UCLA Architecture and Urban Design (AUD) studio’s lightweight backyard house could succeed where the Dymaxion House failed
Los Angeles is experiencing its worst housing crisis in 70 years. New York and San Francisco may be the most expensive US cities for visitors, but a recent report that compared prices with median income named Los Angeles the costliest place for residents. Rents are rising rapidly and there’s a chronic shortage of affordable housing. At night, downtown Fifth Street is a dormitory for the homeless. Mayor Eric Garcetti has called for the construction of 100,000 new units by 2021 but it’s unclear how and where these are to be built. Vacant lots are scarce and the 200 neighbourhood councils in Los Angeles and its 88 satellite cities are generally opposed to any new development.
The last great surge of demand for housing occurred in the mid-1940s as servicemen returned en masse from the battlefields to start families and were quickly absorbed into new suburbs. Today, Greater Los Angeles extends over an area of 88,000km2 and five counties. More peripheral growth would be wasteful and exacerbate the strain on services and transport links – already, main traffic arteries are gridlocked for much of the day – and the prolonged drought imperils a conurbation that draws most of its water from distant sources. There’s an urgent need for innovation, and the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design (AUD) has unveiled a design that might provide an answer.
A 35m2 demonstration model of the Backyard BI(h)OME (BB) was erected by students in a few days and is on display behind UCLA’s art school until September. Designed in a studio taught by architect Kevin Daly, it comprises a double membrane of plastic sheeting drawn over a frame of lightweight metal tubing embedded in a plywood platform. It could be viewed as a contemporary spin on the primitive hut, or as a sophisticated tent with a pitched roof and an engaging character that sets it apart from boxy static caravans. Inset wood frames at either end define porches and could be used as frames for climbing plants and habitat for varied species. The bathroom is screened off from the main volume and there’s even a cut-out corner on the plan for a Smart car or a couple of bicycles.
Lightweight, easy to assemble and demount, sustainable and recyclable, the BB fulfils the vision Buckminster Fuller had with his Dymaxion House as early as 1930. That pole-mounted aluminum rotunda was scheduled to go into production in a Kansas factory in 1946. It was an inspired response to need: fabricate houses as rapidly as planes or tanks, and keep the wartime production lines running. But the inventor needed more time to perfect his built-in technology and the project was cancelled, even though there had been many advance orders. Tract homebuilders picked up from where they had left off, employing the same archaic methods and designs as before the war.
In contrast to Dymaxion, the BB is as simple to construct as a party marquee. For the prototype, the tubes were bent by campus maintenance staff. Each section is less than 3m long and was carried and slotted into its neighbours by two people. For economy, the plywood platform was rented and transparent shrink wrap separated by 80mm sections of cardboard tubing to create a void for insulation. For subsequent tests or a production model, Daly would specify an insulated wood base containing electrical circuits, plumbing and radiant heating. Plastic would be replaced by a double layer of ETFE, and a vacuum pump would evacuate air to ensure a taut skin. The outer surface would be printed to block heat and glare, or covered with a solar-sensitive membrane.
’It’s conceived as a temporary structure that you would rent or buy like a car, and then trade in, rather than paying off a 30-year mortgage on a house.‘
‘We began thinking about the design two years ago but the concept took shape in six months,’ says Daly. ‘We wanted to reduce the amount of material and make it recyclable, rather than trucking in panels or modules that require a concrete base. It’s conceived as a temporary structure that you would rent or buy like a car, and then trade in, rather than paying off a 30-year mortgage on a house.’ He estimates that the construction cost of a basic model with essential connections could be brought down to US$750/m2.
The BB could succeed where other attempts to prefabricate housing have failed. A score of designs have been marketed in California alone, but only a few examples of each have been realised. There’s a stigma attached to manufactured housing (aka static caravans) and buyers want to customise prefabricated houses, driving up the cost and eliminating the economies of mass production. Each requires a conventional building site, and it can take months to prepare a flat pad. City authorities also require extensive testing of new designs.
Michael Maltzan’s Star Apartments, his latest project for the Skid Row Housing Trust in downtown Los Angeles, comprises 102 modular units slotted into a concrete frame atop a single-storey retail building. It made perfect sense to simplify construction on such a confined site, but mandatory tests delayed the project and strained the budget. The contractor struggled with its assembly and, although the architect was persuaded to clad the modules with stucco to avoid the appearance of warehousing the homeless, rough edges may discredit the boldness of his invention.
Seven years before Daly began designing the BB, his colleagues at AUD were investigating the possibilities for sustainable urban development. Dana Cuff and Roger Sherman launched cityLAB in 2006 in response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. There, the authorities were inexcusably slow to rebuild, and some of those who lost their homes still live in emergency static caravans. Functioning as a conceptual studio, cityLAB discovered that there are half a million houses with back gardens in Los Angeles that could easily accommodate an auxiliary dwelling. Owners have the legal right to add these structures and a few attempts have been made to encourage ‘granny flats’ – typically a flat over a rear garage, backing onto an alleyway. If one BB were built on only 10 per cent of these gardens, it would go halfway to meeting the mayor’s goal.
Many would be used, like garages and other dependencies, as guest houses and private offices, studios and teenage rumpus rooms – an inexpensive way of adding square footage without altering the main house. Others could be rented out to generate revenue and larger gardens might accommodate two or three units. As young people increasingly forgo the car their parents considered essential – relying on Uber, bicycles and public transport to get around – BBs could replace garages and paved driveways. And, just as car buyers prefer different models and colours, so could these structures be inexpensively varied in size and further customised by owners: imagine a boldly striped model emerging from dense foliage like an Henri Rousseau tiger or part-hidden by a trellis supporting an edible garden, irrigated from recycled greywater.
Beyond its functionality and sustainability, the BB has an organic quality befitting its name. It shimmers in sunlight and glows from within at night. The interior has the quality of a cocoon wrapping its occupants in a soft embrace, taking you back to the playhouses and treehouses of childhood. It could as easily be located atop a tree branch or flat-roofed garage. Although the unitary structure would be hard to divide, one could easily add modules and cut openings in the skin to link them to the main space. And, if cityLAB were to partner with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Altadena, it might be possible to enhance the BB with materials and devices that were tested on the Mars rovers.
The watchword of neighbourhood groups is ‘NIMBY’ (‘not in my backyard’). How easy, with a little encouragement from celebrities and opinion leaders, would it be to change that to BIMBY (‘BB in my backyard’), making it cool (as well as profitable) to build in one’s own back garden. If the California drought persists, lawns may have to be replaced by something that doesn’t need to be watered. The city would have to modify the building code and relax parking requirements for this new pattern of living to flourish. Tax incentives could be offered, as they were to stimulate the sales of hybrids and electric cars. As infill development caught on and the city densified, Angelenos would increasingly adjust to an urban, rather than suburban, grain, benefiting from the concentration of people and services. It’s an idea that’s long overdue.
Find out more
Click here to visit the Bi(h)ome website