While technology seems to be growing at an exponential rate while becoming increasingly inexpensive, the architecture and construction industries appear to be in a slow but steady decline. While overall productivity level in the U.S. have increased twofold over the last fifty years, construction productivity has actually decreased. How has an industry which was so tied to the material flows and processes of the industrial revolution become so inefficient and dysfunctional in the 21st Century?
In their work and writings, the architecture firm Kierantimberlake call for a rethinking of how architecture is designed and constructed that is more inline with contemporary material flows, design tools, fabrication technologies, and assembly processes currently used in such industries as automobile, ship, and aircraft manufacturing. Installed at The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, Home Delivery: Fabrication the Modern Dwelling, the Cellophane House was an opportunity for the firm to experiment with these issues of material and production flows directly. The selection of an extruded-aluminum system for the building structure and stretched PET plastic for the wall enclosures was driven by total embodied energy calculations that took into consideration not only initial energy costs of extraction and production, but also issues of weight and recyclability. While PET plastic has a high initial carbon footprint compared to glass, it’s ability to be stretched into a ultra-thin film for the enclosure system allowed for an exceptionally light carbon footprint compared to what would have been possible with a much heavier glazing system.
Unlike typical building projects which are constructed almost entirely on-site, the construction of the Cellophane House was broken into a number of pre-fabricated modules which were built simultaneously under controlled factory conditions. The modules were then craned on-site and connected using simple hand tools. Because the fabrication and construction processes were carefully designed as a part of the project, the overall construction process was very efficient, taking only thirteen weeks from end of design to completion.
Finally, while most architects and builders would like to think that their projects will stand the test of time, the reality is that all buildings have a lifespan and will at some point need to be reconfigured, disassembled, or demolished. The fact that our building are embedded with ever changing and ever improving technologies underscore this need for future flexibility. The Cellophane House acknowledges this fact through the use of reversible mechanical fasteners as the primary joining strategy which allows for both easy disassembly and simple replacement of building components. Because the materials used in the house are all highly recyclable and easily disassembled, nearly 100% of the energy embodied in the materials is recoverable.