HOUSEEDs are a concept for an architectural “enabling structure.” Their purpose is to make it faster and easier to build an infinite variety of creative, affordable dwellings. The background of the strategy, for me, goes back a long way: The summer before I started architecture school at North Carolina State University, fresh out of the Navy and full of energetic emotions, I decided to build a house in the woods. While in the Navy I’d “accidentally” saved a small chunk of money by means of a forgotten automated paycheck deduction. That little surprise became my building budget: $10,000. I figured it would be enough if I did the work myself.
I met a farmer outside of Raleigh who agreed to sell me two acres of land in return for a modest monthly payment. I bought an old Dodge pickup at a State vehicle auction, a used radial arm saw, an electric cement mixer, a shovel and a hammer. I lived in a tent next to my building site. I dug the footings by hand. I taught myself to lay concrete block. I made the windows with the radial arm saw. I found a big metal industrial steel window frame that had been discarded in the local landfill. A friend helped me frame the rafters in one day, and we covered them with galvanized metal barn roofing the next.
By the end of the summer I had “closed-in” and weatherized what was, granted, a simple and modest building shell: a single, large space with a loft over one side. Nevertheless, I was impressed by how quickly, and relatively easily, it had come together. I looked forward to “finishing” the interior―the plumbing, the electrical, the mechanical, the cabinetry―in my spare time between architecture classes. Two years later, my kitchen “counters” were still 2X10 boards resting on stacks of leftover concrete blocks, my electricity still came from a power cord to the temporary service pole, my kitchen sink was where I kept my toothbrush. In short, I had made a startling discovery:
Building the shell of a house is relatively easy. What is difficult, time-consuming, and technically demanding is everything that goes inside the shell!
I pondered this discovery a good bit as I plugged away at trying to finish my kitchen, bath, laundry and electrical system. And suddenly, just before the beginning of my last year in architecture school, I had an insight: What if, when I had started my project, I’d been able to build my shell around a prefabricated “core” that contained―already finished and ready to use―a kitchen, bath, laundry and basic mechanical system? If that had been the case, I realized, my house would have been essentially complete at the end of that first summer. And all my subsequent time could have been applied to creating embellishments―a garden hot-tub, a custom ships-ladder up to the loft (to replace the aluminum step ladder I was still using!), an outside deck and greenhouse, etc.
This idea became my architecture thesis project.
The idea was not to mass-produce whole dwellings, but only a central core—what I called a house “seed”—that would make it easy for semi-skilled builders, by constructing a shell around the seed, to complete a finished dwelling in a relatively short period of time. Most important (from my perspective) was the fact that, even though each house-building project began with the same “seed,” every house could be different; every house could be the creative expression of a particular builder. This resolved what, for me, had always been the major problem with prefabricated housing concepts.
Thirty years later I decided to try to see how this could actually work. My daughter, Megan, had just graduated from the Northwest School of Wooden Boat-building and, I strategically thought, if I could get her to build a HOUSEED instead of a boat—and then a house around the HOUSEED—she might avoid sailing off never to be seen again.
I won’t say Megan immediately jumped at my proposal. But eventually we acquired a piece of land in Port Townsend, Washington (where she was living) and commenced an experimental project to build a little complex of two adjacent houses, each of which was unique in itself, but which shared the same HOUSEED core. We called them the “Potager Houses.”
It was, as they say, a learning experience. What we learned was that the HOUSEED concept requires overcoming three major challenges:
1. Weight and compactness.
The first HOUSEED we built was too big, heavy and difficult to transport. This was partially because it contained all the big appliances. (We realized later the refrigerator and washer/dryer could easily be installed after the SEED was placed on the site.) But it was also due to the fact that the design included partial floor spaces—and consequently floor and ceiling finishes—in the kitchen and bathroom compartments.
2. Eliminating all floor space.
The partial floor spaces of our first module created a bigger problem than just increasing the size and weight of the SEED. When we built the finished kitchen and bath spaces around the core module, we discovered we had to match the floor and ceiling finishes of the SEED (probably the most “wow, why didn’t I see that?” surprise of the project!) We realized the HOUSEED itself needed to have zero floor space—a parameter which drove the final design we came up with which consists of “function” ports that open out into a space.
3. Local inspections.
Another challenge (which any architect worth his salt should have anticipated) was the local building inspector. Our first seed, of course, contained all the finished electrical wiring and plumbing piping (that was part of the whole idea!). Much of this, however, was hidden behind finishes and couldn’t be inspected. Furthermore, the electrician who was hired to wire the house we built around the HOUSEED wouldn’t connect to or vouch for the wiring that was in the SEED itself, since he hadn’t done the wiring and couldn’t see it. This oversight required us to dismantle and rebuilt big parts of the SEED after it had be placed at the site.
In our second prototype, we tried to overcome the “inspections problem” by building the HOUSEED as a manufactured housing module which was inspected by the State in the “factory” and, therefore, didn’t need to be worried about by the local building inspector after it was delivered to the site. We still had the same problem with the electrician however, since wiring runs in the site-built shell had to be integrated with the SEED.
We solved this problem in our final design by creating a “Mechanical Port” just big enough for an electrician (or an inspector) to get into, and which provided access to the backside of all the other functions—including their electric boxes—enabling the electrician to wire the SEED and the site-built shell at the same time. All the plumbing was visible and accessible from within this “Mechanical Port” as well.
Our final HOUSEED design also included a simple, integrated solar hot water system:
And, finally, we made the strategic decision that all the cabinetry, hardware, and appliance components would be off-the-shelf products from IKEA. The thinking here was three-fold: First, the stylish economy of IKEA products fit well with the central idea of the HOUSEED itself: building a dwelling economically but creatively. Second, since the SEED only provided one “face” of a functional space (e.g. kitchen, bath, laundry) the other faces could logically be completed with the same or compatible systems locally available from IKEA. Finally, using IKEA as a multi-state “parts warehouse” would enable the HOUSEEDS to be built by small, local fabricators all across the country.
We planned to use capital regained by selling our first two experimental houses to finance our own small fabrication operation and build two more dwellings using the “new and improved” HOUSEED design. Unfortunately, this was in late 2009. Unbeknownst to us, as we put the Potager Houses on the market and started fitting out our new fabrication shop, the U.S. housing market had, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist.