Can ‘fast and cheap’ really spell long-term home sweet home?
“When I started looking at prefabricated buildings, I thought the same,” admits Bill McCorkell, founder and director of ArchiBlox, an Australian firm that bolsters the burgeoning trend. “One of the big [challenges] on the outset of the business was educating people that the buildings we were building didn’t have to just be square boxes.”
Seven years in, the numbers – and awards – are starting to speak for themselves. ArchiBlox builds around 40 customised prefab homes along Australia’s east coast each year, creating what they call “aspirational, modular architecture” that’s aesthetically pleasing and sustainable.
Last year saw the company bag the Single Dwelling category prize at the 2015 Sustainability Awards for what’s being touted as the world’s first carbon-positive prefab house – an off-the-grid, single-bedroom dwelling that produces more energy than it needs to run.
It emits an estimated 1016 tonnes less greenhouse gases than an average, similar-sized home over its lifespan, and residing in this abode is equivalent to taking 267 cars off the road, or planting more than 6095 native trees.
“We used lots of cues from different design initiatives that we’d researched,” says Bill, describing “the old desert cooler”, where people put hessian water bags on the front of their bull bars, using speed and air flow to keep their car cool. The same principle applies to ArchiBlox’s sliding edible garden walls, which block sun penetration and draw cool air into the back of its carbon-positive interior. The tiny house movement that emerged post-Hurricane Katrina and saw US architects designing very small spaces, “using almost yachting joinery,” also offered inspiration, as did the solar-powered houses of the ’70s ‘Earthship movement’, made from natural and recycled components.
“We use plant-based paints so you get no off-gassing, and soy-based glues, so there’s no smell to hide. A lot of the materials are near to, if not [completely] carbon-neutral in their production and manufacturing,” says Bill, whose excitement is palpable when talking through the home’s particulars. He reveals there are packets of vegetable oil in the ceiling, which change their state from solid to liquid as the external temperature fluctuates – “a super cool way of just drawing the heat out of a room in the summertime, and then pushing it back in the night.”
It seems these digs are as much about saving ourselves as they are about saving the world. “I think there’s definitely an element of both,” says Bill, “but I believe, fundamentally, it has to start with your home and wellbeing.”
Bill has made quite a pivot from his early architectural career. “I was designing 40-plus-level towers, exhibition buildings, convention centres, hotels… everything and anything. But I was probably designing badly, in a way, because I had no concept of everything that was involved in what and how I designed, from a buildability and sustainability point of view.”
Now, he’s focused about maker smaller spaces smarter. The carbon-positive home’s 75 square metres falling more than 150 square metres short of the average Aussie house but every space is cleverly utilised.
“We do get clients who just are interested in square meterage,” says Bill, “and you need to educate them about the spaces… When you’re thinking about controlling the internal environment through no mechanical heating and cooling, you’re really constricted by the amount of rooms or the spaces that might feed off the main living area. As a result, you need to design big, but build very small.”
Read the full story in Issue 31.