There are a lot of really quite nice modular housing products designed by architects.  The state of standard residential design and construction is so deplorable and the potential promise in alleviating this through manufactured housing is so great that it is difficult not love these projects.  On a number of projects we have flirted with either complete or partial modular, if not panelized, construction to save time and money.  However, in each case we were proposing the design of a one-off, custom house – a process not suited to the advantages of the factory-built house.  In each case we later decided against modular construction for a number of reasons.

The recent designs by very talented architects are certainly a long way away from the double wide manufactured home, both in design and technical quality.

pugh scarpa vail grant house modular housing

Pugh + Scarpa Vail Grant House

marmol radziner desert house modular housing

Marmol Radziner Desert House

And, there are an awful lot of websites and magazine articles fervently debunking the negative stereotypes of manufactured housing. Maybe their time has finally come.

However, I can not find myself jumping on the bandwagon.  Modular construction at its best allows for most of the construction to take place off-site and may be well suited for projects with very short building seasons or environmentally sensitive sites.  However, the high-design modular prototype that is flogged so relentlessly in architecture journals and websites is not generated from these conditions.  Rather it is proposed, en masse, as a solution to America’s dreadful housing stock.  I fail to understand how generically designed buildings, without input from clients or site-specific conditions, is any better than crappy builder plans of Tudors, Victorians and ranches.  I think the notion is that if we only lived in cool, Modern-looking homes then we would all be better off.  This is about the worse kind of ideological architectural language snobbery I can imagine.

So my protest against modular construction is in two forms:

1.  Modular prototypes are merely products, not architecture.  If they are generic and designed for imagined sites then they are no better than any other “model” homes.  This kind of work dumbs down architecture, both as a profession and an art.  It substitutes taste for invention and usually low-paid repetitive work for the skilled labor of carpenters, masons, roofers, etc.

2.  Modular construction of custom houses is an architect’s attempt to be even more of a control-freak over the building process than a set of drawings and specifications enables.  Rarely does the cost of construction, when you include everything including all utilities, foundations, etc. have significant savings over conventional construction.  Cutting the builder out of the process of making buildings again posits the building process as product design, and the proliferation of these designs online and in the design press compounds the notion that architecture is largely a visual medium.

Working with a good builder allows the architect and homeowner to craft the building over the life of the construction.  Changes are made, conditions are modified, serendipitous events become buildings.

douglas cutler connecticut house modular housing

Douglas Cutler Connecticut House

spechtharpman zerohouse modular housing

Specht Harpman zeroHouse

I certainly know that not everyone, in fact hardly any one can afford to build and live in an architect-designed custom home.  I can’t.  But I think it is ridiculous to think that the dreaded expanses of cookie-cutter suburban homes would be any better if the cookies had a different shape.

I would advocate an architecture that is site-specific, client-specific and instilled with the hands of the people who put the building together.  Later in life LeCorbusier’s pure white villas gave way to brutalist, “messy” buildings like the houses at Jauol.  The project was not a constructed abstraction direct from the architect’s head to the site.  Rather, it was embodied with the work, the opinions and the craft of masons, carpenters, glazers, etc.  Their work was not perfect, it was never intended to be, for a building is not prototyped product, it is a living, expressive entity, beautiful and functional in the least, and in the finest work, transcendent and poetic.

For my part, I will spend my time working on projects with real clients, challenging or not, on real sites, challenging or not, and making real buildings, with all the thrills and disappointments working with dozens of carpenters, painters, electricians, and craftsmen entails.

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