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Geoffrey Thun, centre, and Kathy Velikov, right, have been teaching architecture at the University of Waterloo and will join the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor this fall. (Charla Jones)
Geoffrey Thun, centre, and Kathy Velikov, right, have been teaching architecture at the University of Waterloo and will join the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor this fall. (Charla Jones)

The Perfect House

A search for the perfect assembly-line house Add to ...

In schools and in private architectural and engineering practices across the world, the race is on to bring forth the perfect mass-produced house for the burgeoning cities of the 21st century. Numerous designers over the last 100 years have tried to reach the goal of full standardization, but none, so far, has come up with the right combination of artistic excellence, energy efficiency, adaptability to the requirements of industrial-scale production and popular appeal.

In awarding its $50,000 Professional Prix de Rome in Architecture to the Toronto firm rvtr last week, the Canada Council for the Arts recognized, not only the ambitious vision of this small, new research-based office, but also the need for fresh and vigorous research in the field of sustainable, mass-manufactured residential buildings suitable for cold climates. The rvtr team of architects - Paul Raff, Kathy Velikov, Geoffrey Thun and Colin Ripley - will use their prize winnings to visit universities, factories and design studios in Japan and northern Europe, with the objective of bringing the elusive dream of the perfect assembly-line house down to earth.

For the principals in the firm, this interest is not new. I talked last week with Mr. Thun and Ms. Velikov about their ongoing concerns.

"Broadly, we've been looking at prefabricated modular housing construction systems that advance specific designs for northern climates since 2004," Mr. Thun said. "We worked on a prefabricated off-grid vacation home called S.W.A.M.P House some time ago, which was a kind of beginning project in this work." Next came an award-winning residential entry in a competition sponsored by international iron and steel manufacturers, and, most recently, North House, a fully functioning prefab residence set to debut this autumn in the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon exhibition, in Washington.

"All these projects are bound up in a series of investigations that look at advancing the state of net energy-producing prefabricated homes," Mr. Thun said. "What we hope to do in the long run is develop systems and build prototypes for premanufactured housing in North America. That sounds like a lofty ambition, but frankly that's what the project is intended to do. Our work in Japan is to visit existing manufacturers who, in our opinion, are the only builders worldwide who have advanced housing manufacturing in place."

On the Scandinavian, Finnish and Russian legs of their journey, the group will inspect existing high-performance houses, give lectures and workshops, and attend conferences. The concrete results of this globe-trotting will be a fat report and, if all unfolds as rvtr intends, the construction of more prototype buildings along the lines of North House.

The creation and publicizing of such structures - elegantly modern, comfortable, each a producer of more energy than it consumes - is a key educational step toward turning around the popular association of prefabricated housing with shabby trailer parks out on the edge of town. (After its presentation at the Solar Decathlon, where 500,000 visitors are expected to see it, North House will likely be featured at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.) Another step is education in the more conventional sense: giving design students the skills necessary to negotiate their way across the traditional disciplinary boundaries of engineering, architecture, the arts and environmental science. The rvtr team is positioned to give exactly this kind of training. Both Ms. Velikov and Mr. Thun have been teaching architecture at the University of Waterloo, and both will join the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor this fall. Mr. Ridley heads the architecture program at Ryerson University, and Mr. Raff, while spending most of his time on his independent practice, frequently teaches architecture in and around Toronto.

All their research, in both Japan and Europe, will be very up-to-date and practical, but the fact that they are working in an old, utopian tradition has not been lost on the rvtr partners.

"Housing," Ms. Velikov told me, "is one of those pursuits of modernism that can never be concluded, because the issues are constantly changing. When Le Corbusier first talked about prefabricated housing and the industries involved, sustainability and energy production and such things were not part of the discourse. But industries are always changing. The goals that housing needs to fulfill - its social goals, economic goals - are constantly in a state of renegotiation as society changes, as our habits of occupying the land change. We are trying to take this legacy into the present time, trying to develop a proposal relevant to our times, and that addresses the urgencies of the current era."


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