written by:
April 20, 2009

John Quale discovered his calling early. While his buddies were reading Brewers box scores, nine-year-old Quale was analyzing house-of-the-week floor plans in the Milwaukee Sentinel.

quale head crop

Despite a couple of detours—majoring in Asian studies during college, then working as a photo editor for the Washingtonian magazine—Quale ended up with an architecture degree from the University of Virginia, where he’s currently an assistant professor. He also directs a unique design/build/evaluate project: ecoMOD. Though the term may conjure up images of a retro ’60s fashionista, it’s actually 44-year-old Quale’s attempt to bridge the economic divide between high design and the down-at-heel while integrating both good design and sustainability.

Now in its fourth year, the project has completed five modular, affordable housing units for Piedmont Housing Alliance in Virginia and Habitat for Humanity. These include the OUTin house, a two-unit condominium featuring Charlottesville, Virginia’s first potable rainwater collection system built in 2005, and the preHAB house, built the following year in Gautier, Mississippi, for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Quale spoke to us from Church Crookham, a small town southwest of London where he recently spent seven months writing a book about the project.

john quale ecomod03

You say your book isn’t typical.

It’s focused on ecoMOD but unlike what most firms would put out about their work—presenting just the pretty pictures and talking about how wonderful it is—I’m trying to present an honest, open assessment of what we’ve done well and not so well. I’ve also fleshed out a few essays related to affordability, design, and sustainability. I really believe there’s an overlap of those three issues that isn’t being fully realized in the U.S. or frankly anywhere.

So how are the Brits dealing with sustainability?

The government here is trying to push carbon neutrality into new development for housing, which is really terrific. They’re setting firm targets, but there is a prescriptive element that I’m not sure is the healthiest way to encourage ingenuity.

Obviously this differs vastly from what goes on in the U.S.

Frankly I think there are problems with both. We haven’t set clear targets in the U.S. so there’s more of an open-ended creativity from the design world. And though it’s refreshing to learn about the solid approach the British are trying to take, many here aren’t convinced they’ve got the right targets or strategies in place.

In addition, many designers in both countries say they’re interested in sustainability and they’ll make some progress by using a certain kind of insulation or materials, but they don’t necessarily think it through as rigorously as they should to ensure they’re doing everything possible to reduce environmental impact.

john quale ecomod05
One thing that struck me while I was in England was the absence of junk cluttering the landscape.

Planning is very, very strict here. You just can’t build whatever you want. There’s a very detailed process you have to go through. I think that’s really great for promoting urbanism and preventing sprawl. Unlike the States, it’s not a developer-driven process; British developers have to work directly with local authorities who take their responsibilities very seriously.

But there is a downside. I’ve heard several stories of really good designers who can’t get their projects green-lighted, largely based on aesthetic considerations—not necessarily whether they’re good urbanistically. To me that’s a symptom of what’s wrong in the U.S. as well. There’s a lot of emphasis on restrictions imposed by gated communities or specific suburban developments. But they aren’t thinking about density or walkability. Instead they’re worried about what paint color you have.

Brits and Yanks aside, who do you look to for inspiration?

During high school I lived in Japan with a host family for about four months. The father was an architect and his wife helped run the business. Their home was generous by Japanese standards; it was a combination of traditional 19th-century sukiya-style architecture and a very contemporary addition that housed their office. I had a traditional Japanese room overlooking this beautiful garden, with the shoji screens, tatami mats, futon, and the bath every night. It was such an incredible aesthetic and cultural experience that left a strong impression on me especially at that stage of my life. I came home filled with images of Japan, so I studied the culture, history, and language in college.

Would you say the Japanese mindset influenced your architecture?

Probably yes. I’m not conscious of it, but I think my attraction to minimalism derives from that experience. On another level it really sparked my interest in architecture that’s in tune with the surroundings and the ambiguity between inside and outside. That’s so much of what Japanese design is about.

I recently received a teaching award that comes with another sabbatical. I’d like to go to Japan to investigate both the history and current practice of prefabrication. While we all think of prefab as a uniquely American and European invention, it actually goes back to the carpenters of 17th-century Japan who were able to create precut elements—beams, columns, tatami mats, and shoji screens—you could buy in a carpenter’s shop. With a skilled carpenter you’d be able to assemble them in various configurations into a home or a building of some kind.

I think that’s why the Japanese have such a sophisticated level of prefab within their housing industry today. It just comes out of a normal tradition; it’s just how they build. They don’t even really talk about it as prefabrication.

john quale ecomod04
I understand you were something of a photographer?

I was really into “chance operations”—that uniquely photographic moment when unexpected things occur and you capture them on film. This was back in the early ’90s before people did this, so it was unusual at the time. I was using really cheap medium-format old cameras from early- to mid-20th-century vintage along with seriously outdated film. When you combine the two, you really never know what you’re gonna get.

Did photography precede your love of architecture?

Architecture came first. It was just in me. Growing up in Wisconsin I became very interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, not only his buildings, but also the thoughts behind them. For my 13th birthday I got a special tour of all his Oak Park projects down in Illinois. Now I look back with a bit of a distance but back then I was really influenced by his work. Obviously one aspect was how to build in tune with the natural landscape as well as issues we’d now call sustainability.

Though some now criticize Wright for not being as sustainable as he appeared.

I think that’s a fair observation. Some projects were better than others. But he was very clever about manipulation of space and control of natural light. On that level I still appreciate Wright’s work, but I agree there are very fair criticisms of how his buildings were sited and even constructed.

john quale ecomod06
john quale ecomod13
Is that where you part ways with him?

There’s this culture of FLW people who venerate him to such a degree it’s a little scary. I think it’s fair to say he was our best architect so far. He brought so many innovations to the discipline, but I don’t think he was the best human being.

So has ecoMOD made you the best human being?

(Laughter) I realized how little I know. You have to be willing to question yourself. The architects I respect are those willing to rethink assumptions and listen to people from other disciplines and still come up with a brilliant design.

How about the best teachers?

When I was first offered the opportunity to teach a studio, I was a bit nervous so I really overprepared. But I realized pretty quickly that it’s not so much about the information you share; it’s more about teaching students how to think about the discipline. This includes approaching projects with both confidence and humility.

john quale ecomod10

Check out all of the images by clicking on the Slideshow button in the upper right corner of the post.

All images copyright Scott Smith Photography.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016
When a garage damaged by termites had to go, a studio emerges.
June 19, 2016
the blue lagoon iceland geothermal spa hotel water visitors
The famed geothermal spa outside Reykjavík, Iceland, is entering a major new phase—paving the way for the area’s first five-star hotel.
June 19, 2016
heaven on earth maya lin topography what is missing california academy sciences wood video
A new monograph by Rizzoli explores the memorial project by the renowned artist.
June 19, 2016