Archive for the ‘architecture’ Tag

Michelle Kaufmann: An Architect Driving Change

Written by Lee Schneider | Director of SHELTER

Michelle Kaufmann is a pioneer in the prefab housing movement. You might think that happened because she started a factory to manufacture architect-designed homes, or because she has showcased full-sized replicas of her homes in prominent museums like the National Building Museum in Washington, or the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Those are big achievements and do identify her as an innovator and a culture shaker. But, for me, what makes her a pioneer and a leader is something else.

She is making sustainability not only a way to build, but also a state of mind.

“It’s not just looking at using eco materials and choosing production and systems that are energy efficient and can save water,” she said in interview. “It really goes beyond that by thinking about outdoor spaces as much as indoor spaces. It’s thinking about what makes a sustainable community that goes beyond the materials themselves. It’s about shared resources.”

This is a holistic view of architecture and design, and it makes good sense. No building exists by itself – there’s a relationship to the people who use it, to the land it is placed on, to the resources it uses.

She has a project going in Denver called aria that illustrates this. The construction is prefab, which means that much of the construction is happening off-site, in a factory, where the homes are put together in a modular fashion, then brought onto the site and completed there.

Construction is more efficient and green this way. The homes themselves use recycled materials and alternative energy sources like solar. The community features roadbed made from recycled concrete and water-conserving native plants. The design also calls for a community pavilion in which residents can learn about organic cooking, using food grown from the on-site garden.

“We’re thinking about things in a more holistic way.”
-Michelle Kaufmann

Over the course of her career, Michelle has championed the use of recyclable materials in the 53 green homes she has built. She’s corrected some assumptions along the way, too, such as the belief that a house made of recyclables would have to be made of old tires or that it wouldn’t be possible to take a hot shower while living in one. The homes she designs not only look good, but they make us feel good.

Early prefab homes designed by Michelle and others were expensive and one of a kind, but they established a necessary proof of concept. They showed clients it was possible to build green and make it beautiful. Today, the Denver site represents the next generation of prefab, as it mixes affordable and market rate housing. It’s not meant to be “one of a kind,” but to show that a design can be replicated at other sites, making it more accessible. This can be a path to healthier buildings, a path to architecture that is part of an ecosystem and a path to change.

Architects can drive change, but I think we have to rethink ourselves and our role as architects.”

While the world celebrates star architects like Frank Gehry, it’s been useful for me to remember that architecture is for the most part a conservative profession. Innovators like Michelle Kaufmann (and Gehry) are rare. Michelle told me during our interview that fewer than three percent of homes are actually designed by architects – most are done by builders, but builders are not trained to innovate,  instead simply to execute. But now we are at the start of a new chapter, one that features collaboration as a critical tool for success. Michelle cited the Open Architecture network as an example of this. It makes design open and free, and promotes designs that conserve both water and energy. It’s a part of the holistic view of architecture bringing us better homes and better communities.

“We are in a very interesting time. our values system is now shifting more towards community, but also community in our businesses. We’re collaborating, and that’s where real change is happening,” Michelle said.

To learn more about her latest projects, check out her website.

This interview was made possible with the generous participation of one of our valued sponsors, Zipcar.

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River Haven and U-Domes

Written by Lee Schneider

Is it possible to construct a village of new homes in a day, providing much needed housing for the homeless in Ventura County, California?  The answer is yes if you have a few hundred volunteers, two battalions of Navy Sea-Bees,  an innovative design for geodesic domes and some vision.

buckyHandThe innovative dome design comes from an American original named R. Buckminster Fuller.  The vision comes from Bruce LeBel of World Shelters and Clyde Reynolds of the Turning Point Foundation.  Clyde, the foundation’s executive director, heads up a program serving more than 500 clients in Ventura County each year through its shelter rehabilitation programs. Clyde hired Bruce’s company, World Shelters, to do something amazing: create housing for the homeless in just one day. Bruce, once a student of Buckminster Fuller, was ready for the challenge.  Why?  Not only did Buckminster Fuller advance the concept of a dome as a multi-use building, but Fuller also believed in a passionate and committed form of architecture that would help citizens of Earth survive and prosper.  He saw his life as an experiment into “what, if anything,” an individual could do “on behalf of all humanity.”

“For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any have ever known.  Only ten years ago the ‘more with less’ technology reached the point where this could be done. All humanity now has the option to become enduringly successful.”
– R. Buckminster Fuller, 1980

Bucky, as he was known, inspired Bruce LeBel to use the dome design to provide emergency housing all over the world.  We’re making a film about pre-fab architecture for the very poor and the very rich called SHELTER.  One of Bruce’s projects we’re following happened over the weekend, at an encampment for the homeless called River Haven, in Ventura.  Winter is coming, and that means heavy rains and some heavy weather.  The homeless people who lived here were camped in tents that were showing their age over the four years this settlement has been in existence. Domes would provide warmth, strength, and security.

The domes at River Haven, called U-Domes, are the result of years of research at World Shelters. Bruce was once an engineer at The North Face, the outdoor equipment company whose tents utilized Fuller’s principle of tensegrity.  Tensegrity is a synergy of materials achieved by a balance of tension and compression in their components.  U-Domes are designed to ship easily and go up fast.

buildingadomePutting one of World Shelter’s U-Domes together looks complicated – it’s something like wrestling with really big origami – but it can be done by volunteers with little or no training.   It’s one way you can get a village standing in a day. The domes that went up this weekend are strong, light and portable – built to withstand 80 mph winds and last for ten years.  Those who contributed to the project included members of two battalions of  Navy Sea-Bees, some of whom had just returned from deployment in Afghanistan. SHELTER_river-3831 They put down sixteen wooden pads on gravel that provide steady grounding and support for the domes.  Allegra Fuller Snyder, Buckminster Fuller’s daughter, stopped by to support the effort and fill us in on her father.  She gave us an interview connecting the vision of her dad with the applications Bruce has been seeking for his domes.  We hope Bucky Fuller will be the spiritual father of our film.

Shelter-4701Cheryl Deay of the United Way was heading up some of of the volunteers on site. She told us that 70% of the homeless population are working and struggling to get out of homelessness.  For the most part they keep a low profile.  “For every homeless person you see there are eight more that you don’t see.”  She explained that you may see the men on the street, but the women and children and families are hidden away.

SHELTER will follow this and some other projects Bruce has going and will also track pre-fab housing projects for the very rich.  We’ve completed interviews with Jennifer Siegal of the Office of Mobile Design and have met with two more pre-fab architecture powerhouses, Shigeru Ban and Dean Maltz, to speak with them about being in the film.



This is the ongoing production blog of SHELTER.  The film examines everyone’s right to a roof over their head and focuses on pre-fab methods of building as advanced by such architects as Jennifer Siegal, Whitney Sander, Shigeru Ban and Dean Maltz, design innovators like Buckminster Fuller and activists like Bruce LeBel of World Shelters.  SHELTER is a production of DocuCinema and Adventure Pictures.  Its executive producers are Lee Schneider and Richard Neill.