Stillwater Blog

Just What is Prefab?

 

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The New York Times recently published an article on Revolution, a company founded by Robbie Antonio that sells precrafted tiny homes and pavilions. This article got us thinking about the definition of prefab. Mr. Antonio, a 38 year old Stanford MBA, has a taste for contemporary art, luxury brands, and big ticket architecture. Yes, these homes and pavilions are gorgeous and pre-built, but the designs are so idiosyncratic it’s hard to imagine their production with any efficiency.

I was especially drawn to the bimorphic moon pavilion by Daniel Libeskind (see above photo). It appears to be a bisected blob of molten gold, and shows the hand of a master designer–“blobs” are not as easy to create as you may think.

Likewise, Gluckman Tang’s art pavilion, made from lacquered wood and translucent polycarbonate, is a sweet, well controlled minimalist structure and the closest of all of Revolution’s “precrafted properties” to the reality of typical building methods.

There’s a lot of talk about the notion of prefab, but in actuality the dwellings in this article are more like prefab prototyping, and prototyping is likely to be the way they will stay. After all, one of the fundamental tenants of prefab is that its supposed to be affordable, mass production housing, not a couture dwelling.

An Almost Magical Building Material

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As an architect, I could specify a wide variety of contemporary building materials in my homes. But only one is totally sustainable, is flexible enough to shift as structures settle, does not expand and contract with the seasons, is energy efficient, is both a structural and finishing material, is easy to work with and repair, and is totally recyclable. Of course I’m talking about wood.
It’s almost a magical material. Trees take energy from the sun, and carbon dioxide from the air and converts them into a totally natural, renewable and recyclable product. Wood building materials continue to evolve. In the last 50 years researchers have developed ways to utilize wood to make incredibly strong beams and other structural materials. Engineered wood building systems are now being used to build midrise towers. Instead of steel and concrete, the floors, ceilings, elevator shafts, and stairwells are made entirely of wood.
It is also one of the best building materials for earthquake prone areas. In 1995 an earthquake of 6.0 magnitude hit the city of Kobe, Japan. Among the devastated traditional style houses were examples of modern wood construction and wood-frame houses. Of approximately 8000 “2 by 4” framed houses, none collapsed and 70% reported no damage at all.
Personally I love building with wood. It allows me to bring to life just about any design I can imagine. It comes from the ground and will eventually return to the ground. It’s as organic as the people who will reside in the homes built with it, and there is nothing more wonderful than the smell of a freshly framed home.

Why are We Attracted to Art and Beauty?

Is appreciation for art and its architectural component learned, inherited or a little of both?  Why do some people love specific forms of art while others don’t get it?  I have always believed appreciation of beauty was, at least partially, innate.  As an architect, working with hundreds of clients through the years, something about the look of a home and its setting on a site just feels “right”.  Was this because of the client’s highly evolved taste or something much more basic?
Denis Dutton, in his fascinating book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution argues that aesthetic taste, is an evolutionary trait, shaped by natural selection.  In many circles this seemingly logical conclusion was rather radical.  In the introduction to the book Dutton states “Charles Darwin laid the foundation for the proper study of art as not only a cultural phenomenon, but a natural one as well.”  The book provides fascinating arguments to prove the point.  It’s well worth reading.
Mr. Dutton grew up in Los Angeles, received a PhD from the University of California and spent his academic career as an art philosopher in the U. S. and New Zealand.  He gave a terrific Ted Talk on the Darwinian theory of beauty a few years ago.

At Home With Bill Bryson

I enjoyed the dry wit and content of Bill Bryson’s “A History of Almost Everything” so much that I’m really looking forward to reading his latest book At Home, A Short History of Private Life”. Bryson has an incredible knack for making nonfiction especially interesting and at times, painfully funny. The Seattle Times reviews Bryson’s latest publication:
‘At Home’: Bill Bryson Constructs a History of Private Life
By Bharti Kirchner
Special to The Seattle Times
Most people would be satisfied with a home in a village like one in the county of Norfolk, England, and simply go on enjoying it, but not Bill Bryson (“A Short History of Nearly Everything”). A chance inspection of an attic to determine the source of a drip leads him in an unexpected direction. He begins strolling from room to room, pondering domestic objects around him — a fork, a sofa, a cabinet — and also the function of each space, as well as how it might have evolved through time. The journal he keeps results in a new book, quirky but entertaining, filled with observations about the history of everyday life spanning the last 150 or so years.
“Houses aren’t refuges from history,” Bryson says. “They are where history ends up.”
‘At Home: A Short History of Private Life’
by Bill Bryson
Doubleday, 452 pp., $28.95
Read the complete review here: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/books/2013091826_br10bryson.html

XBO Mobile Structure / 70ºN Arkitektur

I particularly like the exterior of this mobile habitat with its uncompromising simplicity. Statement making architecture in a stunning setting, featured in www.archdaily.com
The xbo is primarily a result of the Rotterdam based project ‘PARASITE’ (Prototypes for Advanced/ Ready-made/ Amphibious/ Small scale/ Individual/ Temporary/ Ecological houses). The idea of the xbo is to provide a mobile habitat for 2 young people on the move. The structure consists of two movable parts in sum twelve meters long, 3,2m wide and almost 3,5m high, the xbo is an attempt to keep things to a minimum, to stick to the basics and focus on the essential.
Today many people are economical prisoners in their homes. One way out could be to change our way of living. In a small house the focus is on what is actually needed. The house may be a tool for such a change. This means that simple and basic qualities of life is the main theme for the development of this minimal space. We want to use this tool as an object of investigation and discussion. Not only while it is created, but also when it is put into use.”

Contemporary Architecture: Constraints Are Your Friend

Frank Lloyd Wright once said “constraints are your friend” and although one would think that limitations of creative thinking would be counterintuitive in the design world, it actually makes a lot of sense. Constraints define the character of the solution.
Besides the obvious constraints of topography, sun, wind, budget, etc., there are also constraints imposed by the properties of materials and systems; it’s from all of these constraints one can tease out meaningful solutions that are not arbitrary or faddish but are a thoughtfully considered response.
At Stilllwater Dwellings, modular construction is integral to the aesthetic language we have developed without dominating or overpowering it. For instance, the structural expression of the roof beams at the module ”marriage lines” create a secondary scale that define individual spaces within a larger room, giving a human scale to balance the overall dimensions.
In the Living Hall, the kitchen, dining, and sitting areas are given identity by the structural expression of the exposed wood beams which are regulated by modular dimensions.

The Forerunner of Prefabricated Semi-Custom Homes

I have always loved Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonion homes, but I hadn’t thought about them for quite some time. Recently, I noticed the influence on our Stillwater designs; see the first elevation below. Maybe the Usonion home would have been more successful if it had been prefabricated?
“He called his modest house “Usonian,” after the United States. It was a single story built on a monolithic concrete slab and joined to a carport and not a garage. Wright believed that it could be replicated all across the country.
His main desire, which no contemporary architects pay any attention to whatever, is shelter for ordinary people…he got it down at one point in 1940 to $5000 per house for a family with children and a kitchen and gardens…and openness and a real milieu in which it was a highly civilized way to live. He thought about it all the time; he took commissions from the poor as well as from the rich, something unheard of in 1995, 1996… We’re not like that anymore and this was very important in any appraisal of what his work represents because he hasn’t had the following that he should have had in respect to shelter.”
—Brendan Gill, Writer
“What would be really sensible in this matter of the modest dwelling for our time and place? Let’s see how far the Herbert Jacobs house at Madison, Wisconsin, is a sensible house. This house for a young journalist, his wife, and small daughter, is now under roof. Cost: Fifty-five hundred dollars, including architect’s fee of four hundred and fifty. Contract let to P. B. Grove.
To give the small Jacobs family the benefit of the advantages of the era in which they live, many simplifications must take place. Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs must themselves see life in somewhat simplified terms. What are essentials in their case, a typical case? It is not only necessary to get rid of all unnecessary complications in construction, necessary to use work in the mill to good advantage, necessary to eliminate so far as possible, field labor which is always expensive: it is necessary to consolidate and simplify the three appurtenance systems—heating, lighting, and sanitation. At least this must be our economy if we are to achieve the sense of spaciousness and vista we desire in order to liberate the people living in the house. And it would be ideal to complete the building in one operation as it goes along. Inside and outside should be complete in one operation. The house finished inside as it is completed outside. There should be no complicated roofs.”
From An Autobiography, by Frank Lloyd Wright

Playa Prefab

I love these Buckminster Fuller-inspired prefabricated geodesic domes; their simplicity is cool and their detail and execution shows a well-designed, clean solution.
Originally designed as more humane temporary shelter for displaced people in emergency situations, Icosa Pods were first tested at Burning Man. Gorgeous to behold and out of this world.
The structures, from Folded Homes, are basic prefab huts made of plastic pieces that snap together like an Erector set. Easy to build with no need for special tools or skills, the Pods are extremely strong and yet very lightweight.

Middle Class Modern

A recent New York Times piece on Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park complex in Detroit belies the notion that the ‘average homeowner’ simply doesn’t like modernism. In fact, there’s nothing simple about it. Taste in housing is influenced by many factors including:
•          Sentiment; where you grew up, and the architectural roots of the family home
•          Professional aspirations, aka ‘keeping up with the Jones’
•          Need, as with a large, perhaps extended family
•          Or just proximity. You might not know a craftsman from a Chrysler, but you want to live near the #5 bus line.
“We wanted to hear how residents — especially people with long-term, intimate knowledge of living with Mies — think about this unique modernist environment and how they confront and adapt it to meet their needs. During our research, we were struck by the casual attitude that many residents have toward the architecture. Then again, Detroit has an abundance of beautiful housing options: one can live in a huge Victorian mansion, a beautiful arts and crafts house or a cavernous loft-conversion space in a former factory. Living in a townhouse built by a renowned architect isn’t as noteworthy as one might think. At the same time, such nonchalance is a mark of success: the homes are great because they work, not because they come affixed with a famous name.”

More Home, Less House

So true, and a maxim that has much relevance today with issues of affordability, sustainability and the idea of building for real people, not the real-estate inflation game.
It’s beyond measure how many times I’ve heard people say “…we don’t use half our house”, and the reason they built a bigger home than they needed was for “resale” considerations. Developers and Real Estate Agents have been touting the “must maximize the property” gospel for years as if it was some golden rule. Thing is, they maximized quantity not quality. This is just another urban myth, and with the recent recession, more and more people now realize that big houses are just a waste. The self-perpetuating myth has been busted.
The turnaround probably started when Susan Susanka published The Not So Big House, a revolutionary book that struck a cord with those who were leaning ahead of the curve. A classic, and worth exploring:

How to Spend $1200/sf on Your New Home, Without Even Trying

During two decades working in the high-end residential market designing homes for the very wealthy, it was interesting to study how the money gets spent; what is it that pushes costs as high as $1200/sf? Granted, the results can be stunning, particularly if you’re into pigmented plaster walls, leather tile floors, gold leaf ceilings and cast glass soaking tubs.
The 80:20 Rule Revisited
When we started Stillwater Dwellings, our objective was design for the upper-middle market with the goal of producing homes built to 80% of the highest quality level at just 20% of the cost. We did this by removing unnecessary details and add-ons that inflate prices but create no real long-term value. This 80:20 rule is the Pareto Principle, which is widely used to describe the distribution of cause and effect.
Actually there are areas of design that usually aren’t subject to the Pareto Principle. The rules of good proportion, scale, space and diagram all remain, within bounds, unaffected by the materials that define them.

Britain’s Town Planners Promote More Square Footage

I was a little surprised to come across this urban planning article in The Independent, as most of the talk in the USA is about houses needing to get smaller, not bigger:
“Architects Beginning to Think Big
Britain’s homes have long had the smallest rooms in Europe, now a new generation of town planners and architects is urging us to rethink the way we use our shrinking urban space. Oliver Bennett reports.
Friday, 15 October 2010
Rabbit hutch Britain: Densely packed terraced homes in Blackburn, as elsewhere in the north of England, often date from as far back as the Industrial Revolution.
“In most things we welcome miniaturisation: computers, phones, cars. But not for our homes. Sadly, however, this is the situation that the British house-buying public faces. Homes in Britain have the smallest rooms in Western Europe. The average floor space is almost a quarter smaller than in Denmark – Western Europe’s most spacious country – and we are becoming accustomed to living cheek by jowl in cramped, poky quarters.
It’s not an impressive achievement, thinks Rebecca Roberts-Hughes, policy officer for the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), She believes it’s time for British volume builders to start thinking big.”
Read the entire article here:
http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/house-and-home/property/architects-beginning-to-think-big-2106949.html
Photo credit, Getty Images

Contemporary Is Not An Option

Planned communities like Celebration, Florida have proved well-planned towns designed to higher densities – enabling walk-able neighborhoods and public spaces – are very well received and successful. As Witold Rybczynski notes on Slate, 10 years after Disney’s town was completed, the planning works well; and the residential architecture is not bad, just a bit bland.
Disney’s Controversial Town, a Decade On
By Witold Rybczynski
“To avoid cookie-cutter uniformity, Disney gave builders the choice of several architectural styles such as Colonial Revival, Victorian, and Craftsman. “Modern,” given the preferences of American home buyers, was not an option. Yet an impression of sameness persists, for the houses share the same contemporary building materials and details. All too often they also share a bland, middle-of-the-road civility. This is understandable, since builders can’t afford to antagonize buyers, but too much politeness can be a bore. The happy exceptions are the bumptious “Mediterranean” houses that occur here and there. They exhibit a good-natured Floridian vulgarity that is refreshing among all the good taste.”

Roof Overhangs

I love roof overhangs on so many levels. On the symbolic level they convey a sense of protection and security as they shield us from the elements. They’re welcoming, like open arms saying, “…hello, here is the entry, come inside”.
On a purely functional level they are great climate modifiers, keeping the walls dry at critical joints, and are particularly effective at shading summer sun.
As a crusty waterproofing consultant once told me “I would be out of business if every building had generous roof overhangs; a poorly designed or constructed detail will not leak a bit if it doesn’t get wet”.  At Stillwater we have embraced generous roof overhangs and always try and employ them, particularly over windows.

When Joy met Frank… the SQUARE by Sp0re

It’s often really hard to find the right products or group of products, but sometimes it’s a snap, and at Stillwater nothing snapped faster than the Sp0re doorbell. I immediately knew it was right; it just hit me in the gut. But I only recently I figured out why.
It has two emotions, seemingly polar opposites that work surprisingly well together. A delightful joy is married to a frank minimalism resulting in a synergy that feels so “meant to be”.
Long neglected as an afterthought, designers at Sp0re have transformed the lowly doorbell button to a higher and more stylish place in the entry procession. The rubbery, colored resin button is backlit by LEDs and centered in a machined aluminum faceplate with a beveled interior edge. There are a variety of vibrant button colors, each having a deep iridescent glow that is just so… cool.
Choosing the doorbell color can be a big decision for some of our clients: she wants green; but he needs orange… good thing we’ve already designed the rest of the house!

A Cautionary Tale re: Prefab Home Kits

Excellent article by Preston Koerner @ Jetson Green about “kit of parts” prefab homes versus all-in, turnkey homes like ours.
A Cautionary Tale re: Prefab Home Kit
By Preston on Apr. 23, 2012
A future homeowner inherits a chunk of land in Ulster County, New York and decides to put a dreamy modern prefab on it.  I can understand that.  The owner picks an LVL model home from Rocio Romero, and the kit costs $47,000, including such things as the plans, a construction binder, open wall panels, certain structural materials, and the exterior siding.  The owner budgets just over $120,000 to finish the 1,669 square-foot home and hires a contractor to do the work, but that’s where things go wrong.
Turns out, the contractor didn’t complete at the low-bid price, according to an article in the New York Times.  The prefab kit home was ultimately finished for ~$260,000 (~$90,000 over budget), but the owner had to tap retirement savings, credit cards, and friends/family cash to get a certificate of occupancy.  Ouch!

Continue Reading →

Why Stillwater?

I often get asked how we came up with the name “Stillwater”.
First, we new we wanted a name that dissociated itself with architectural service since for our clients, most of the design has already been completed. People come to us for a home, not a long, drawn out process, so naming the company after ourselves, as is the typical architectural convention, was a non-starter.
On the surface, we build affordable prefab housing; just beneath lies a wealth of detailed knowledge and a full-spectrum, sophisticated housing system that might not be apparent at first.
Channeling this thought in a brainstorming session with Bart and Brad, I mentioned a favorite proverb of mine, “The still water runs deep”. Bart, an avid trout fisherman, agreed that he’d always loved the term “still water” because it’s the best place to cast a fly and it sounds sweet.
That was it, done.
Photo credit:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/joshcon/4450007889/in/photostream/
Joshua Conley

The cost-per-square-foot game

Costs “per/sf” are like the 10-day weather forecast: they exist because there is a huge demand for them and the fact that they are usually woefully inaccurate is hardly ever factored. To use a favorite Bushism, there’s a lot of misunderestimating going on.
When comparing costs per square foot it is critical to make sure you are using an apples-to-apples comparison. On the top of the equation ask yourself what costs are included. Does it include landscape, hardscape, permit fees, architect and engineering fees, cost of money, sales tax and contingency?
On the bottom of the equation, what exactly, is the area measured? Just livable spaces, or are the garage, mechanical, storage, covered areas, deck and patio areas also included?  Manipulate these numbers for any project and you can easily have a 100% swing.
And that’s not accounting for the human factor; sometimes the most telling metric would be the delta nose length, measured before and after some people spout out these numbers.

Let the Sun Shine

What do California, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have in common? Homeowners who live there, and who love the idea of solar power but can’t afford the upfront costs, have a terrific alternative. Innovative California company SunRun offers residential solar power systems for as low as $0. As in zero, nothing down; simply a monthly payment for your solar electricity.
It’s an intriguing business model that takes the complexity and expense out of alternate energy while weaning us off our dependency on fossil fuels.
“SunRun, the nation’s leading home solar company, has received a 2010 Green Power Leadership Award from the Department of Energy (DOE) for its clean and affordable solar power service.”
We’re not the only ones who are excited about it.

Carbon Tax Debate Heats Up

It was good to hear Dan Charles of NPR interview Bjorn Lomborg, a former global warming skeptic, as they discussed what few people and fewer politicians want to talk about: a carbon tax.
It seems to me a tax system that encouraged people to work hard by mainly lowering income tax and encouraged people to use less fossil fuel by taxing carbon, would be a better way to go. To achieve a greater independence from fossil fuels it’s most effective to have both carrots and sticks. The good thing about a carbon tax is it would be effective, transparent, and not nearly as susceptible to manipulation and gaming as can be the case with incentives. If such a tax caused the average new home size to drop by 300sf, would that be such a bad thing? Bjorn Lomborg, the controversial Danish economist, has pushed his way back into the global warming debate with a book that proposes “smart solutions” to climate change. Those promised solutions rely heavily on R&D aimed at making clean energy cheap, rather than attempts to shut down dirty energy sources. Lomborg says his views haven’t changed, but more people are willing to listen to him because international negotiations on limiting greenhouse emissions have accomplished so little. Dan Charles