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The first face-to-face meeting of the CHBA Factory-Built Modular Construction Council will take place on May 8, 2017 in St. John's, NL. Registration details will be posted soon.

 

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Martin Kohn

Posted: 
November 12, 2013

 

by Bernie Desjardins

In 2009, Royal Homes of Wingham, Ontario, asked Martin Kohn of the Toronto architectural firm Kohn Shnier to design a modest modular home that could be used as a cabin or “bunkie” in rural areas. Like many architects, Martin was intrigued by factory-based residential construction approaches taken in projects such as the recent 32-storey modular B2 residential tower at Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. The B2 tower, one of the tallest modular buildings on earth, implements methods pioneered by architect and visionary Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, known as “Le Corbusier”.

The Big Apple is worlds away from the Canadian countryside, but manufactured housing can be installed at almost any building site. In response to Royal’s request, Martin designed the Q1, a 646 sq. ft. unit. The Q Series designs come in “left-hand” and “righthand” versions, and entranceway locations are adaptable to meet site-specific requirements. Overhangs can be attached onsite to regulate sun, shade and precipitation exposure in response to the specific requirements of the location and the preferences of the customer. By virtue of the factory-based method of construction, the time required for work on the site is substantially reduced, potentially resulting in much less disturbance of the surrounding environment and the people living nearby.

Kohn Shnier was soon approached by a prospective buyer who was impressed with the Q Series concept and design features but wanted a larger home. The result was the “Prefab Cottage for Two Families”, installed in Ontario’s Muskoka region cottage country. The design landed Kohn Shnier Architects the prestigious Governor General’s Medal in Architecture in 2010, the highest honour awarded in Canada for excellence in the architectural profession.

The design of the cottage celebrates its factory-floor origin, taking full advantage of its modularity. At 124 ft. long and 16 ft. wide, the appearance of the home is striking. The long, narrow shape, for which modular construction was criticized in the past, is perfect for this multi-family cottage. There is a view of the lake from every room, and each bedroom offers the privacy and intimacy usually associated with individual cabins. In fact, the entire upper east wall of the sleeping area consists of glass sliding doors that bring the beauty of the surrounding forest into the building and provide direct access to the outdoors from each bedroom.

Martin says that designers, builders and salespeople need to understand that the distinct features of manufactured housing are something that should be presented enthusiastically to the public. Manufactured housing really lends itself to contemporary, modern design by its very nature, he says, and people need to know that high quality is absolutely achievable with this method of construction. “A well-designed, well-built building is a green building,” he says.

There is great potential for increased use of modular construction that is not always obvious to homebuyers. “People are increasingly moving into urban areas now,” Martin observes, “and modules can be ideal for infills on small city lots”. Although designing manufactured housing for inner cities may present challenges, especially around access to building sites, there is a burgeoning market for high-quality and well-designed modular infill homes. Martin says that in some parts of the world, larger projects that use prefabricated construction methods are still often considered experimental, but that eventually, factory-based construction will be recognized as an excellent choice for largescale buildings such as schools. The Hyperion Lyceum designed by Burton Hamfelt Architect, a grammar school in Amsterdam built entirely of modules, is one successful example. For Martin, the project inspired discussion of the potential for such developments in Canada. The increased accuracy of cost estimates in modular projects is a great advantage for large-scale projects. And with a reduction in delays due to weather and less difficulty scheduling trades, for example, manufactured building can substantially reduce “soft costs” such as interest on financing, permit and inspection fees, and other expenses associated with site-built construction.

From the wilds of Muskoka to the bright lights of New York City, people are choosing factory-built homes for their quality and practicality. And architectural firms like Kohn Shnier are at the leading edge of this revolution in residential construction technology, bringing top-drawer design expertise to a dynamic and evolving industry.