At a Dwell Meetup event Tuesday, architect Joeseph Tanney of Resolution: 4 Architecture joined editor-in-chief Amanda Dameron in New York City to talk prefab in all its forms. The conversation was held in light of the latest Dwell issue, Prefab Comes Home, which features Tanney's creative prefab work. As Dameron told the crowd, “There is no one way to look at prefab.” And the conversation that followed supported the sentiment. Dameron began by highlighting prefab projects in the issue, starting with the cover story, a prefab cottage built on Block Island by architect Jens Risom. She then spoke at length about the Habitat '67 project, a prefab apartment complex built in Montreal by architect Moshe Safdie and also highlighted in the magazine. “We wanted to show what's possible inside of these concrete bunkers,” she says, referring to the owner's freedom to transform and combine the boxy units of the apartment complex. The apartment featured in the magazine is a creative, modern work: “Owners that were excited to show their own interpretation of the building,” says Dameron.
Tanney spoke on the Lake Iosco project, the New Jersey prefab home featured as the issue's My House. “There's this myth that you pick prefab housing out of a catalog,” he says, “But every inch of this thing is designed.” The Jersey home was delivered to the site with the electrical, plumbing, and interior design in place. Tanney's familiarity with the home was evident: “If you have six hours, I could spec the whole house,” he told the crowd.
Tanney's firm boils its prefab process down into four stages that each last around four months. In the first stage, Resolution: 4 Architecture completes the entire design. During the second stage, it coordinates manufacturing with factories and secures local and state building approvals. It dedicates the third stage to fabrication and site prep. At the last stage, site construction begins. The homes are built in “boxes” and the design revolves around how to creatively arrange those boxes. A typical home is comprised of four boxes, two stacked on top of two others. “Like big Lego blocks, put in place by very large cranes,” says Tanney.
Resolution: 4 Architecutre builds at about $250 per square foot. “The higher cost of the building,” he explains, “The higher value you get out of the prefab design.” He says some of his designs would have not made sense, price-wise, if they weren't constructed prefab. “That's the promise of prefab,” he says, “a level of predictability in cost, look, and what I'm gonna get at the end of the day.” The firm has gone through a painstaking process to secure that level of predictability, though. There are around 200 modular factories in the United States but the firm only uses about a half dozen. “We had to learn the limits of what each factory could do...you don't ask the factory to do something they just can't,” he notes about finding factories.
Because the modular industry stems from the manufactured housing industry, a creative firm like Resolution: 4 Architecture went through many projects and many factories before securing a system. Since then, it's designed and constructed projects as unique as a prefab pool house in Connecticut, a prefab townhouse (with a roof garden) in the Bronx, and a beach house in East Quogue, New York, among many others across the country. The firm also achieves LEED standards with all their homes.
At the end of the evening, an audience member wondered if the firm ever felt like the prefab model forced them to sacrifice some design sensibilities. The answer was a firm no. “We're still able to work with our environment, and with the design our client wants,” he says. “We don't believe in mass production. We believe in mass customization.”