Defying the Mold: Prefab for the Interior

The panel answers audience questions.

Daniel Fox

Event: Inside Prefab Panel Discussion
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.11.12
Panelists: Deborah Schneiderman, author of Inside Prefab: The Ready Made Interior; Greg Lynn, Allan Wexler, Jason Vollen, and Rob Rothblatt, The Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology (CASE), a collaboration between Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Organizer: AIANY Interiors Committee
Sponsor: SOM

Prefabrication is an efficient and environmentally-friendly method for building homes and other structures. But prefab isn’t just for the exterior. Deborah Schneiderman, an architect and educator, recently published Inside Prefab: The Ready Made Interior, a book that reconsiders prefab from an interior perspective. Defining interiors with modules and units isn’t a new concept. Architectural screens have been employed since 300 BC in China, and their use was re-popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Eames. Cubicles, basic units of the modern office, made their debut in the 1950s. Today, prefab kitchens, bathrooms, and even bedrooms are revolutionizing the residential industry. Contemporary prefab kitchens like FLow2, designed by Studio Gorm, include sustainable features that allow homeowners to recycle waste products while growing their own food.

Schneiderman convened a panel of architects who are creating prefab elements that defy the mold. Greg Lynn’s prefab designs are “bespoke rather than meant for mass production.” Many of his experimentations involve plastics—materials that often get a bad rap—but Lynn appreciates their efficiency, recyclability, and light weight, which lower shipping costs. Plastic can also take unexpected forms; Lynn created fountains reminiscent of Bernini’s sculptures from recycled toys for the Venice Biennale in 2008. He uses other high-tech materials in inventive ways, such as his design for the 3DI Chair, which is made of carbon tape and weighs in at only four to six ounces but is capable of supporting thousands of pounds. Similarly, architect and artist Allan Wexler creates custom pieces that are tactile and encourage user interaction. “Two Too Large Tables” is a public art installation for the Hudson River Park at 29th Street in Manhattan. Made of brushed stainless steel and Ipe wood, the structure is composed of chairs that support a shade pavilion, allowing “people to feel like they are doing the work,” explains Wexler.

Prefab elements can also help architects bring nature indoors. The Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology (CASE), a collaboration between SOM and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, developed The Active Phytoremediation Wall System, a modular wall system containing hydroponic plants that ties into a building’s HVAC system, removing airborne contaminants and reducing energy loads, explained CASE Associate Director Jason Vollen. The system will be integrated into the design of the Public Safety Answering Center II, the new 911 call center in the Bronx. According to Rob Rothblatt, associate director and senior designer at SOM, the system will create a “green zone” that will provide workers respite from the stresses of their jobs.

Schneiderman’s inspiration to write her book came out of her concern that the interior design field’s interest in sustainability was limited to material selection, such as those that contain lower amounts of VOCs and are made of recycled materials. Such materials, however, are often hard to source. “We had to go beyond and look at fabrication,” she explained. “Designers must also consider shipping, life cycle costs, and disposability.”