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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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