Seattle-based architecture firm HyBrid is leading a movement toward redefining prefabricated, modular construction models. Gone are the days when modular construction was limited to double-wide manufactured homes. HyBrid's modular designs are consistently both progressive and practical, thanks to the vision of founders Joel Egan and Robert Humble (pictured left to right in the photo). Their design philosophy focuses on environmental conservation, technological innovations and history.
As relayed by Humble and Egan themselves, the building industry has not evolved significantly in the last century to address modern issues of space, population, migration, and economies of scale. The forward-thinking duo say they imagine themselves at the midpoint of a 200-year timeline, optimistically looking ahead to the next 100 years of design innovations. Their cutting-edge projects demonstrate the inherent possibilities of prefabricated and modular building practices to address these complex issues.
Inspiration: Cargo Town
The firm got its start in 2003, born out of a group effort to develop a visionary revitalization plan for the post-Viaduct waterfront, including 80+ acres of shipping terminal at Pier 46 in downtown Seattle. Humble and Egan joined forces with other Seattle professionals in the fields of architecture, art, graphic design, landscape architecture, history and urban ecology. Along with six other groups (including the People’s Waterfront Coalition), the team presented their plan – which they named Cargo Town -- at the Allied Arts Waterfront Design Collaborative.
The design concept for Cargo Town was intrinsically organic, involving modular units, transitory occupation of the land, and flexibility to adapt to the Port’s economic cycle. It was intended to be a dynamic live-work industrial market neighborhood comprising community spaces and cargotecture, a building system built partially or entirely from ISO shipping containers that could support a mixture of employment uses, creative spaces, and affordable housing with minimal impact to the environment.
Cargo Town remains an unbuilt concept. But after realizing there would be no Cargo Town without further development of cargotecture, HyBrid started converting containers into homes and offices. It wasn't long before they broadened their interest to all prefabricated systems. They believe this flexible style is one of the most promising solutions to issues such as urban migration, diminishing resources and environmental degradation.
According to Egan and Humble, modular construction gives designers the chance to embrace new materials and manufacturing techniques that produce greener, modern homes. Assembling homes in factories – controlled environments -- means the construction process can be standardized, maximizing the efficient use of time and resources. And less work is required at the construction site, which means dramatic reductions in noise, air pollution, street closures and other disruptions caused by traditional building practices.
Inhabit: Modular Multi-Family Goes Mainstream
The firm’s most notable wood modular construction project is branded Inhabit. Recognizing that rising city costs have made it harder for people to live where they work, Unico Properties, a Seattle based real estate investment and operating company, commissioned HyBrid and Mithun Architects, a firm with multi-family experience, to collaborate on development of a cost-effective and sustainable urban housing solution. Humble and Egan agreed wood modular construction was the optimal choice, and in October of 2007 a two-unit apartment prototype for Inhabit was built at a factory, delivered to downtown Seattle and lifted by crane onto the rooftop park at Rainier Square. In line with HyBrid’s design philosophy, the prototype units are outfitted with sustainable materials, energy monitoring devices, and modern, simplistic finishes. Less than a year later there are at least six sites around the urban cores of Seattle and Portland being planned for Inhabit units. When constructed, this project will showcase the inherent opportunities in and economies of scale of modular construction.
The $99k House: Modular and Affordable
Another of HyBrid’s projects showcases the possibilities in cost effective, green, single-family home construction. Its design recently won the 2007 $99k House Competition hosted by Rice Design Alliance and AIA Houston: a challenge to envision a practical and sustainable home that could be built and sold for $99k or less.
HyBrid collaborated with architects at Seattle-based Owen Richards Architects to design a home with a flexible floor plan. One innovative touch -- movable walls -- enables residents to reconfigure their living space to make, for example, children's bedrooms, a home office, or a second-floor apartment that the owners could rent out – all according to the changing needs of a family over time. The home's green building features included rainwater harvesting, recycled materials, natural ventilation, and geothermal heating and cooling. The design, which was selected out of 182 contest entries, is being built on a City-owned parcel in Houston’s Fifth Ward Neighborhood.
HyBrid plans to continue working with modular systems like cargotecture, wood modular, pre-engineered steel, and panelized construction. Humble and Egan are keen on this form for its increased quality controls, potential for reduced waste and energy use, and speedy building time line. They also intend to join the ranks of architects assuming the additional role of master builders. The hands-on approach would give them greater control over their finished products, while allowing them to learn more from the process.
They see even greater possibilities on the horizon if they can achieve higher unit production. To that end, Humble and Egan plan to bring the built-from-scratch steel modular back to the U.S. While wood modular construction is limited to buildings of four stories or less (over a site-built concrete base), the steel modular system, which was a brief trend post-World War II, is sturdy enough for use in buildings up to 14 stories tall. The format has already gained popularity in Europe, where firms like Cartwright Pickard Architects are designing steel modular multi-family housing and hotels.
Ashley DeForest is a Community Developer who lives in Seattle, but is involved in urban and regional planning projects throughout the Northwest. Feel free to email her at ashleyd [at] zenbe [dot] com … she's always excited to hear about an innovation in community engagement or urban development!