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Prefabricated Steel Homes: A New Generation of Architects Reinterpret Donald Wexler’s Vision
A good idea in the desert never grows old
By Mike Singer
When Modernist architect Donald Wexler, FAIA, moved to the wide open and slightly wild desert community of Palm Springs, Calif., in 1952, he remembers that, “There was a collective sense that we could do anything; we could accomplish anything; we could experiment.”
After a stint in the Los Angeles office of AIA Gold Medalist Richard Neutra, Wexler came to Palm Springs, like other Modern architects, to act on this aura of opportunity. Like Henry Ford with the automobile, Wexler wondered how a mass production system could be applied to architecture. “We combined two systems with some elements prefabricated in the factory, and then we set up a factory in the field to assemble the rest on site,” Wexler says of his early 1960s steel homes, built with engineer Bernard Perlin and California builder Alexander Construction Company.
Only seven of Wexler’s steel homes were built due to rising steel costs. But today a new generation of architects are drawing inspiration from his materials, assembly and design methods, as well as the sundrenched California landscapes that first drew Wexler to Palm Springs from his native Midwest. Lance O’Donnell, AIA, of o2 Architecture in Palm Springs, is the designer of the steel-framed Blue Sky Homes. The homes, two of which have been built to date, are on a point-loaded, bidirectional, movement-resisting steel frame. The 1,000-square-foot prototype home, located in the Yucca Valley, has given rise to a new building system now being marketed to architects and design professionals.
“We looked at how to develop a kit of parts that can be put together in remote places with the notion of touching the earth lightly,” says O’Donnell about Blue Sky Building Systems. “We looked at something that can be flat packed and put together at the site. There is pressure to get out and celebrate native land, but we also need to be sympathetic to the site. Both my grandfathers were ranchers, dependent on the interactions with the desert and the environment, and that influences me still.”
With bolted pillars that make the house resistant to earthquakes and a steel frame that can withstand wind, fire and termites, the houses can be assembled on sloped or rocky locations with little or no grading. The houses float lightly on six footings resting on a concrete block set two feet deep in bedrock. Steel pillars for the frame and steel beams for the floor can be bolted together on site in a matter of hours.
Los Angeles-based taalman koch architecture is perhaps best known for the itHouse, a design system that uses components fabricated off site that can be custom tailored and assembled on site. Components include a structural system of lightweight aluminum columns and beams held together by aluminum clips, stainless steel bolts and cable X-braces. Frame enclosure options include glass skins and insulated walls. A cabinet system doubles as privacy wall partitions between rooms and as storage units. Conceived as a small house with glass walls and an open floor plan, the itHouse maximizes the relationship of the occupant to the surrounding landscape while minimizing the building's impact on delicate site conditions. It is designed to be energy-sufficient, and it can be built off the grid.
Energy efficiency is achieved in both the Blue Sky and itHouse systems through passive heating and cooling, optimizing site orientation and cross ventilation, radiant floor heating and solar and thermal panels. Neither of these homes have yet to enter mass production.
“We are building a number of houses near where we built the Pioneertown, Calif., prototype,” says Linda Taalman of taalman koch architecture. “The itHouse is for a small market of people, with certain economies built in by multiple manufacturers who know we will make six houses per year. We’re looking to make buildings that have merit, but that don’t rely on a single contractor, and that enable us to take control over the process. We can then specify the drawings and get a high quality product rapidly assembled on site. Although our system is pre-fab, we’ve found that everyone wants to customize it some.”
Gilded Age steel and glass?
Los Angeles architect Barton Myers, FAIA, has constructed three widely published, custom-designed steel houses as detailed in his book, 3 Steel Houses. He explains that steel and glass structures weren’t wholly invented by Modernists. In the 19th century, steel and glass became more common building materials, first in London’s great Crystal Palace (1851), and then in glass and steel skyscrapers. However, viewed historically, the pre-fab steel house is still avant-garde.
“Once you figure out production, you need to move quickly to service the lot and [you] must secure lands ready to receive the home,” Myers says. “You can’t move metal pre-fab parts all the time or put them in storage. The mobile home works because we can find sites for it. Airstreams are on wheels, so you move them around. Not so for homes.”
His own experimental steel designs include two Toronto houses-- the Wolf Residence and his own Berryman Street house, as well as his Toro Canyon House and Studio, Montecito, Calif. Myers’ early steel prototypes led to building 77 all-steel, pre-fabricated lower-income houses for British Steel and Dominion Foundries and Steel Company (DOFASCO) in 1971, translating individual steel homes into a larger-scale steel housing plan.
However, steel home construction is still not widespread, even where Wexler is involved. O’Donnell is currently collaborating with Wexler on Hamptons Modern, a development of high-end Long Island homes based on the 1964 Palm Springs house Wexler designed for Dinah Shore. As seen with this project, the enduring appeal of California Modernism has pulled the style across the globe, even when some of the design’s key elements have to be revised for new site contexts. “Condensation is an issue there,” says O’Donnell, “so instead of steel exposed to outdoor temperatures, we will construct these homes with traditional post and beam.”
The itHouse by talmaan koch architecture. Image courtesy of Art Gray.
The interior of the itHouse. Image courtesy of Art Gray.
The itHouse uses a structural system of lightweight aluminum columns and beams held together by aluminum clips, stainless steel bolts, and cable X-braces. Image courtesy of Art Gray.
The Rock Reach House in Pioneertown, Calif., a steel home designed by Lance O'Donnell in association with Blue Sky Homes, LLC. Image courtesy of Lance Gerber.
The Wolf House is one of three Barton Myers' custom steel homes he describes in his book 3 Steel Houses. Image courtesy of John Fulker.
The Wolf House in Toronto, designed by Barton Myers. Image courtesy of John Fulker.
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