In the Future, We Will All Live in Plastic Houses Put Together in Six Weeks

Though they’re largely unknown in their hometown, Philly architects Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake have shaken up the international architecture world with their edgy designs and bold ideas about sustainability and prefab construction. Is this the end of your McMansion?


ARCHITECTURE IS A RATHER bizarre business. Though there are vast sums of money involved in building, the number of large, corporate firms is really quite small. Most architects labor through their lives obscurely, as sole proprietors. A select few become gods of high culture, and there are always new stars who flare through the firmament, define a trendy style, and spawn a bevy of imitators. (Can you spell Gehry?) But often the most influential architects are prolific writers who haven’t actually built many buildings. It’s been like that for much of the past hundred years.

The story goes that Frank Lloyd Wright would make a joke whenever he heard that the renowned French modern architecture theorist known as Le Corbusier had actually built something. “Well,” Wright would tell his apprentices, “now that he’s finished one building, he’ll go write four books about it.”

Though Kieran and Timberlake were quite familiar with (and influenced to varying degrees by) the man Timberlake still refers to simply as “Corb,” for most of their first two decades in business they designed and built a lot of stuff and wrote very little. Then in 2002, Princeton Architectural Press published Manual: The Architecture­ of KieranTimberlake. It was another kind of coming-out for the firm, which by then had grown to about 50 employees and moved to the former Channel 57 television studios just off the Parkway, not far from the Museum of Art.

Manual isn’t beach reading. It’s a technical look at how the architects went about solving problems in their work. Since that community room in the chapel basement at Chestnut Hill, the firm had done renovations and additions on various campuses, including a middle-school building for the swanky Shipley School complex in Bryn Mawr, and a glassy insert into the cluster of brick buildings that made up the engineering school at Penn.

Manual is a trajectory of built work,” Timberlake says. “It shows us moving along steadily and taking the time to design and implement and draw something out of each project—one thing that is remarkable. In even the smallest project, we look for one thing that is innovative and beautiful. It was a calculated risk on our part to try to build our reputation by our work. It took a while to build a portfolio.”

Meanwhile, in 2001, the partners had entered a contest and won a $50,000 grant that in essence allowed them to write their own manifesto, Refabricating Architecture.

For years, the men had been reworking a not-so-new (and largely discredited) idea: prefabrication. With the grant, Kieran and Timberlake set up a tour across the country (“It was our own Travels with Charlie,” Kieran jokes) to see how other industries were building products using not the century­-old technique of mass production, but a more evolved, new process they dubbed “mass customization.”

“The building design and construction industry in the past 50 years or so is the only industry that’s had a decline in productivity­—about 20 percent,” Kieran says. “The cost escalation from the inefficiencies was driving down the quality and scope of what we could do. So we said, ‘Why don’t we go out and look at some other industries that have benefited from productivity?’”­

They went to Philadelphia’s Navy Yard to study how gargantuan freight ships and tankers are assembled in huge components. They stopped in Detroit to examine how the number of pieces on an auto assembly line kept dropping with the use of pre-assembled modules, increasing assembly speed and quality. They toured the mammoth Boeing factory outside Seattle and came away with a vision of architecture designed and tested on computers and then built as chunks in climate-controlled hangars.

When they returned home, the partners formed a simple argument. It was as if architects were asleep for decades, they would write, while the people who design and build ships and planes and automobiles developed and adopted new materials, cut costs and waste, and increased quality. They asked: “Why does architecture remain immune to transformation and progress?”

Refabricating Architecture, published in 2004, was a shout, albeit a reasoned and rather polite one, for nothing less than revolution.­

“The book has sold almost 13,000 copies,” Timberlake says. “That’s unbelievable for an architecture book—unbelievable. We think it could sell a hundred thousand copies in China. It’s been translated to Korean. And we have a project in India, a concept house, that has the potential to have tens of thousands of units of mass-customizable off-site-constructed housing. Those are all ideas that are manifested in the book.”

Soon, Kieran and Timberlake got a chance to put their money where their mouths were—in Kieran’s case quite literally. He and his wife, Barbara, a psychologist, owned a property in Maryland on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, a long and narrow parcel dotted with bunches of loblolly pines. When it came time to design a weekend house to go there, the partners decided to make the project a case study of the ideas in their book.

The result, Loblolly House, is a deceptively simple-looking combination of two two-story boxes sited atop their own earth-bound pier just off the bay. It’s clad on three sides in a crenellated skin of cedar boards meant to provide shade from sunlight and mimic the pines around it. The entire western­-facing wall is given over to two different window systems, both of which can fold away to open the house completely to the breezes off the water and the sunset views. Behind the beauty were ideas and obsessions that Kieran and Timberlake had been wrestling with for years.

They used advanced digital tools. The plans for the house were developed using “parametric modeling,” a three-dimensional­ computer simulation they’d first seen at the Boeing plant and adopted in their practice long before it became a standard tool for architects. Prefabrication­—or what the men prefer to call “off-site fabrication”­—was utilized: The frame is an aluminum scaffold that can be ordered from a catalog. Chunks of the house—wall, floor and roof units—were built in a factory and trucked to Maryland, then snapped onto the scaffold frame. The assembly of Loblolly­ House at the job site took just six weeks—one-fifth the time it would take to put up a traditional house board by board.

After Loblolly, KieranTimberlake was invited to participate in a special exhibition at MoMA titled “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling.” They designed Cellophane House, a five-story structure, using the same aluminum frame as Loblolly, but with floor and ceiling panels made of plastic for lightness, and an exterior skin called SmartWrap, made of the same chemical used in plastic bottles, that the architects had been developing for years in conjunction with DuPont. SmartWrap can be imbedded with photovoltaic panels that not only add a design element, but also turn the whole house into a solar energy collector.

Cellophane House took only 16 days to assemble on a parking lot just west of the museum building, and was a conversation piece in midtown Manhattan for three months. New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote that its glowing skin and translucent floors and ceilings give the house “an ethereal, temporary quality, and it stands so gently on its site that it seems afraid of doing harm to its surroundings.”­

“Environmentally sensitive and devoid of cynicism,” Ouroussoff concluded, “it’s a perfect end to the show.”

When the exhibition did end, the architects tried to sell Cellophane House, but couldn’t strike a satisfactory deal. The structure was disassembled and is now stored in New Jersey. They’re disappointed, the partners admit, but not forlorn. “We continue to harbor great hope for producing more houses like it,” they wrote in a recent book they published about the project. “By virtue of its size, compact footprint, assembly, systems, materiality, transparency and mass-customizable frame, it offers a view of a future not so distant.”

Prefab housing is having a tiny growth spurt in Philly. Temple University recently erected a 72-unit student housing complex made of off-site-constructed modules designed by architect Brian Phillips, who also teaches at Penn. Phillips says there are other projects in the planning stage. But is the modern family really ready to give up the “custom-built” McMansion, or even the rehabbed rowhouse?

“Yes,” says Timberlake. “It’s generational. The 20-to-40-somethings are interested in affordability and contemporary design. And more and more products are becoming available, not just bespoke or custom-design things.” KieranTimberlake has been working with a California-based prefabrication­ builder on a line of homes. Kieran says the tipping point will come when prices for prefab become competitive with those for so-called stick-built homes.