Home: Bursting the Bubble

By bringing customization to the prefab world, the architects behind the Burst house are minimizing waste and winning accolades from the Museum of Modern Art

By Amber Bravo

Photo by Floto + Warner

This summer, a house that now sits on a beach in Australia will make an appearance (so to speak) in the least likely of places: a high-profile New York art show. The house is a vision of the future of prefabricated housing known as Burst*003; the men who conceived it, Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier, comprise one of five architectural teams chosen from nearly 400 to present a full-scale dwelling at the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) forthcoming prefab show, “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling” (opening July 15). The structure the pair designed for the show, actually another iteration of the Burst series called Burst*008, will stop passersby with ease. But the New York architects’ ability to add an element of customization to kit housing is their less noticeable and more sustainable achievement. Through a custom-kit process, they minimize waste even more than the average prefab.

“Everyone thinks prefab is just a big chunk of house you dump on a site and then you bolt it down,” says Gauthier. “Ours is a little bit more like an Ikea project. It’s thousands of pieces that can all be handled and stitched together on site.” Though the interior of the  Burst*008 house will be modified to respond to the constraints of New York City and the MoMA’s specific building requirements, the structure will share many attributes with its Australian seaside counterpart. (Other Burst projects include a birdhouse and an art installation, so applying their concept in different contexts is nothing new for Edmiston and Gauthier.) 

Burst*003, aka Parish House, was designed for a family of five and is sited on a suburban cul-de-sac in North Haven, just minutes away from the north coast of New South Wales. The house is purposely designed in an understated form and with modest materials to capture the spirit of the traditional Australian beach shack. A mostly undifferentiated façade (in other words, no front doors or mullioned windows) is topped off with eye-popping roofing that borrows its pattern from a floral bikini. Structural joists are designed to store surfboards and bikes. And as of 2006, it was the only house in the neighborhood to  actually meet the flood standards required of houses built so close to the water.

Design foresight is not the only way in which Burst*003 responds to its environment. Traditionally, prefabricated structures are built off-site and delivered almost entirely assembled. The Burst system uses powerful software to design and calibrate all of the structural components to a specific site and project, from the number of screws needed for assembly to the cuts of all the material. Advanced CAD systems and a highly efficient milling process for the plywood enable the team to create a structure > with very little waste. “The machine nests [the plywood] so efficiently, you end up with very little extra. Construction waste can account for as much as 20 percent of a project, but we’re down below the 5 percent range,” says Gauthier.

The architects’ method allows them to partially adapt the structure prior to delivery according to site-specific environmental parameters. “Burst uses the most sophisticated technology we have available to us for designing, engineering, testing, and fabricating a structure,” says Edmiston, who works with Gauthier on Burst, though the two maintain separate architectural practices. “The promise is that this can be shipped to locations that don’t have such ready access to technology, but where labor is more readily available.”

The MoMA show’s demands are the same as any domestic exhibition space, so Burst*008 will be altered to withstand heavy foot traffic. Its clear, glazed back, replete with bleachers and a deck, will open onto the other projects in the show, acting as a sort of performance, party, and meeting space. What’s more, you’ll be able to see the façade from the street, which means Burst*008 might cause its fair share of house envy; particularly if, in the mid-July heat, there are surfboards stowed in those joists.

Issue 25

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