Why can’t we construct a building in a better, stronger, faster manner, and, while we’re at it, make it more environmentally friendly? By Tracy Staton
Architect Steve Kieran has been asking that question for more than five years. His final answer? We can — but only if the construction industry joins the long-running party we call the industrial revolution.
Think about it. We’ve mass-produced shoes since 1885, cars since 1901, and airplanes since 1918. But buildings are still built from the ground up, stick by stick. Over the past 30 or so years, productivity in almost every other industry grew by 80 percent, but in design and construction, it dropped by 20 percent.
So Kieran and his business partner, James Timberlake, founders of KieranTimberlake Associates, began studying automobile and aircraft manufacturing for alternative ideas, and out of their research, the concept of using a few prefabricated components in their building projects — for clients such as the University of Pennsylvania — was born. The ultimate goal, though, was to prefabricate an entire project. Unfortunately, clients were skittish. “Buildings are expensive, and people are risk-averse,” Kieran explains. “We were struggling to get someone to jump off the cliff with us.”
Thus, they came up with the Loblolly House, which required no client persuasion because it was a second home for Kieran’s family. The only constraint was the site itself — on the shore of Chesapeake Bay.
For the project, KieranTimberlake teamed up with Bensonwood Homes, a company in New Hampshire that fabricates building panels by using a computer, and developed basic building components that could be fitted together on-site. Like the body panels of a car, floor cartridges were prewired for power and water (unlike a car’s panels, though, they had radiant heat). Bathrooms and kitchens were prebuilt modules, complete with plumbing, and everything was preinsulated for energy efficiency.
“The fear with this kind of construction was: Will my building fit together?” Kieran says. “And this house went together like clockwork; nothing didn’t fit.”
Kieran envisions a day when nothing is built stick by stick, not even the largest building, and when every house, library, school, and office building is erected in a fast, efficient, and green manner. “We see the word construction going out of style,” he says. “It’ll be called fabrication and assembly, not construction.”