What brought Jeriko House to hire you to develop the Nodul(ar) House?
Last spring I received a call from Jeriko. They were looking for an architect to help them with their prefab homes, and they asked if we could work with them designing a prototype using the Jeriko system, a post-and-beam extrusion kit of parts. The problem we had when we started was that no matter how we tried to configure the parts, it always looked just like an assemblage of pieces. We re-evaluated that and wanted to rethink the system and the process. That led us to the Nodul(ar) House. I thought it was amazing that the Jeriko parts could be configured to give any number of configurations. We treated it like an open plan. We're providing utility nodes—pieces that are made off site, prefabricated, and then attached to the grid system. There's flexibility in design. It's a more cost-effective way of producing a home.
Why are the nodes attached only to the exterior of the standard system?
They wouldn't have to be. They could be internal. For ease and flexibility, they work better on the outside. These pieces could be changed over time. If someone wanted to add or take away a piece, they could easily do that. So the utility nodes—which are these service cores—represent bathrooms, kitchens, stair towers. The buildings could be used in any number of ways.
It's reminiscent of the bathroom and fireplace that Philip Johnson designed for the Glass House. Did that or Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House influence your design?
I didn't look at the Glass House, but Mies is a huge influence in my work. The Farnsworth House redefined residential architecture. Around the same time [that we were contacted by Jeriko House], I was living at the American Academy in Rome and studying Italian design from the 1960s—looking at designers such as Gio Ponti, Joe Colombo, and Gae Aulenti, who were using fabrication as a new way to make form through the use of new materials. That played an influence on the forms that we developed for Nodul(ar) House.
Other than bathrooms, kitchens, and stairs, are you looking at other options for use? There doesn't seem to be much closet space in the typical prefab house.
The nodes could be used for other purposes, but we always saw them as utility nodes, concentrated places that included mechanical, electrical, and plumbing.
If someone is to build a Nodul(ar) House, it's not just these nodes, but the basic structure itself. What price point would somebody be looking at to buy and build one?
That's the dilemma with prefab systems—that they are expensive. What we're trying to do is get the price point down, and that's affected by factors such as site, numbers of units, and size and all that. We're developing strategies to bring these to people at cost-effective prices.
What's the next step? Prefabricated, modular things have a long history of not making it beyond the initial test market.
We're making a prototype, and we have people that want to build these things. Hopefully we can develop them so that they can be available to more people.
The most successful recent prefab house has been the Katrina Cottage, which came out of post-Katrina charrettes and is now available from Lowe's. How would you compare the Nodul(ar) House with the Katrina Cottage?
The idea's fantastic. We hope that our Nodul(ar) House could be used in a similar way. It's a more progressive design, and we're rethinking the way one lives. There's a need for an affordable, efficient, smaller home that is easy to make and less expensive. Traditional means of construction are not available to everyone. The Nodul(ar) House is an effort to make good design more accessible to more people.