Custom Prefab Home Is at One With Nature and Technology

Loblolly House, an environmentally sustainable weekend retreat on the Eastern Shore, was built in six weeks from precision-cut panels embedded with all the necessary pipes, wires and windows.
Loblolly House, an environmentally sustainable weekend retreat on the Eastern Shore, was built in six weeks from precision-cut panels embedded with all the necessary pipes, wires and windows. (By Peter Aaron -- Esto)

By Inga Saffron
Philadelphia Inquirer
Saturday, July 14, 2007

TAYLORS ISLAND, Md. -- Architect Stephen Kieran recognizes that putting a house in a forest can't help but be an aggressive act. You have to conquer land happily occupied by trees and animals, then disembowel the earth for plumbing and electrical lines. And yet Kieran was determined to design a stylish weekend retreat for his family on the Eastern Shore that would tread peaceably on the fragile Chesapeake Bay landscape.

As much as any man-made shelter can, his new house gives the impression that it has taken root on its own initiative among the tall trees. The three-bedroom structure rises from the sandy ground on husky wood pilings that resemble the trunks of the region's distinctive loblolly pines. It's camouflaged on three sides by a lacy scrim of long cedar slats. You would never suspect that Kieran's all-natural beach shack, dubbed the Loblolly House, is actually a child of the machine.

Designed on a computer in the Philadelphia office of his firm, KieranTimberlake, the house's 3-D construction specs were e-mailed to a custom builder in New Hampshire, who turned out a flat pack of precision-cut panels embedded with all the necessary pipes, wires and windows. Those panels were shipped to Maryland on the beds of standard 8 1/2 -foot-wide tractor-trailers.

Then, in a six-week whirlwind that might be described as a modernist barn-raising, the pieces were snapped together to form Kieran's weekend haven. If it hadn't taken three more weeks to get the bamboo floors stained the same shade of green as the local cordgrass, he would have moved in immediately.

Kieran can now relax in Loblolly's comfortable living room, with the garage-door-style windows raised to full height and nothing between him and the sky. The room feels like an old-fashioned, open-air sun porch, albeit one furnished with key selections of modern domesticity.

But then Kieran launches into a riff about parametric modeling techniques and advances in CAD-CAM programs. Without that technology, he argues, his house would never fit so effortlessly with nature. He's convinced that his tiny country place represents the future of residential construction: a custom-designed, sustainable prefab smart house.

"Historically, construction has been done in a sequence," Kieran said. "You'd pour the foundation. You'd measure it. You'd verify the dimensions. It was as if you were weaving a building together."

He's through with all that.

Thanks to advances in computer programs, which got a big boost with Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, virtually every part of a house can be factory-made with the precision tolerances of aircraft components.

Just don't call Kieran's prefab house modular. Through years of research, KieranTimberlake has pioneered a different approach. Its factory-made buildings are broken down into flat panels, or cartridges, that can be slapped together nearly as easily as an Ikea bookcase. There are "smart" cartridges, complete with radiant heating, ducts and wiring, and "dumb" panels, packed with insulation, windows and the exterior skin.

Ever since Sears, Roebuck shipped its first house kits across the country 100 years ago, architects have dreamed of perfecting an affordable, prefab house that can be mass-produced. Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius and Jean Prouve all tried their hands at factory-made houses -- and failed.

"It's the holy grail of modern architecture," Kieran said. He said he has the problems licked, though.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company