Beyond Sprawl: Part Two

An interview with John Davis of pieceHomes, who’s out to convince the mega-mansion crowd that they’ll love his company’s mid-sized, high-efficiency modular dwellings.

A pieceHomes rendering.

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Look at many large North American cities and you see a sea of suburban houses. Sprawl has become the norm. But it is costly, damages the environment and affects quality of life. A new generation of planners and architects is beginning to look at sustainable, human-centered solutions to the creeping suburbs.

There are several reasons for the rise of the suburbs. The planning structures put in place after World War II encouraged the construction of low-density neighborhoods. Low gas prices created a car-dependent culture. And most developers are resistant to changing the paradigm of the suburbs because it has worked for them.

The four architects profiled in this series offer their own analyses of how North America has come to face this situation, and how it might be solved. To see the first article in this series, click here.

The predominance of large, inefficient homes in suburban areas is something that architect Jonathan Davis wants to tackle with pieceHomes. These are modular homes of modest size and contemporary design with many high-efficiency features. Davis argues that people can be persuaded to live in much less space than they think they need.

“One of our goals is to reduce the size of our homes. People think they have to have a 3000-square-foot house. I tell them I can do that same house in 1500 square feet.”

Compact houses don’t have to be cramped if they’re properly designed, Davis says “You can create space by getting good daylight in there, good cross ventilation, the appropriate materials and colors so the spaces feel lighter and airy.” The houses that Davis designs also have a host of environmentally friendly features, including either high r-value panels or spray-foam insulation, radiant heat and efficient cooling as well as room for photovoltaic cells on the roof.

“The cost of running the house,” Davis adds, “the energy bill, is going to be less, so people are going to realize savings in the long run.”

Davis says that amongst the misconceptions about modular housing is that it is “cheap.” “We’re not building a cheap home, we’re building a more affordable home,” he says. “We’re doing things to simplify construction and simplify the plan to reduce the cost even more, so you’re getting something high quality and more cost-effective. By building in the factory we can achieve a 10 to 15 percent cost savings over building the same house conventionally on site.”

He adds that this way he can achieve one of the goals of pieceHomes — making affordable homes available to a wider audience.

“You’re going to have to challenge people a little bit to re-think the way they think they should live,” he says. “Generations ago we were living in much smaller houses. There’s something to be learned from that, though our homes need to be address to the needs of a more flexible 21st century lifestyle and the environment and energy situation we live in.”

One of the prongs of Davis’ ideas on reducing sprawl is the effective re-development of infill properties. Davis points out the opportunities that come from removing “old homes out there that are getting pretty tired, that are sitting on large pieces of property that people don’t use to their maximum extent, and replace them with high density micro-communities, with 6 to 12 homes in them.”

Another solution for Davis is to create centralized communities. He says,” You need to put up several levels of parking or underground parking next to that a big box mall and put some condos or town homes on top of it so people can live right there. Then if you build an office tower on the corner of that property where people who live there can work, you can do everything close to home, and create neighborhood and community.” The first pieceHomes modules were installed in California in 2010.

Tomorrow: John Brown of housebrand.

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Tags: urban planninglos angelesbuilt environmentsprawl

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