Think Pre-Fab, Part 1

April 27, 2016

The Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) Travel Fellowship returned from Austria and London almost half a year ago. I find it helpful to let the whole journey sit in the back burner of my brain for a while, thinking through what inspires me the most to share with the world — there is just too much to talk about.

Building a home on site makes as much sense as building a car in your driveway.

Kent Larson

I decided to start this series of findings without talking about CLT, but prefabrication, the old but still seemingly novel idea. Prefabrication turns out to be a fascinating theme throughout this trip. It intrigues me the most, and, in the end, I realized the beauty of CLT is that it naturally embodies the idea of prefabrication.

The Future of Engineered Heavy Timber

We started the trip with an extremely inspiring conversation with Professor Gerhard Schickhofer at Graz University of Technology. He is the “Godfather” who helped make one of the very first CLT panels in 1996. He leads the Institute of Timber Engineering and Wood Technology in researching and testing many interesting cutting-edge engineered wood structural prototypes. For example, a floor deck prototype that combines CLT slabs and laminated veneer lumber (LVL) hollow boxes below the slab to run services through. After seeing all these future-forward possibilities, we asked him: What do you think the future of engineered heavy timber will be like?

He and his research assistant showed us an Austrian kids’ toy called Matador. Similar to Legos, but with wooden blocks instead of plastic, various configurations of the pieces interlock to form a bigger structure. They referred to Matador in a joking tone, but it vividly shows their vision for the future. A future where timber or composite structural configurations are systematically and innovatively designed, manufactured, and assembled to different variations quickly on site.

This first reminded me of the interlocking heavy timber structure at Tamedia Headquarter, designed by Shigeru Ban. Although, the innovation there is more about the lack of mechanical connections, rather than a “kit of parts” kind of structure. Then I thought about Jean Prouve’s Maison Tropicale, the aluminum version of “kit of parts” structure and enclosure designed in the 1940s. The impetus behind this light-weight and standardized housing prototype was the need for easy transportation from France to its colonies in West Africa. Fast erection time helped to solve the housing shortage problem there.

The Pre-Fab Paradox

Despite the fact that Maison Tropicale still receives limitless praise today because it showcases a smart and elegant design of how pieces are prefabricated and put together, it failed to fit the cultural context of West Africa at the time. The houses were seen as alien objects that deviated from the local vernacular architectural style. Although the standardization and industrialized process had good intentions, the outcome appeared to be seen as a symbol of colonialism. [1]

The awkwardness of prefabricated buildings continues today. When hearing the word “pre-fab”, the first things to enter most people’s minds are prefabricated homes, which may lack design, customization, and respect to context. Prefabricated buildings suffer because of the idea of constructing the whole product (in this case the houses) at the factory. It doesn’t allow enough varieties of design flexibility and contextual diversity, which contradicts the fundamental purpose of architecture being a place that humans interact and belong within.

These assumptions might be all true in the current building industry in the States. But it still doesn’t mean constructing buildings on site from scratch makes the most sense, it actually doesn’t make sense at all. Kent Larson’s quote, “Building a home on site makes as much sense as building a car in your driveway” [2] may sound a little extreme. But if you can have the major building components accurately constructed in a perfect environment – the factory—why does it make sense to have crews working at a job site on every detail, enduring all sorts of weather and site conditions?

Yang Liu