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Gregory La Vardera EcoContempo Interview

Go to the EcoContempo Status Page

EcoContempo is a collaboration between Northern Steel and Gregory La Vardera. In February 2006 we spoke to Greg, an architect based in Merchantville, NJ (near Philadelphia), who was bestowed with a Dwell magazine Nice Modernist award in 2003 and is a regular poster in the forums at fabprefab.

fpf What draws you to modernism and how do modernist ideals find their way into your work and your clients’ goals?
Gregory La Vardera
What draws me to modernism is a feeling of living, working, and designing in the here and now. So that means in terms of living you try to be honest with yourself about how we live today and what kind of house serves that best. The same issue plays out in terms of the workplace when we are designing that. How do people work, what do they need to facilitate it. Is a wood desk and painting of a fox hunt relevant today? Those questions are one dimension of designing modern. The other side of it is building technology. We strive to know and understand what means and methods are common, and which require special effort or expense for a given project condition. In the case of a prefab house product it means we try to get inside the process and extract the best results from the given systems limitations. As far as client's goals, well prefab customers tend to be on board with this. In our local practice this does not always align and we just do our best to serve our clients needs and avail them of this approach where appropriate.
fpf   How did you come to be working with Northern Steel in developing the EcoContempo line?
GLV   I met Joss Hudson from Northern Steel via the original Dwell Message board. He posted some of the modern projects they were building and proposing there. We corresponded a bit and became familiar with what each other were doing - NSteel trying to offer modern housing, myself marketing modern house plans. He said he wanted to offer and build my designs and we began a working relationship that has been very positive.
fpf What were your design objectives in developing the 6030 product?

The 6040 - precursor to the 6030.
The 6030 House began as a modification to the previously designed 6040 House. A customer approached us with a property pre-approved for a 60ft x 30ft footprint. This house was born out of that design process with that customer, but also highly influenced by the 6040 design, and a 6040 design study that I had produced earlier. The overall drive here is to leverage the efficiency of the building system. This dictates a compact solution, with relatively long spans and a simple volumetric form. You can see the same pattern of criteria in the 6040.
 fpf   At the time we are posting this, a built example of the 6030 house is near completion, can you tell us about the assembly process and how the house works in terms of materials and structure?

The process follows more closely the practices of commercial construction rather than residential construction. Design drawings lead into engineering documentation which leads to shop fabrication drawings - each step more detailed. This documentation is used by the various fabricators to create the inventory of parts that go into each house. The elements are manufactured and shipped to site where they arrive along with other manufactured components such as doors and windows.

Assembly is rapid in comparison to home building and carpentry as the various "parts" are larger in scale and more is completed at each stage. The main frame is erected, sub-framing installed, wall and roof panels applied, window and doors installed. Our final product is a weather tight shell on the customers foundation ready for interior fit out to suit their desires and budget.
fpf   Some of your plans, such as the Plat House, were developed prior to your relationship with Northern Steel. What changes have you made to adapt to Northern’s materials and processes?

Plat House

Yes, several of my stock home plans are being offered as EcoSteel products. We have not placed one of these yet, but the process will involve the adaptation of the design from conventional wood stud construction to the steel frame and insulated panel system. Because of the origin of these designs they will not necessarily have the efficiency in terms of using the system to its best strengths as the 6030 and 6040 designs do, but these will still be a good value. The changes are more oriented around materials, and the accommodation of the exposed framing members in the floor plan. Right now we find that these houses are helping to influence new designs which can then be tuned better to the system.
fpf You have designed other modern homes using timber framed modular construction. How do you design differently for steel construction?
First of all the EcoSteel system is based on the pre-engineered metal building industry and has some distinct differences from ordinary commercial steel construction. It lends itself to simple geometric forms and repetition of primary frame members. You want to work with simple shapes or combinations of simple shapes to be most efficient with it. We have to consider our panel modules and let that building block feed back into the placement of windows and doors and ultimately the floor plan considerations. Conventional wood construction on site is more of a blank canvas in comparison. However if you are working on a modular house of wood construction that introduces similar issues. You have to be cognizant of pre-approved structural system solutions for wood framing available to the factory to facilitate their third party approvals. ISO container based housing also has very specific criteria that must be understood. Ultimately you have to know your medium as a painter knows his canvas, a sculptor knows his stone, to make the most of what you are working with and design a product that works with the industry that will produce it. And having some inspired fun with it helps too!
fpf   How does the EcoContempo sales and marketing function work for you and which geographic markets do you serve?
GLV   Because NSteel has a pre-existing sales/marketing infrastructure from their commercial work we began from day one with coverage of the entire country, and they are fully prepared to go worldwide as with their commercial work. They are however in the process of expanding sales/marketing dedicated solely to the residential product. So there is start up happening, just in a different way than other mod prefab products.
fpf   Surely developers are attracted to the commercial-style construction process.
Do you have any multi-unit developments in the works?
GLV   Not multi family, but single family/multiple houses. We are looking at a 16 unit project in Arizona which we are very excited about. We are making breakthroughs in affordability with those and we can't wait to be able to offer those designs more widely.
fpf   Any other points you would like to raise?
GLV   I'd just like to say that its been an absolute pleasure working with NSteel and their people, and I think our customers are also having a good experience. I've been trying to be involved in a lot of different approaches to expanding the availability of modern housing as those who frequent your messageboards know. My mantra has been I want to see the day when anybody who wants to buy a house can choose modern if that is their preference. In a time when we have to search for factories willing to serve the market for modern housing, a vendor like NSteel who is ready, willing, and enthusiastic about building modern houses is an amazing resource - one that we as a movement can not afford to squander. Hence my motivation to work with them to make a successful product. But we can't expect people to buy houses out of good will. I am working to try and connect their willingness with unmet demand via design solutions that deliver value and utility. This is only a small step in reaching the big goal. We know many people are still seeking a lower priced prefab product. It will take more time, but in the end prefab may not be the mechanism that delivers houses on par with the status quo. It may simply be the catalyst for modern breaking into the mainstream housing market. That's fine too because prefab will still be relevant for many other reasons and people will have the choice they seek.
fpf   Thank you for talking to fabprefab.
GLV   Thank you.  

Go to the EcoContempo Status Page

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