The September 15 panel discussion, "Partnering With Allied Professions to Bring New Ideas to Market," brought together three building industry professionals who have accomplished significant things by combining the forces of diverse fields. Tom Kundig, FAIA, a principal of Seattle-based Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, is widely recognized for incorporating inventive machinery into his buildings, tying neo-machine-age "gizmos" to such unexpected elements as operable walls and roofs. Tech specialist Steve Glenn, CEO of LivingHomes—an alumnus of The Walt Disney Co. and Apple Computer—has turned his talents to the development of high-end modular homes. Robert Humble, AIA, co-founded the prefab-centric Seattle firm HyBrid Architecture with collaborators from such far-flung disciplines as urban ecology, history, and environmental art.
Kundig traced his interest in making things to the influence of sculptor and family friend Harold Balazs.
"As a kid I saw ideas being fabricated in front of me," he said. The experience convinced him that "craft doesn't have to be part of an elite structure." He offered the hot-rod culture of modifying cars as a contemporary example of highly skilled, bottom-up craftsmanship. Kundig said he finds that same creative spark in the artisans he engages in his projects, but that it exists also in unexpected places. In his experience, such seemingly conventional tradespeople as concrete contractors have accomplished great things when challenged to be creative. "Sometimes you just let people go and invent," he explained. Showing images of his own projects—including the 2005 RADA-winning Chicken Point Cabin, with its massive operable glass wall—he insisted that "craft doesn't have to be expensive; craft can be how you allocate your costs." He urged the architects in attendance to "take the budget of the house and focus on some very special moments."
Glenn is building his high-end prefab business on three basic principles: work with top architects, pursue LEED certification, and employ prefabrication to improve production efficiency. Noting the popularity of Apple products and Design Within Reach, he said that today's consumer is more design-oriented. Accordingly, Glenn views product development as his core responsibility. Compared with custom design and construction, prefabrication limits buyer choice, he noted, but "people don't need unlimited choices," as long as those choices are optimized.
Robert Humble, with partner Joel Egan, founded HyBrid Architecture to enter a design competition for a redevelopment project on the Seattle waterfront. The resulting plan, dubbed Cargo Town, employed flexible-use, temporary, modular structures based on shipping containers. Although it was never built, the project led the firm to employ prefabrication in high-style, affordable housing that's adaptable for a number of future uses. Humble advocated an approach to architecture and development "based not on aesthetics, but on values." Key among those, he said, should be adaptability, "because we have no idea of the future."
During the following question-and-answer session, one symposium participant challenged Humble's aesthetics-versus-values formulation. Humble clarified his belief that aesthetics are essential, adding that they should apply within a broader rational framework of design. He suggested "almost a scientific approach. You ask the right questions, and, hopefully, the right solution rises to the top."
Other questioners addressed the potential benefits of prefabrication. Glenn explained that prefab construction has the potential to lower cost, but it's more effective at reducing waste—a prime environmental consideration. The large fixed costs associated with the approach present a potential hazard, he added, due to the difficulty of scaling back during market downturns. With responsibility for projects distributed among the developer, manufacturer, and general contractor, assigning liability also can be tricky. Glenn has settled on a structure in which the general contractor carries liability insurance and, for legal purposes, treats the manufacturer as a subcontractor.
Humble agreed that cost savings may not be the primary benefit of prefabrication. But the potential for completing projects faster represents a powerful advantage over site-built construction, especially on small, multifamily infill projects. The savings in construction financing, he reported, can be "gigantic."