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Modular Living Units

I was recently approached by a colleague, a craftsman and artist in New Mexico, who has spent years dreaming of building modular living units for desert use. His idea, currently in the form of simple CAD drawings, is a series of individual hexagons which could be pieced together to create interesting new shapes through what we call “tessellation”. If you have ever marveled at M.C. Escher’s amazing intertwined lizards, fish, and birds that seem to merge and grow from one another, you have witnessed tessellation! It is simply the act of combining one or more complementary shapes to form a greater pattern.

In the case of the modular living units, the artist envisioned small stand-alone living units that could be built in a factory, then shipped and assembled on-site in the desert. Expanding on this idea, he also imagined a series of the unit pieces being combined to form a larger community, the units forming a ring and enclosing communal space in the interior. He asked me to take his basic idea and flesh it out – how could these units be built? What materials would make the most sense? What would the individual units and the communal building actually look like?

I loved this idea! I had, after all, spent much of my grad school days as a research assistant in the Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory at the University of Oregon; designing and documenting performance on a zero energy house, designing modular and pre-manufactured housing systems, and generally playing future-architect. Not that these ideas were all new – architects have been designing modular systems for decades, but more on that later.

I started the individual unit design by breaking a hexagon into six wall panels, joined with a corner spline. Six triangular floor pieces joined over a bolt-on-site foundation system, allowing the unit to sit high above the desert floor for airflow and utility/storage below. The roof system was similarly designed, pieced together to form a peaked concentric hexagonal roof with a water collection system built into the integral gutters. I spent a good deal of time working out heating and cooling systems, as well as a combination of active and passive solar with an option for photovoltaic panels. These units could be built to share a utility pod, or they could be entirely off the grid. If you saw my recent Facebook post about EcoCapsules, you know that I am intrigued by this idea.

It occurred to me during the design process that this modular unit could be used in a variety of environments – deserts were first in mind due to the artist’s location but I had spent time in the isolated villages in Alaska, and had seen firsthand how similar the Arctic could be to the desert. In fact, by definition, parts of the Arctic are actually desert (blame that knowledge on my father, the geologist). The same raised foundation system, used in northern Alaska, would allow airflow to pass under the building, keeping the permafrost frozen which is a big deal in Alaska, where everything turns to swamp once thawed. The insulated shell could work just as well for keeping heat inside in Alaska as it did for keeping heat outside in the Desert, and the desert cooling system could be swapped out for a heating system.

As a single family home, the one-story module functions like a small two-bedroom apartment: an open kitchen and family room, single bathroom and two bedrooms with closets. Nothing fancy, but comfortable and highly functional. A raised deck provides additional living space, as well as providing a covered storage area for water collection or other utility/storage. Actual square footages vary, so we will talk about that another time. When you think about the possible applications for something like this, it is staggering!

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