A few years ago, I had the opportunity to build my own house. With topsy-turvy global economic patterns that roll through countries and communities like waves––up, down, crash, repeat––I’ve felt genuinely lucky to be able to own a house and to build my own was a childhood dream that I was never quite sure I’d be able to realize. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
As a kid, when I first discovered the concept of architecture, I was amazed––stunned really––and viewed the idea with a naive reverence. Where most kids thought firefighting or space exploration were cool, I imagined architecture as some kind of ultimate mystical badassery, an arcane art of assembly ruled by hazy details at which I could only wonder. It seemed like sorcery–the kind or dark magic that I wanted to be in on.
But, because I couldn’t really understand the real shape of architecture as a practice and profession, I believed my teachers when they warned that excellence in math was the primary prerequisite for pursuing such a life. And I had been trained at that point to believe that I could never excel in math and to carry that deficiency with a kind of shame.
If there’s a lesson in there, I think it’s that we should avoid taking too much career advice from educators at a young age. I’m not saying they don’t know what they’re talking about or that they don’t mean well, but a little research might have changed my mind if I had thought to really ask other people. Now that Google is a higher authority, it’s probably a mostly moot point, but there’s nothing wrong with adopting some healthy skepticism at an age before blind faith starts shaping your life.
However, it’s also important to remember that life is too damn short to waste any of it wallowing in regret. I didn’t pursue what I thought was my dream, but the paths I did pursue brought me to many rewarding, exciting, lucky jobs, people, situations, etc, that I can be nothing but grateful for. Also, I did finally get to build a house. And now I might be addicted.
When we built the house, we worked with Alexander Dzurec and his excellent team at Autotroph. Together, Alexander and I were able to manifest a vision that suited my goals: I wanted hard-edged contemporary materials and sensibility, but with the weathered characteristic of ancient buildings and ruins. Something between a modern day parking lot and a Scottish blackhouse, with a bit of industrial machine flavor tossed in the mix.
That house received the Santa Fe AIA Honor Award in 2012 and the New Mexico AIA Honor Award in 2013. It’s been featured on the HGTV series Extreme Homes, received a feature in Trend Magazine and more recently was graciously included in the beautiful Rough Style book.
Since then, I’ve developed a passion (a friendlier, more acceptable term than addiction) for the potential around using CNC tools and the increasingly accessible technologies of modern manufacturing for the construction of homes. After working with a design client a few years ago that makes wonderful use of a CNC router in the creation of beautiful high-end furniture pieces, I conceived of what I thought of as a structural uninsulated panel, which became the genesis for Extraordinary Structures.
The idea was a quick-building panel system like SIPS, but one that required a less intensive manufacturing process and allowed a greater flexibility of insulation options so that even if the wall panel had a somewhat high embodied energy cost, the insulation didn’t need to share that challenge and could be a natural product.As the Tiny House movement began to blossom I was inspired to dream about connecting some of the ideals and potential there with the thoughtful vision of friendly urban density considered in Ross Chapin’s Pocket Neighborhoods. I love the idea of a small structure on a beautiful plot of land, but I think the world is much more in need of small structures clustered close to each other, with the addition of some larger shared spaces and amenities as established by the cohousing and cooperative housing
Once I knew my trajectory had become relatively unstoppable, I discovered some of the great innovators in this field, including Facit Homes, their Scandinavian partners and the fascinating experiment known as WikiHouse. In fact, Extraordinary Structures is host to one of the few US-based chapters of WikiHouse. These projects have helped to continue to inspire and inform out own projects and ideas and we look forward to participating in this emerging manufacturing community.
So as we set up our shop and begin prototyping our concepts here in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we’re moving forward with a few key goals that we hope we can manifest when we go into production in 2016:
- Modular, flat-packable design that can be shipped or just shared as a computer file
- Modular expansion potential built in
- System for attaching components like storage, gardens, awnings, decks, outdoor showers, etc without compromising the thermal envelope
- Super high efficiency standards as exemplified by Passivhaus standards and by Swedish platform framing or Gregory La Vardera’s USA New Wall variant
- Clean, contemporary style
- Comfortable human-scaled space
- Range of options from high-end finishes to a DIY shell
- Rapid assembly with a low skill barrier
I never did become an architect and, at this point, I doubt I’ll invest the time and money into proper schooling and licensing, but I hope that the ideas and systems that we create here at Extraordinary Structures can become a useful part of a larger design dialogue and that we can make an impact, especially in terms of smart systems for rapidly assembling smaller structures that meet high efficiency and quality standards.