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Lessons learned from a prefab pipe dream Add to ...

Now heading into its second century, the history of architecturally savvy prefabricated housing stands at an interesting crossroads.

Never before have so many architects and designers been spending sleepless nights and earnest days on schemes for the perfect prefab house.

The results of this labour, as we find them posted on numerous websites and published in magazines, are usually cool and chic, often imaginative, and occasionally sensational.

Despite their sophisticated appeal, however, even the best contemporary prefab designs have found no North American market large enough to make their industrialized production economical. Perhaps such a market will never materialize, and mass-produced, intelligent prefab housing will continue to be what it has been for the past 100 years: a day dream that never gets off the drawing board, or much beyond a prototype, and a way for architects to recall the socially progressive traditions of their art.

But if prefab never amounts to anything more than that, so be it. Architects should be encouraged to think boldly and imaginatively, and we should welcome, especially, designs that propose humane solutions to the stubborn problems of providing environmentally merciful shelter in hostile climates and remote locations.

For an example of what I'm talking about, take the miniHome. Created by Toronto graduate architects Andy Thomson and Daniel Hall, this 350-square-foot, fully furnished house on wheels is no bargain at $120,000 to $145,000 (depending on fit-ups). And though officially classed as a recreational vehicle, the 1,724-kilogram (3,800-pound) unit is much too hefty to haul around on a family holiday.

But, as Mr. Thomson explained to me, the miniHome advantage is admittedly less a matter of price and easy portability than of its potential for providing comfortable dwelling in - his example - a far-northern oil drilling site.

Given its target market on the edges of civilization, "where infrastructure is clearly separated from home," miniHome has been designed with as few hookups as possible to the outside world. The prototype, built by Northlander Industries of Exeter, Ont., features solar panels and a small wind turbine to provide electrical power and an on-board propane system for heating, cooking and refrigeration. The idea is to compress all the technologies and supplies needed for living - apart from such obvious things as air, water and fuel - into a militantly self-contained item that can be set up almost anywhere.

MiniHome has other refinements, some of which might not be immediately admired by roughnecks working an oil rig up north, but which further demonstrate the designers' commitment to delivering a product with low environmental and aesthetic impact.

"Trailers are ugly, and susceptible to mould, and there's too much vinyl," Mr. Thomson said. MiniHome, in contrast, has no vinyl, no products containing formaldehyde, no stinky adhesives or finishes - hence no new-car smell. There are (Mr. Thomson's website explains) "pleasant aromas of unfinished cedar and beeswax millwork finishes, and a clear conscience - that we produced a building of enduring beauty from materials and methods that have the lightest burden on our ecosystems."

In Mr. Thomson's most spacious vision of the future, the miniHome would be the building block for "a new kind of community, the trailer park of the future" - a residential zone for people who have forsaken the energy-wasting house of the present day and decided to live compactly, with minimum dependence on the over-stressed urban infrastructure and maximum commitment to sparing the environment.

Like all other architectural visionaries of modern times, Mr. Thomson foresees not merely a radical building type, but also a new kind of human being to fit the built prototype. It may well be that the long-suffering environment will eventually turn on us in some catastrophic fashion - if global warming is not already such a calamity - forcing our conversion from wasteful people into more mindful folk.

Should this apocalypse come upon us - or, better still, well before it actually happens - we should be listening to what designers such as Andy Thomson are telling us, and to what they have learned.

Since his adolescence in Ontario, through architecture school and down to the present day, Mr. Thomson has been seriously researching minimal living. For his thesis project at Ryerson University, he lived in a tent for a year, staying as self-contained as possible. He and his wife lived in a Volkswagen van until their first child came along, whereupon they moved into a bigger van.

Now with two children, Mr. Thomson and his wife want to move their family into a miniHome. I hope they get to do so some day. It's good to know there are still dreamers on the architectural scene, and even better to know that some enterprising ones have found ways to make their dreams a reality.

For readers who want to know more about this project: The miniHome prototype will be on display at Glen Rouge campground, in Toronto's Rouge River Valley, during July.

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