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The incredible, flexible, movable house

How we could save money, time, and the environment by making homes easy to remodel

By Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow
October 26, 2008
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A YOUNG COUPLE buys a newly built house, its features suited to their needs and tastes. It has a master bedroom with a skylight, a kitchen with an island, a room to serve as a nursery when they start a family. They move in, and they love it. Aside from the inevitable quirks of a new house, it's perfect.

For about five years. Not long after the birth of their second son, they realize the boys will need separate rooms, resulting in an addition over the garage - a headache that costs $50,000. Six years later, the heating system could use an upgrade, another costly ordeal. After the kids leave home, their expanded house feels too big, so they put it on the market; the buyer covets the location but not the house itself, and considers demolishing the whole thing to start from scratch.

Each of these steps is expensive, wasteful, and disruptive. And all of them happen, over and over, in one house after another, throughout the country.

But what if a house had the built-in capacity to evolve? What if it could grow or shrink, or the rooms could be reconfigured, without hiring contractors and tearing out walls? An emerging movement of architects suggests that we need to start conceiving and designing houses in a new way: Not as immutable objects, expensive and painful to alter, but as flexible structures that can adapt to the inevitable changes in their owners' lives.

"It's the reality that people want to change their houses," says Stephen Kendall, director of the Building Futures Institute at Ball State University in Indiana. "Advocating adaptable housing is to say, Let's pay attention to reality."

In the work of Kendall and the other architects pressing for a new approach to home building, houses and apartments can adapt in a variety of ways, from simple mechanical changes to more dramatic spatial rearrangements. In some, electrical outlets can be relocated with little hassle and heating systems can be accessed and replaced more readily. In many, the walls can be moved around, transforming the layout in the course of an afternoon. And a few can even be quickly disassembled with everyday tools.

In recent years, hundreds of houses and apartment buildings have been constructed using these approaches in Canada, Europe, and Japan, and the idea is now gaining a foothold in the United States. Adaptable home design reduces both the upheaval and the costs of upgrades, repairs, and spatial changes. The theory is that it allows people to stay in their homes for much longer - an especially welcome benefit for a graying population determined to "age in place." And it diminishes not only the expense of homeownership, but also the immense waste generated by remodeling and demolition.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, Americans spent $235 billion on remodeling in 2007. The environmental price is equally steep: debris from residential refurbishing and demolition is one of the top contributors to landfill waste. Yet the problem is, to some extent, inherent in architecture. Buildings - unlike chairs, cars, phones, and most other products - are almost certain to outlast the initial intentions of their creators and users. "All buildings are predictions," wrote Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and the Long Now Foundation, in his 1994 book "How Buildings Learn." "All predictions are wrong."

Not everyone views a revolution in home construction as practical, or even desirable. Skeptics point out that it's nearly impossible to anticipate the range of changes homeowners might want to make, or how their tastes will evolve over the years. And moving to a new house solves more than just a structural problem; it also lets people make bigger adjustments as their lives, jobs, and households change.

The idea also prompts a deeper, less answerable question: How do people want to feel about their homes? The very word "home" is infused with a sense of stability, solidity and permanence. The awareness that a house can be transformed overnight may be disorienting. For all the advantages they offer, adaptable houses also make some demands. They require that we change the way we think about our homes - and the way that architects and builders think about their jobs.

As a rule, architects and developers conceive of houses as finished products, not as works in progress. "Most of the profession has been raised to think our work has permanence," says Steve Kieran, an architect at Kieran Timberlake in Philadelphia. "To design in a timeless way for a timeless future."

Today's construction practices compound this tendency. Houses are usually built on-site by local tradesmen, starting with the foundation. Other builders erect the frame. The electrician installs the wires. The plumber lays pipe. A separate group of workers covers all these innards with drywall. There is little communication among different players, and every step of the process makes it more difficult to undo.

"Try to take down a wall, you don't know what you're going to find," says Kent Larson, director of the MIT Open Source Building Alliance. "The way we build buildings today, you've got pipes and wires running everywhere."

The impulse to change these practices has a long history. One avant-garde house with a flexible interior was built in Holland in the 1920s, and still stands as a museum. In 1963, Dutch architect John Habraken published "Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing," in which he advocated a distinction between the "support," or base, of an apartment building and the "infill," or interior fit-out. The aims were to involve residents in the design process and to make their apartments adaptable down the road.

In the 1970s, an international network of like-minded thinkers and architects formed, and several pilot projects were conducted in Europe. Habraken headed MIT's department of architecture from 1975 to 1981, leaving a legacy embraced at the university today. In the 1980s, the Open Building Society was founded in the Netherlands to promote these goals. Since then, the phrase "open building" has served as a banner for the philosophy.

Another founding figure is Avi Friedman, a professor of architecture at McGill in Montreal, who has been working for 20 years to make housing more flexible. In 1990, he designed the Grow Home, the prototype for a single-family town house in which spaces are left unpartitioned for the occupants to fill according to their needs. More than 10,000 units have since been built in Montreal, and thousands more around the world. In 1996 Friedman introduced the Next Home, a structure with movable walls that can become a single-family home, a duplex, or a triplex. Some 800 of these have gone up in Montreal.

Habraken and Stephen Kendall focus on large apartment buildings, and emphasize the smarter distribution of responsibility - for example, giving the occupants discretion over the interior's design. "They appreciate the fact that they can control their own environment," says Habraken. This approach has gained traction primarily overseas, in Europe and Japan.

In a sense, residential architecture is playing catch-up with commercial construction, where adaptability has long been the norm. Most office buildings, malls, and hospitals built today have demountable partitions and other components that make change relatively easy.

"Commercial construction is rife with it," said Tedd Benson of Bensonwood. "But on the residential side, it's been much, much slower to take hold."

One reason for this resistance is that the features of easily changeable buildings - panels, drop ceilings, demountable walls - may feel more incongruous in houses than in workplaces and other large buildings. This helps explain why much of the current flexible housing is in Europe, where apartment living is more typical.

But architects in North America are now turning their attention to single-family houses, trying to engineer open-building principles into something that still feels like home to people accustomed to a front yard and a fireplace. Bensonwood has been the primary advocate and creator of open building in the United States. The firm defines open building as maintaining the independence of various elements of the house - interior walls, wiring, plumbing, heating ducts - so that each is more amenable to change.

With input from Kent Larson of MIT, Bensonwood recently completed a new house for the president of Unity College, an environmentally themed school in Unity, Maine. Unity House, as it's called, is a one-floor, timber frame building of 1,930 square feet that contains a master bedroom suite, a guest bedroom, and two home offices. There is also a multipurpose common room, a kitchen, a screened porch, and a foyer.

The interior partition walls are made of paneling that allows them to be broken into sections. The lower half of the walls features wainscoting - a purely decorative touch in most houses, but in this case a way of disguising the awkwardness of a panelized wall. The lower panels can be easily removed to reveal the wiring. The ceiling likewise consists of panels, divided by wooden beams. Above them is an 8-inch open space for electrical, plumbing, heating, and lighting systems. Since the elements of a building inevitably have different life spans, the idea is that they should be disentangled from one another in order to allow repairs, replacements, or upgrades without disrupting the rest of the building.

Its current occupant, Mitchell Thomashow, the college president, says the house has "a lot of glass, a lot of doors. It feels amazingly spacious and intimate at the same time."

Another aspect of adaptability is that the space plan can be reconfigured easily. Two Seattle firms, HyBrid and Owen Richards Architects, recently collaborated on a two-story prefab house whose layout can be easily modified. The bathroom, kitchen, and stairs are fixed, but the living space can be transformed in a couple of hours. Walls, made of a light material called agriboard, attached with screws to the ceilings and floors, can be removed or relocated painlessly. (The electricity and plumbing are confined to the immobile walls of the exterior and central core.) Creating new room layouts is a two-person job, no professionals required. A two-story screen porch extends from the house, convertible into extra bedrooms with insulated walls.

The house can even adapt from a single-family residence to a duplex: the second floor has a room that can easily be outfitted as another kitchen. Empty-nester parents can stay put after the kids leave home, and just rent out the new upstairs unit.

The design won a competition in Houston for affordable, sustainable housing, and the city of Houston is currently constructing a prototype, with plans to build more. According to Joel Egan, an architect at HyBrid, about 20 other potential clients around the country have contacted them to express interest.

One major goal of flexible housing is to increase a building's life span. Tedd Benson says Bensonwood's houses ought to last hundreds of years: a strong, high-quality shell with a highly adaptable interior. But the architects at Kieran Timberlake, while similarly aiming to avoid demolition, offer a twist: they design houses to die.

In the firm's Loblolly House, built in 2006 on the Chesapeake Bay, an aluminum scaffold system provides the structural frame. All of the house's components can be put together using only a wrench. The parts may in turn be quickly disassembled, and remain intact, to be reassembled elsewhere, or reused in different contexts. "If the site becomes unviable, they can be packed into a couple of tractor trailers, and off they go," says Kieran.

I

n the United States, this movement is still small. In part, that's attributable to the fragmentation of the home-building industry. There are contractors and subcontractors, and the vast majority of new houses are laid out by developers designing for the mass market. New thinking spreads slowly.

"We're not General Motors," says Kieran, referring to the American home-building industry. "There are tens of thousands of builders, a huge number of design firms."

In certain cases, aesthetics may be another obstacle. Some people will like the look of, say, walls and ceilings divided into panels, but for many Americans it remains an unacquired taste.

Witold Rybczynski, architecture critic and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, codesigned the Grow Home with flexible-housing pioneer Friedman. But he questions whether dramatic innovations are really necessary. He believes Americans have already found a satisfactory solution: moving. "As a family grows, you're able to trade up. It's not just a question of space, it's a question of quality and neighborhood. . . . It's solving a problem that's not a problem."

Many of the big changes homeowners do make, he says, are unpredictable - following a generational trend for bigger closets or more bathrooms, for example - and can't be anticipated architecturally.

Changes in the mortgage market, however, may reduce Americans' ability to simply pack up for a new neighborhood. The longer they stay where they are, the more cost-effective a flexible house becomes.

And some homeowners have other ideals in mind when they buy open-built houses. Benson says that for many of his clients, flexibility isn't the selling point - they are more drawn to other aspects of Bensonwood homes, which are energy-efficient and can be swiftly assembled. They often find, only later, that the adaptability is a bonus.

"When homes are built, there's a mind set that makes it difficult," says Benson. "Hey, this is what I want."

He and other proponents believe that the moment has arrived for adaptable housing to take root. Construction waste is increasingly on the radar as an environmental issue, and a slower economy makes expensive remodeling jobs distinctly less attractive. Family permutations are ever more diverse. Demographic trends, too, suggest that Americans may be looking for innovative strategies to keep aging baby boomers in their homes. Adaptable houses offer one solution to the fundamental conflict, as Avi Friedman puts it, "between the way we build our homes and the dynamic nature of our lives."

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a contributing writer for Ideas. She can be reached at rebecca.tuhusdubrow@gmail.com.

The president's house at Unity College in Maine has walls that open and close to reconfigure the interior. The president's house at Unity College in Maine has walls that open and close to reconfigure the interior.
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