Pragmatism and idealism: David O’Brien considers 1:1 Architecture’s re-Growth Pod, and the competition to explore ways of using it.
Victoria’s “Black Saturday” bushfires in February 2009 killed nearly 200 people and destroyed more than 2000 houses. The fires created headlines around the world and mobilized many thousands of volunteers. What could architects do to contribute? Could they help facilitate community rebuilding in a timely, appropriate and sustainable way?
The team at 1:1 Architects were in a strong position to respond to this tragedy. They had previously demonstrated their capacity to provide prefabricated housing units for student accommodation at Charles Sturt University. These units can be understood in a similar vein to Mart de Jong’s Spacebox pod designed in the Netherlands combined with the ruggedness of the Cargotecture units based on shipping containers designed by HyBrid in Seattle.
In a flurry of activity, Ben Edwards and his team reconfigured their design for student accommodation to create the re-Growth Pod – a robust prefabricated concrete structure that could be trucked to a site to become the core of a new house. The pod contains an internal sleeping space and a semi-enclosed kitchenette with a nifty overhead hinged door opening to the outside. Ablutions facilities (handbasin, pan, shower) are attached to the side of the pod, with all pipes precast into the concrete shell. Water pumps, gas tanks, a hot-water service and water storage tanks are also attached to the exterior.
Once delivered to the site, the pod provides immediate accommodation. With minimal effort the resident could build temporary walls and roof over the ablutions area for privacy and screening. Fixing points for new structures were incorporated into the exterior. So the pod initially acts as the central core of a new house and as a catalyst for rebuilding. Over time the pod can have further, more permanent structures added until, once again, the house becomes “complete”.
In an effort to demonstrate the variety of ways the pod could be adapted to individual needs, 1:1 Architects initiated a design competition. Both local and international architects were invited to submit designs for housing that include the pod as a starting point for development.
Of the thirty-six entries, many missed the opportunity to maximize the potential of the re-Growth Pod – many designs simply dismissed the pod as a starting point for new development. However, most recognized the advantages of a staged construction process, with the pod gradually consumed within a more complex spatial and structural arrangement.
Tom Morgan’s winning design, Tanker 721, presents a radical departure from any of the bush houses previously found in this region. Its industrialized and defensive exterior offers a defiant presence to/against the bush – it looks as if it could withstand nature’s attacks (despite evidence suggesting that it probably couldn’t). Tom has created a bespoke solution that uses the pod well and could possibly be sited in such a way as to lessen its “urban-ness”.
Umberto Emoli’s second placed design is similarly designed as a fortress. Stone and concrete walls – set within a pond (moat?) – reveal the designer’s intention to shield the resident from threats generated by nature.
Shane Plazibat’s equal second placed design takes another tack to reveal a sensitive understanding and engagement with the site. His well-staged program gives great control to the resident, who is encouraged to tailor both the house and the process to their individual needs. The pod is retained and incorporated as an ongoing presence in the design and would serve to remind the resident of the house’s “growth” during the period of regeneration.
Two radically different design philosophies have been displayed in this competition. One is based on the notion of the masonry-and-steel defensive “outpost”, while the other remains unafraid to engage with the landscape – its form, materiality and aesthetic. While the debate about new building codes in areas prone to bushfires continues, it is worth considering the types of environments these two philosophies might generate. How do the residents of these re-emerging communities imagine their futures? Do these residents see either of these architecturally driven “solutions” as a potential starting point for the regeneration of their housing?
The owners of the prototype pod, Stoney and Jacqueline, have already made plans for their new house. These plans are far more modest (and subsequently perhaps more realistic) than those generated by the competition. This is perhaps the very strength of the whole project – the pragmatism of the pod itself and its ability to meet the realities of the resident’s needs, coupled with the project’s capacity to ignite debate about future visions based on defence and those based on acceptance.
For further information, see www.regrowthpod.com.
Dr David O’Brien is a lecturer in architectural design and technology at the University of Melbourne.