The problem was Lapland. David Ben Grunberg was an architecture student with a challenge: In northern Scandinavia, winters are cold and summers are surprisingly hot. But how do you design a pre-fabricated house in a place of extremes? With a little help from a turn-of-the-(20th)-century mathematician (and his father), Grunberg designed the D*Haus, and founded D*Haus Company with Daniel Woolfson. The young firm has since re-imagined houses, public spaces, towers, and a habitable bridge – Octopus Hearts – built to cope with extreme flooding.
With architects facing extreme weather far beyond Lapland, we spoke to Woolfson and Grunberg about adaptable housing and designing for climate change.
Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for the original D*house, and what factors were crucial in designing for this particular environment?
For months we studied pre-fabricated homes with no success, as none of the current products could fully adapt in the way which we desired. We then took a step back because, what is the most successful pre-fab product? The answer is: furniture.
Our favourite piece of furniture was Maty Grunberg’s Original D*Table commissioned in 1982 by ARAM. This table harnesses [Henry Ernest] Dudeney’s mathematical formula that allows a perfect square to become a perfect triangle. I (David) went to my father and asked for his permission to turn his pre-fab adaptable table into a house, which I don’t think has ever been done before and certainly is a world first in architecture.
We take inspiration from nature, and in its simplest form, the flower, which opens and closes up every day to take advantage of the best times of day and conserve its energy. Why can’t buildings be like this too? Taking advantage of the best bits of the environment at optimal times of day / the year.
As you’re known for using pre-fabricated housing, how do you design homes or structures that are viable in a wide range of climates and weather conditions?
Dealing with environment is just another type of constraint. Architects constantly deal with constraints in every project they work on, be they limits on space or height restrictions.But now we are starting to appreciate the changing weather patterns around us as another type of constraint. Much like man has had to deal with an evolutionary world, buildings must adapt and respond in this changing climate if they are to survive.
Dealing with these factors means understanding how they work and what affect they can have on us and the spaces around us. In the future we will work more closely with environmental engineers to match patterns of changing climate to an architecture that responds dynamically to it.
Do you think these factors will alter what it means to be an architect or a designer?
Adapt or Die! As a profession we must adapt to the changing patterns in society. In the digital age architects risk being marginalised unless we remind others of our worth. We must work more closely with other professions to bring new ideas to the fore and challenge the architectural status quo. We see more and more interaction with the public and the digital community these days, and as architects we must embrace this. At D*Haus we are firm believers in embracing societal change, in fact leading it.
Do you have a strategy for how future projects will factor in or withstand extreme weather?
We are looking to bring together a collective of architects, engineers and designers to raise the debate about environmental housing. Nowadays when people talk about an environmental house, they refer to one that has good U values or is carbon neutral. But an environmental house should also be able to respond and adapt to its surroundings. We feel the meaning of the word 'environment' is being lost in the push towards cutting carbon emissions. We want to challenge this belief and propose new types of environmental buildings that are fully responsive and sustainable.
Architects (and clients) are also dealing with another challenge right now – and this one is financial. Is it possible to create buildings that can withstand environmental changes, and are also affordable?
This is a very important question, firstly in the recession, as we are literally just surviving and clients are scarce, but this can prove good for design. Architects are literally building their own projects without the tight constraints of a client's brief or budget.
The D*Haus would not be the cheapest building in the world but I think in the long run the research we are undertaking is leading to a vast and interesting place. The idea of the D*Haus is not only to create an amazing type of building that’s never been attempted, but also to raise the debate about pre-fabricated housing. In architecture generally, we feel there is a snobbery towards pre-fabricated homes. Take, for example, the caravan or mobile home. This is a highly efficient and low cost building technique, but is not seen as part of the architectural realm, and isn’t even designed by architects. We want to challenge this belief.
In the long term, the challenge for us over the next 10 years would be to develop a D*isaster Haus that could be affordable and strong enough to withstand tornadoes, hurricane, floods and earthquakes. This building could really solve a lot of the issues we are seeing all over the world.
The Narrow Path - The D*Haus Company, an exhibition at Anise Gallery in London, is on until 30 November 2012. The gallery will also host a talk on the history of the D*Haus on 17 November at 5 pm. It is sponsored by DU Pont Corian.
Photos courtesy of D*Haus Company and AVR London