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2010 YAF/COD Ideas Competition

Gene Kaufman, AIA: The Marketplace Makes it FREE

Gene Kaufman’s, AIA, winning entry harnesses the power of the free market to subsidize emergency shelter for nonprofits and governments. Each trailer-like unit can be folded into an 8 by 16 feet volume. It can be hitched to a car and delivered to the site, where its “nesting modules” expand like a telescope, forming three sequentially smaller volumes. “It works kind of like a set of drawers,” says Kaufman, principal of New York City-based Gene Kaufman, Architect.

Each unit will be available to lease out to private groups. This could be for a Great American Road Trip in the grand Airstream RV tradition, or it could be housing for a bacchanalian music festival that colonizes an empty field over a long summer weekend. A booming frontier oil town with one motel and no traffic lights to its name could fill parking lots with them. The key to this flexible commercial appeal is its blank graphic print façade. Renters can place any image they want there. Perhaps the road tripping vacationers celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary use an image from their wedding day. Concert revelers are offered their choice of staying in a unit marked by a picture of their favorite band. At the next president’s inauguration, tourists stay in units decorated with the portraits of Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Obama.

But when a famine strikes West Africa and villages are evacuated, the units are contractually recalled, wiped clean, and sent to the site, paid for by music lovers, oil companies, and Golden Years retirees. If this business model works, this housing is essentially “Free,” and that’s the name of Kaufman’s entry.

This feature allows new residents to assert their own identity and cultural specificity in a scary and uncertain time. Perhaps they strip away the vestiges of the retirees’ cross-country victory lap and use a Kente Cloth pattern, or an image of the home they left behind. This simple feature gives refugees some level of control over their environment, at a time when everything around them seems to be falling apart. It allows them to see their individual place in their new community, instead of being another serial numbered victim in a trailer just like everyone else’s. Paradoxically, by building individual identities, “Free” helps build community. “This builds identity cues so people know that they can turn right at the house with the purple tulips and left at the house with the yellow dog,” Kaufman says.

Each unit’s roof is covered in sustainable gadgetry (photovoltaic panels and wind turbines) as well, and Kaufman says that in Houston, at least, it can operate off the grid, completely carbon-neutral. “Free” units will be made entirely of a recycled plastic resin—walls, interiors, exteriors, in a single mass.

To limit the time and money invested in the project, Kaufman intentionally waited two weeks before the deadline to begin working on it. “I’ve been thinking about this for 20 years,” he says. “This is 10 days of exertion and 20 years of gestation.” Kaufman is willing to keep gestating. Next, he’ll take “Free’s” design drawings to fabrication level, and if he can’t attract capital (the first unit should cost less than $500,000), he’ll finance and build a test model himself. --ZM


Gene Kaufman, AIA

Each unit can be collapsed and hitched to a car for transport. Image courtesy of Gene Kaufman, Architect.

Once in place, the units unfold to house up to six people. Image courtesy of Gene Kaufman, Architect.


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