailers. There, they were lifted into an aluminum scaffold erected to hold them and secured with a wrench. Hammers and nails, emblems of old-school construction methods, were of no use.

Modular plywood crates, called "smart cartridges," contained Loblolly's heating, water and electrical systems, but also doubled as flooring, ceilings and walls. The wall-height window units, as well, arrived on site already installed within another set of pre-fabricated cartridges.

Bathrooms, pre-plumbed, wired and ventilated, came in modules that were small enough to require no special transportation permits. Then, "All we had to do was plug into them on site," Kieran says.

Pre-assembled fixtures - kitchen cabinets and two staircases - snapped into place, and then came the furnishings, selected in a palette that honored both the setting's tidewater habitat and the design traditions that influenced Kieran and Timberlake's approach to Loblolly.

Completed in 2006, Loblolly fit gracefully within its frame and environment. It proved, as well, to be a peaceful retreat for the Kieran family. In their book, Kieran and Timberlake proclaim the successful design as Exhibit A in their case for a new way to craft homes that no longer relies on outmoded, inefficient techniques.

A new business model

The use of off-site fabrication and on-site assembly could revolutionize the housing-supply chain, according to Kieran and Timberlake. If widely adopted by a new breed of suppliers, their prefab system could be used to develop affordable, high-quality housing with a reduced environmental footprint.

To embrace their nascent architectural movement, Kieran and Timberlake contend that the building industry must abandon its entrenched business model.

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