Weighing in: Ten of the best lightweight houses
Buckminster Fuller supposedly asked the question, "do you know how much your house weighs?" Nowadays we are more conscious of house size, but what about weight, impact on the site, and mobility? Here's a look at ten innovative, lightweight architectural offerings including designs that sit up on stilts, float on water, or can be delivered by flat-bed truck ... and they all weigh a great deal less than standard bricks and mortar.
The house sits moored to an island on a small inlet of Lake Huron in Canada. MOS Architects designed a two-story structure, which is supported on a floating platform with steel pontoons beneath. The design takes advantage of the idyllic setting with large windows and doors, and a cedar skin provides a rain screen while also softening the volume against the natural surroundings.
Materials were delivered to the contractor’s fabrication workshop, which is located along the lake shore. Working on a patch of frozen lake, the fabricators built the house unit onto the platform, and the whole ensemble was then towed to the final location and anchored in place.
Andreas Wenning of Baumraum has made a career out of his ability to tap into what seems to be a universal desire to live and play amid the trees. In Belgium, Wenning worked in collaboration with a large paper manufacturer and the forestry agency to build the Treehouse and help emphasize issues of sustainability and conservation.
The two cabins are elevated to 5 meters (16 ft) and 6.5 m (21 ft) above the ground and augmented by open terraces. There is running water, a toilet, and cooking facilities, and the whole is supported by 19 slanted steel stilts anchored to the ground, so that is has a minimal impact on the site.
Blooming Bamboo House
Flooding is becoming the housing issue of the century. Vietnamese firm H&P’s prototype for a flood-resistant house is made almost entirely of bamboo, and was designed to be replicated by non-specialist builders as a sort of kit-of-parts. The base plan is a pinwheel with small projections that become open terraces with sun shades.
Further bamboo panels in the roof rise up at an incline from each wall in a mansard fashion, capped by a small pyramidal top. Triangular sections lift up to allow for passive ventilation, which also occurs by way of the many openings around the perimeter. The house is designed to withstand flood waters of up to 1.5 m (5 ft).
This little housing unit recalls generations of small, mobile precursors, from the camper-style holiday home to the Airstream trailer and, in name at least, makes reference to Le Corbusier’s concept of a "machine for living." But the Spanish architects at Adhoc want to offer something more with their industrially fabricated domestic container.
The model was designed for prefabrication and customization and was deliberately calculated to a size that would not require a specialist delivery method. It can be transported by flat-bed truck and then craned into place. Once delivered, the unit can be connected to plumbing and energy sources and is ready for use.
Meme Meadows house
Kengo Kuma’s glowing lightweight house was built as part of an array of experimental, environmentally-conscious structures in Japan. Modeled on the traditional "chise" (a simple orthogonal form with a pitched roof and made of grass and earth), Kuma’s Meme Meadows house takes advantage of more modern methods and materials.
The concrete slab retains heat from underfloor systems and by way of the central hearth. The walls and roof are composed of three layers of materials: polyester fabric, an insulating layer made from recycled PET bottles and a removable inner curtain made from glass fiber. The transparent structure was designed for "a life surrounded by natural light."
In Scandinavia the summer house on the fjord is a longstanding tradition. Architect Mats Fahlander designed this low horizontal bungalow to hover over the rocky site on small piles rather than excavating to build poured foundations. Using timber construction, Fahlander then chose to cover the house with nearly maintenance-free materials, such as corrugated metal sheeting. Timber decking extends the living area towards the beach and the setting sun.
The house has an area of about 90 sq m (970 sq ft), but is accompanied by another structure with guest space and a sauna. A smaller house for the clients’ parents is located nearby.
On a swampy bit of land just outside Boston Keith Moskow and Robert Linn built a rural retreat using materials that had to be carried in by hand, as there were no access roads for large vehicles. Rather than disrupt the marshy terrain to build solid foundations, they raised a platform up on timber legs, and instead of a single house, they created a collection of small huts.
The huts cater to separate functions, such as sleeping, eating, bathing/toilet. An open-air hut that projects over the most overgrown area was fitted with a table for dining alfresco, or working while surrounded by nature. Roofs are made of lightweight polycarbonate sheets.
The "bach," or small recreational beach house, is an iconic part of the New Zealand tradition. However, William Geisen and Cecile Bonnifait of Atelier Workshop had more functional aims in mind when they decided to combine the seaside hut with ideas for up-cycling shipping containers.
The Port-a-Bach prototype contains all of the necessities for a temporary home for a family of four within a single modified container, with a double bed, kitchen area, toilet/shower and drop-down deck. The deck can be enclosed with canvas walls and canopy to expand the sheltered interior. The Port-a-Bach can be delivered by flat-bed truck, sits on concrete footings and is reported to take only about 40 minutes to set up.
This compact house was built for the exhibition titled "The Architecture for Necessity" at the Virserum Museum in southern Sweden. Tengbom Architects, working with students from the University of Lund and with timber supplier Martinsons, used mostly cross-laminated timber to create a fully functioning small house that would be ideal for university students.
The Student Unit measures a mere 10 sq m (107 sq ft), but it offers an abundantly well-designed, light-filled living experience. Well-thought-out functional details abound, such as built-in shelves, a loft seating/sleeping area and a fold-up desk unit which doubles as a window covering. There is even a small garden with a patio.
Like many developing countries South Africa has thousands of informal settlements, areas without a piped water supply, electrical power or storm-water removal systems. Architecture for a Change came up with a housing solution that mimics the crude, zinc-clad shelters that are common in these settlements but has a much-improved thermal performance and design.
The Mamelodi Pod is a small hut of only 10.8 sq m (116 sq ft), covered in zinc sheeting, but with layers of insulating material. It also offers flood protection, being raised off the ground, and shading. It is prefabricated, which means it can be installed by three people in less than one day, collects rainwater and generates its own solar power.
These designs and others are featured in my upcoming book, Superlight: Lightness in House Design, published by Thames and Hudson, London, October 2014.