Cellophane House is a five-story, offsite fabricated dwelling commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, on display July 20 through October 20, 2008. The 1800 square-foot residence has
two bedrooms, two bathrooms, living and dining space, a roof terrace, and a
carport. An online journal tracking the fabrication process can be viewed at
A building is, at root, nothing more than an assemblage of materials forming an enclosure. We recognize that these materials came from somewhere, are held together for a time by the techniques of construction, and will at some future time transition into another state. While we tend to think of buildings as permanent, they are in fact only a resting state for materials, a temporary equilibrium that is destined to be upset by the entropic forces that drive the physical universe.
Cellophane House makes no claim to permanence. As a structure it is, first and foremost, a matrix for holding materials together in such a way that they create an inhabitable enclosure. The critical term here is holding, as opposed to fixing. Materials that are held are allowed to retain their identity as discrete elements, and can be released at any time. When materials are fixed to one another, they become part of a composite structure, from which they can be freed only through the expenditure of great amounts of energy. The actual materials are, in a sense, irrelevant: it is the manner in which they are joined together that defines the essence of a structure.
Many prefabricated designs succeed in reducing buildings into modules that are made in a factory and joined together on site. This is still conventional construction, only in the factory as opposed to the building site. Such approaches typically embody a top-down approach to prefabrication: design the building, and then devise a system to make it work.
By contrast, the design of Cellophane House takes a bottom-up approach. It begins with the system as its basis, allowing architecture to grow out of its opportunities and constraints. What emerges is a design that is holistic in its approach, irreducible in its makeup. We prefer the term off-site fabrication to prefabrication, because architecture must be able to conform to unique sites through hybrid assembly methodologies, rather than by shipping empty space in conventionally constructed modules.
Cellophane House relies on a system of customizable elements. An aluminum frame serves as a matrix on which other factory made elements like floors and ceilings, stairs, bathrooms, and mechanical rooms can be attached. The aluminum structural framing is bolted, rather than welded, allowing it to be taken apart as easily as it is assembled. Moreover, this frame allows any of the walls, floors, structure, or envelope to be replaced at any time, without invasive modifications.
The transparent and translucent walls, floors, ceilings, roof and envelope exploit the sun as the primary source of illumination and energy. The building is enclosed with Next-Gen SmartWrap™ thin-film skin, which harvests energy from the sun through integrated photovoltaic panels on the walls and roof, and channels it to a battery array in the mechanical room. A second layer of film on the interior allows daylight to enter and diffuse throughout the living spaces, while providing greater insulation than any glass unit. Meanwhile, a ventilation system harnesses heat in the winter, or displaces it in the summer. These combined elements form an active double-skin wall that provides weather protection, as well as potential energy independence.
Through simple modifications, the house can adapt to a range of climatic factors, solar orientations, slopes and adjacencies. Since all structural loads are carried by the external frame elements, it is also simple to rearrange interior floor plans. A pair of bedrooms, for instance, can be created in place of the study and garden, should a family require the extra space. A range of material options also allows the house to be customized to the varying needs, tastes and budgets of consumers. Someone desiring more privacy and a lower cost might choose a quite different package of materials. Cement-board might replace the transparent envelope, rendering the building as solid and dense rather than light and ephemeral. Users are encouraged to alter the array of components and layouts as they see fit. Regardless of the changes that are made, the method of fabrication remains the same.
Cellophane House is fabricated virtually with Building Information Modeling (BIM). This makes simultaneous off-site fabrication possible. The geometric and dimensional certainty of the virtual model allows parts to be machined and assembled to the required tolerances. It yields more efficient structural and mechanical coordination, greater management of parts and schedules for procurement, a clearer approach to assembly sequencing, and a measure of control over fabrication and construction. The virtual model is the sole source of information from which all details, schedules, part lists and fabrication drawings are derived.
By creating a system into which pre-existing materials can be simply and cleanly inserted, the Cellophane House drastically reduces the number of consultants needed to build a house. Practically every element of the house is readily available through a national network of open-sourced vendors, and can be assembled almost anywhere at any time. The off-site fabricator simply orders the frame and connections, and the materials for walls and floors, and the house is ready to assemble. Due to the nature of the joints, there are no specialized tools or facilities required, so the number of eligible fabricators is virtually limitless.
Cellophane House is assembled rather than constructed. It can disappear as easily as it appears. At the end of its useful life, it will be disassembled rather than demolished. At any point, its components can be modified and exchanged with ease, without specialized tools or skills. Every joint is a knock-down joint.
When the time comes, the connections can be removed and the layers un-stacked, from the top down. All interior walls are held in place by removable inserts snapped into the frame; these can be removed in a matter of minutes without affecting the structure. Throughout this process, the individual materials retain their integrity, and can be easily extracted, exchanged, reused or recycled. Plastic, glass and aluminum belong to a well-established waste stream allowing the entire house to be disassembled and sorted into existing recycling chains, leaving no residual waste.
Like the auto industry, which has long practiced wholesale reclamation of used parts for new use, we welcome the notion that architecture can give rise to a reclaimed parts industry. We envision a new market in which with entire structures are once again made from recycled materials and parts of prior structures. This new economy provides a homeowner with the capability to purchase an entire structure, or part of a structure, from the manufacturer or perhaps an online auction, and assemble it with only a pickup truck and a few laborers.