AIA DESIGN THEORY – June 2013
Edited by Rebecca Falzano | Photography Sarah Beard Buckley
Phil Kaplan believes modular homes are redefining quality
Ask architect Phil Kaplan about Maine’s proud history of building, and he’ll tell you about the craftsman, the home builder, the DIY hero and heroine. How they work with sturdy tools, with local materials, with real wood. They brave the mean winters, cut each stick with caution, and are frugal with lumber. They measure twice and cut once. And he’ll tell you they have done this the same way over many years and that the product is consistent, steady, and exactly the same as it would have been had it been built in 1953. There’s only one problem though, says Kaplan. We live in a very different world than we did in 1953. Enter modular construction. We asked Kaplan to tell us more.
Q: How has the building climate changed over the years, and how is the construction industry responding?
A: The lumber is more scarce, the tools more costly to run, and although the winters probably aren’t meaner, climate change has certainly made the weather more volatile. With skyrocketing fuel costs, our grandparents’ myth of the porous house as a good house no longer holds water. But what happens if we bring these craftspeople inside to work? If we remove the gloves from their chilled, numb hands as they are trying to cut that 2×6 to a precise 8’ 2 5/16” length, trying to get that sloping valley rafter just right—the first time? Well, what happens is things get done better. Turns out they don’t mind, either. Maybe it’s just that no one has asked them before. Cue the hidden beauty of the oft-maligned world of modular construction.
Q: Why do you think there is such a stigma to a house built inside a factory?
A: It certainly wasn’t always the case. Consider the Sears kit homes of the 1920s, homes that were exactingly cut, pre-assembled and taken apart only to be put back together on-site in a quality-assured, consistent, and cost-predictable way. The efficiency of the system led to its becoming the most cost-effective solution, and somewhere along the way, cost eventually trumped quality in our various building booms from the 60s through the oughts. But this wasn’t a flaw inherent in the system itself.
Take a trip to one of our longest standing, local modular factories, Keiser Homes in Oxford, and what you see inside may surprise you. It’s that same proud carpenter and his ilk, working inside, with real wood and high-quality materials under ideal working conditions. Some of the results are more accurate cuts, less backbreaking lifting, significantly more airtight construction, less waste, and greater oversight. These are real, high-quality homes these guys are building. They just move. And, oh yeah, they still usually cost less.
Q: How has modular construction impacted your work?
A: About five years ago, our firm, Kaplan Thompson Architects, made a decision to do no design work that did not have lower energy consumption as a primary goal. It was a definitive move that made us feel good, but there were a few problems with it, namely that it had the potential to run in direct opposition to another goal of ours: providing attainable design to clients with more modest means. Plus, if builders were tasked with being cheaper, they usually had difficulty pairing this objective with creating a higher performance building shell as well.
Soon after, Keiser Homes contacted us about teaming up to marry our skills. They believed better designed, affordable, net-zero-energy homes—homes that produce as much energy as they consume annually—had real potential within their consumer base. Our clients were telling us the same thing, but until then, we had no predictable way of providing accurate pricing. So we created our first “Modular Zero” homes together, which has evolved into our BrightBuilt Home line. This new line, modeled after our very first net-zero-energy project, the also-prefabricated BrightBuilt Barn, has allowed us to serve the demographic for whom a completely energy-independent home was previously unattainable.
Q: What opportunities come with modular building?
A: For architects, this emerging but far from experimental means of building needs to be reevaluated for what it is rather than what is isn’t. With these reliable and reproducible systems ensuring certain aspects of buildability and performance, we can spend more of our efforts—and our clients’ fees—on designing what’s visible, which we love to do. The opportunity high-performance modular can provide is the chance to be a more proficient designer. Still, we can’t get lazy. Just like when choosing a window, we need to be aware of a home’s specifications, limitations, context, and performance. And we don’t expect to build a window, piece-by-piece, on-site anymore. That’s just crazy talk. Crazy is so 1953.