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April 16, 2008

Lego Living

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

So there I was, innocently strolling the streets of downtown Seattle doing my usual scene-check. Then I came upon something odd -- even for Seattle. Let me show you ...

Hello. What's that? The thing on the roof of that building?

Hmm. Some sort of structure. Looks like a chair in a window. And there's a sign below it with an arrow pointing upwards. The sign explains that those are modular apartments intended for urban use, and this link is provided.

I went up on the roof to look at the display more closely. The units seem to be about the size of mobile homes.

I snapped this photo of a poster with a conception of what such modularized apartments might look like.

Okay, so the actual apartments are to be assembled on plots of land. But the idea of putting such units on roofs, as the demonstration units are, is kinda odd, intriguing and possibly repellent.

This raises the concept of trailer trash to a whole new dimension.



posted by Donald at April 16, 2008


Hmmm, for someone who is so concerned about the New Class elite I'm surprised your first reaction here is to worry about trailer trash invading urban areas.

Posted by: Chris White on April 16, 2008 7:11 PM

An entire wave of humanity from Arkansas is headed your way, Donald. You shouldn't have posted this.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 16, 2008 9:31 PM

Sigh -- I guess I was too subtle. Here are two display units that are in a penthouse setting. So, if someone actually installed these things for real atop downtown office building roofs, ergo we might have Limousine Liberal trailer trash. Or something like that. Such was my underlying "logic."

And Chris, it was James Carville, the then-mouthpiece for the party-of-the-people President Bill Clinton, who popularized the term "trailer trash."

As for me, I've had kin and in-laws who have lived in trailers. Plus, I spent nearly three years living in Army barracks. And I spent the bulk of my preschool years in a house with a sawdust-burning furnace, a wood cook-stove, an ice box and no electric water heater. So I have an inkling of the drill.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 16, 2008 10:09 PM

Ever marry a cousin, Donald? Drink beer right from the can?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 16, 2008 10:23 PM

As you can see in one of the photos on this post, the poor did, once upon a time in Paris, live on rooftops, and it looks like not a such a bad thing to be doing.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on April 16, 2008 10:35 PM

Charlton -- I don't pass muster on the cousin thingy, but I do drink beer from cans.

(They drew better before they came up with those modern aluminum cans with pop-tops. You'd grab a church-key and puncture a small hole. Opposite that, a large one. You drank through the larger hole and the smaller one allowed air to get in and the pressure helped the beer come out faster. Remember that stuff? Fun times!)

I even open cans of corn and peas and munch the contents without cookin' them. I can be a real slob.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 16, 2008 10:39 PM

Okay. You're in.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 16, 2008 10:44 PM

Nice catch, nice snapz. The thing it's got me (and me alone, I guess) thinking about is the way that the dream of modular housing never seems to die for the official architecture world. Every couple of years some brash new young architecture team shows up with a new idea for modular housing that's gonna change the world and solve everyone's problems. One year it was Habitat for Humanity, another it was apartments made out of welded-together shipping containers ... A splash gets made, a few trials go up, and everyone forgets about it and moves on. So my question is: What is the allure of this dream? Is it that a certain kind of young architecture type thinks, Wow, a simple form that can solve so many problems, if only immense amounts of money can be thrown at me and if only the rubes would understand how great my idea for housing 'em is!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 16, 2008 10:58 PM

I'd say the allure of this dream is fairly easy to pinpoint--modular building is cheaper than conventional construction. Yeah, there are architecture types who have learned to love the box, but the main engine driving this train is lower cost.

Actually there's modular housing right now that comes in a wide variety of pleasing traditional-house-style shapes. The pieces are assembled in a control warehouse environment but then can go together any number of ways (just like Legos!), with porches, dormers, gables, balconies, etc. Clever and economical compared to traditional "stick" construction.

And the term "trailer trash" was in common usage long before Carville, at least where I came from.

Posted by: Steve on April 17, 2008 1:27 AM

Think of them as modern tree-houses.

Posted by: dearieme on April 17, 2008 4:42 AM

The dream, Michael, is real ... not so dreamy perhaps, but very real.

Trailers (preferred dwellings of cousin marryin' beer can swillin' folks) morphed over the years from homes actually on wheels into their current incarnation as single wide/ double wide/ double wide extended "manufactured homes". These have done a pretty good job of changing the face of housing in rural and suburban areas. The next step in their evolution was into those capes and ranches and even neo-Victorian modular homes that one can see traveling to building sites on the nation's highways with those "wide load" warning cars in front and behind the tractor trailer hauling them. I always like the somewhat surreal view I get when I'm passing someone's porch or into their living room. These have even been used in some developments that seek to create "new villages" with aspirations along lines you've previously championed here.

So modular and manufactured homes have already changed the world of housing, just not in dense urban areas ... yet. Why shouldn't it be economically (and even architecturally) sensible to take a similar approach with apartment units as well as stand alone single dwellings? As the link points out with this approach a, lets say 50 unit, apartment/condo complex might take far less time to put in place than build from scratch with less neighborhood noise, dirt, and disruption? Would the results be any less aesthetically pleasing than the typical urban apartment building? If they are upscale units marketed to Limo Liberal Trailer Trash would that be any change from selling them Luxe Lofts after the starving artists have done initial gentrification work?

Building buildings inside, year 'round, without needing to deal with the weather, or getting workers to far flung job sites, etc. has been one primary driving factor in this phenomena. One of the downsides is, in a housing market slowdown like the current one, you get towns whose big industry is building them that suddenly find hundreds of workers laid off at once. (e.g. Oxford, Maine) But that's a different story.

Posted by: Chris White on April 17, 2008 9:12 AM

Oops, I meant Habitat '67, not Habitat for Humanity ...

Steve, Chris -- Right, I understand that's the dream: simple, supposedly cheap (never as cheap as claimed, though), geometrical modules that can be carted to site and bolted together in a variety of ways. Cheap, easy, pleasing housing. It's so simple, if only the powers that be would understand! It's like pop Corbusianism. In many, many decades, though, these dreams have never in fact worked out. Safdie was unable to convert his vision for Habitats everywhere into much in the way of reality. The containers-as-apartments idea has resulted in a few prototype developments and nothing else. Given the experience of real life (ie., decades of failure, waste, wreckage, broken hearts, back to the drawing boards, silliness, etc), why does the official architecture world continue to promote a way of thinking (and of conceiving of housing) that leads back and back, over and over again, to a dream that never works out? Are they doing young architects, architecture fans, and people interested in development and housing anything but a massive disservice? Or maybe they're just sadists. In any case, the Corbusian modular-housing fantasy strikes me as yet another example of Utopian dreaminess gone awry. The reality of the actual modular-construction/mobile-home, tract-and-development industry is of course interesting but a completely separate topic ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 17, 2008 10:39 AM

It seems to me that in the past the modular-home process resulted in houses that *looked* like modules (i.e., mobile homes). But that's not true with the designs I saw in my latest issue of THIS OLD HOUSE magazine. If a modularized house looks and feels like any other house (or apartment building), then it becomes just an issue of economies of scale and saving $$$. Which is good.

And it's going a little too far to claim that previous modularized concepts, like the mobile home, "didn't work out." Millions of people live in them quite happily. They're very popular in and around my north San Diego County community, particularly among retirees. Don't judge by the "trailer trash" stereotype.

Posted by: Steve on April 17, 2008 10:56 AM

Steve wrote: "They're very popular in and around my north San Diego County community..."

Mobile homes are also plentiful in Napa Valley, especially around Calistoga. For those of you who follow such things, that land is among the most expensive real estate in the U.S. Many retirees there.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 17, 2008 11:34 AM

Steve -- We're talking about separate phenomena. I'm sounding off about a specific Corbusian, architecture-world/architecture-school dream, of the Habitat '67 kind. It's an unrealistic, idealistic thing that has never worked out well yet that keeps cropping up. The reality of pre-fab or modular construction of many different kinds, including mobile homes, has been a fact of life in the construction biz for decades.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 17, 2008 11:41 AM

The reason these big-concept type projects don't take off is that while the main benefit of them is cost saving, they have to be sold to wealthy urban people, who don't want them because they have "cheap" stamped all over them.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on April 17, 2008 12:23 PM

Prefabricated Housing was built on a large scale in Britain after the war. The houses were meant to last a decade - they lasted five decades and longer. People became fond of their "prefabs". I thought they were ugly bloody things.

Posted by: dearieme on April 17, 2008 12:35 PM

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