The Future of Modular Architecture
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The Future of Modular Architecture

David Wallance

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  1. 286 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Future of Modular Architecture

David Wallance

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About This Book

The Future of Modular Architecture presents an unprecedented proposal for mass-customized mid- and high-rise modular housing that can be manufactured and distributed on a global scale. Advocating for the adoption of open-source design based on a new modular standard, the book shows how the construction industry and architectural practice may soon be radically reshaped. By leveraging the existing intermodal freight transport system, global supply chains can be harnessed to realize the long-held promise that housing will be a well-designed and affordable industrial product. We are on the cusp of a transformative change in the way we design and build our cities.

Author David Wallance argues that modular architecture is profoundly intertwined with globalization, equitable urbanism, and sustainable development. His book addresses these timely issues through a specific approach grounded in fundamental concepts. Going beyond the individual modular building, Wallance forecasts the emergence of a new type of design, manufacturing, and construction enterprise.

Written in an approachable style with illustrated examples, the book is a must read for professionals in architecture and design, city planning, construction, real estate, as well as the general reader with an interest in these topics.

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Part 1

1 Introduction

Housing construction and city-building are now targeted for disruptive innovation. Initiatives by tech firms, including Google, Amazon, and others, indicate that 21st-century advances in information technology and artificial intelligence will soon intersect with 20th-century industry to move construction off the jobsite and into the factory. Venture capital is starting to flow into modular technology start-ups.1 These trends suggest the possibility, if not the likelihood, that the construction industry and architectural practice will soon be radically reshaped.
This book is as much about globalization as it is about the future of modular architecture.2 It’s also a book about cities for the growing global middle class, about sustainable development, and about the way housing will be designed and by whom. The book’s argument is that these five topics are profoundly intertwined, and that this moment is indeed ripe for transformation.
It is not my intention to make a case for globalization; it is, rather, to start from the recognition that, as problematic as it may be, globalization is simply the contemporary condition. Ninety percent of the world’s goods are transported overseas, with 70 percent in shipping containers.3 It is hard to imagine that transnational corporations, the borderless flow of capital, global supply chains, and social media can somehow be constrained within national boundaries, despite current political winds.4 To be clear: while globalization is the contemporary condition, how we respond to it can either exacerbate or rectify its inequities. One of my underlying aims in writing this book is to show how global forces can be harnessed to build equitable housing and cities, and to realize the long-held promise of modern architecture that housing will one day be a well-designed and affordable industrial product.

How the Seed Was Planted

I never expected that I would find myself deeply involved with an idea that might change the world. There are no new ideas under the sun, as the saying goes, and that may or may not be true. But there are, without a doubt, new combinations of old ideas. Fifteen years ago, as of this writing, I happened upon a new combination of ideas that in retrospect seems even more compelling than when I first encountered it.
In the spring of 2005, I was approached by a friend, a restaurateur and aspiring hotel developer who wanted to build an affordable urban student hostel. He had just been to a photography exhibition on Manhattan’s West Side piers, held in a temporary pavilion designed by Shiguru Ban, the Japanese architect who made his reputation building with cardboard tubing as a structural material. The Nomadic Museum, as the pavilion was called, was designed to be disassembled and moved to other locations. To accomplish that, Ban had used shipping containers stacked four high to form the walls.5
My developer friend asked me: “why not order shipping containers from China already fitted out as rooms for a low-cost student hostel, and stack them into a building in New York?”
I thought of a few reasons why not.
How would you get those shipping container modules to meet building codes? How would the interiors hold up during a sea voyage, with all the pitching and rolling of a ship? Would windows survive sea transport? What about fireproof construction? How would you connect them together? What about unions? But even as I was raising these questions, I was thinking that maybe they were mostly technical problems, really not all that difficult, if you had some money and time to think through solutions and test them out.
I’d already been aware for a few years that prefabricated building components were being sourced from China at an unheard-of low cost. Contractors were having architectural metalwork, for example, fabricated overseas to a surprisingly high standard of quality. New design possibilities that previously could not have been contemplated for being too expensive were suddenly attainable within tight budget constraints. In 2005, the idea of attempting overseas fabrication of elements for building construction may have been somewhat cutting edge, but it didn’t require a big imaginative leap to think that in a few years, we would be seeing much of the building construction supply chain coming over in shipping containers. So why not just make buildings in China from shipping containers, fit them out over there, and ship them to the U.S. ready to stack into a building?
Shipping container architecture was not new. Architects around the world were experimenting with habitable shipping container designs. On the banks of the Thames River in London, an enclave of five-story shipping container live-work spaces had recently been constructed. Most of these projects celebrated the notion of shipping container reuse. A few were done with new shipping containers procured from China for local fit and finish into a building. But no one had yet attempted to manufacture modules with wiring, plumbing, and finished interiors, meant for overseas shipping and ready like plug-and-play components to stack into a building.
• • •
The shipping container student hostel didn’t go anywhere, and I continued in my career with the well-known architectural firm, the Polshek Partnership,6 where I had been working on high-profile projects, like the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History. One of my contributions on the Rose Center was the design of its ultra-transparent glass facade,7 which entailed technical innovation and close collaboration with engineers and manufacturers. That kind of integration of design, engineering, and fabrication has always been my passion as an architect.
Despite successes like the Rose Center, it had become increasingly clear to me that much of conventional practice was an anachronism. The design of exceptional one-off projects built using techniques rooted in craft8 is workable only with exceptional budgets. What about the rest of the urban built environment, the vast majority of which is comprised of “everyday” buildings? Our everyday architecture too often fails to satisfy our human need for well-designed and crafted environments. As a natural extension of my inclinations as an architect, I had been thinking for some time about the potential for modular architecture to take “everyday architecture” to a new level.

A Modular Start-Up

A few months after my conversation about a student hostel made of shipping containers, a colleague at the Polshek office came to me with another shipping container proposition. Two Manhattan real estate developers had approached him to head up the design and technical side of a start-up enterprise that would manufacture modular apartment buildings out of recycled shipping containers. My colleague had decided it wasn’t right for him, but he thought it might be a good fit for me. I was simultaneously intrigued as well as concerned about the risks.
The prospect of joining the start-up resonated with my interest as a designer in modularity, rigor, and execution of details. During the previous ten years, while working at Polshek, I had designed and built two houses in the Hudson Valley that were based on a modular grid. I drew every stud, positioned on 16-inch centers, spaced evenly within the grid. I detailed ship-lap siding on the elevations to express the module with a vertical shadow joint on the grid centerline. Every exposed stainless-steel nail head in the ship-lap siding was located on my drawings, positioned to land on a stud so that the nail would hold fast. Windows, partitions, cabinetry—it all related back to that module.
The start-up enterprise was an opportunity to pursue my interest in modularity on a larger canvas, and I began discussions with the two developers. Toward the end of 2005, I signed a two-year contract as the Senior Vice President of Design and Development of Global Building Modules, Inc., or GBM. As an active enterprise, with an office and staff, GBM lasted a brief two years. With the first rumblings of the sub-prime real estate debacle during the summer of 2007, funding for the company came to a halt as our main investor ran for cover. One by one, our staff departed. By Christmas that year, the office had closed its doors. I went on to set up a small architectural firm, and the co-founders moved on to other businesses.
• • •
We did fundamental work during the two years that GBM was an active enterprise—fundamental in that we re-thought the entire process of design and construction from the standpoint of what I’ll be referring to throughout the book as “intermodal modular architecture”.
Our most important breakthrough came when we recognized the deficiencies of shipping containers as modules for mid- and high-rise building construction. This led to our realization that the key virtues of the intermodal shipping system were its standard dimensions and fittings for economical transport and automated handling. That prompted our seminal decision to move away from containers and to redesign our building module from scratch. Our redesigned module retains the essential property of intermodal transport while being engineered expressly as an open frame for mid- and high-rise building construction. We named it the “Volumetric Unit of Construction”, or VUC, to clearly distinguish it from a shipping container. Stemming from that breakthrough, we introduced numerous technical innovations...

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