Every home show that aspires to be more than just another platform for mop salesmen features a dream house. So it was that last week's National Home Show presented a 3,072-square-foot prefabricated dwelling, called Mod 256, to dream on.
Designed by Toronto architect Richard Librach in close collaboration with Brendan Charters and Jim Cunningham, owners of Eurodale Developments, the builder, Mod 256 is a low-slung cluster of 12 modules, each 16 by 16 feet. The profile of the project is modernist, with flat or slightly tilted rooflines placed over each component.
The interior, on the other hand, has none of the open-plan flow now standard in contemporary residential layouts. Instead, the modularity of the construction, simply adding piece to discrete piece, means that each little room is very distinct from the next, giving the interior the choppy, cozy spatial sense of something much older - an unrenovated Victorian townhouse in downtown Toronto, let's say.
But "old" is a word that holds no fear for Mr. Librach. In an interview, the architect said he really was not interested in advanced technologies or building methods - that Mod 256 embodies "off-the-shelf thinking" and entirely conventional, common-sense solutions to the problem of providing safe, comfortable, sustainable living quarters in both town and country.
"We thought about what makes this a dream home, and [Mod 256]is not something that you would associate with the unattainable, as in a dream," Mr. Librach said. "Dream homes in the past were too fantastic or too lavish. ... This house is more an imagination home than a dream home."
If there is nothing radically new about the design or construction of Mod 256, the house has come on stream at a time, Mr. Librach believes, when attitudes toward prefab are changing from tolerance to outright fascination.
"With the advent of the readership of things like Dwell magazine [a popular U.S. design journal] people are looking to dwell differently now. It may be that we're not pioneers in the thinking about prefabricated and modular housing, but I think our timing coincides with a new mentality about living, about spatial needs, about the ways people respond to their residence."
With a modular housing system, for example, a young couple might start off with just three or four units. More could easily be added as children come along, then just as easily eliminated when the children move out. What this flexibility means is that a family can grow up and grow old on the same plot of ground, adding and subtracting units of housing as the times or taste dictate. Mr. Librach believes there is a market for such a scheme.
But modular living won't necessarily be less expensive than dwelling in a custom-built house. Mr. Librach estimates that Mod 256, in the configuration exhibited at the National Home Show, would cost about $200 a square foot, or about $600,000 in total. (The house has found at least one buyer undaunted by the cost: At the end of the show, Mod 256 was scheduled to be dismantled, then reassembled on a large private property in Caledon, northwest of Toronto.)
"We're not saying it's cheaper, but that it's obviously more controllable. We can take more care to build it in the way we want to, and it can be deployed easily within two months, once it's onsite. That's a huge saving, since the average house takes between 10 and 12 months. So the issue is speed, but also control of the program. It's a functionalist approach to living."
While generally comfortable in the world of prefabrication - Mr. Librach said he is ready to start designing just as soon as he and Eurodale start getting orders - the architect is critical of certain trendy developments in that world. One has to do with the residential use of shipping containers, those clunky steel boxes traditionally used for intermodal transportation (usually ship to truck or train). It's best to stick to the tried and true.
"The idea of putting shipping containers together is very cute," he said, "but once you start modifying them too much, they lose their history. What I'm doing here is not unusual. People can relate to it. The materials aren't weird, it doesn't look that weird, it doesn't have tentacles or antennae coming out of it. I take great pride that I'm creating something people can connect with. I'm not interested in alienating people. I don't think we're super-cutting-edge here. I just want to create something that doesn't look like a huge departure from what people see every day."