Prototypes: Trends, Pros, Cons, and Concerns
by: Melissa Meyer
Proto, from the Greek, Prōto, means first in time, earliest, first formed, primitive, and original. It contains the superlative pro, meaning before. Type, from the Latin, typus, means figure, image, form, or kind and refers to a set of characteristics that causes something to be regarded as a group, defined by a class, or designated into a category. When an original or model is considered for or deserving of imitation, it is a pattern. When an original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies, an original or model may be considered a prototype. Innovation refers to the introduction of something new. When architects seek to address a problem, need or deficiency, by innovating an original model that will be repeated, they are creating a prototype. An architectural prototype is conceived as a model that is tested, refined, and tested again, until a final version is worthy of repeating.
The design of site-specific, original buildings requires communication and coordination across several disciplines and requires site-specific, original detailing, increasing the cost of construction documents and specifications. Construction is overseen by a general contractor who delegates most of the work to heavy construction and specialty trade contractors who have no responsibility for the structure as a whole. The process of completing a building is a long, drawn out, and expensive process. Prototypes on the other hand, can be mass produced, using standardized materials and construction methods that minimize material and labor costs and maximize production and profit. Prototypes can be “assembled” rather than constructed using a minimal amount of manpower, tools, and machinery. The components that make up the prototype can be manufactured in a factory or warehouse and brought to the site already assembled, partially assembled, or ready to be assembled. Prototypes can also be designed to be disassembled and reassembled in another location. Materials used for a prototype are influenced by environmental, historical, geographical, and economic, conditions.
The prototype may be fabricated as a singular form or it may be modularized and consist of separate components that are interchangeable. A prototype that is modularized consists of a sum of parts that make up the whole and it is possible to rearrange the parts or modules to respond to the environment and to reflect the needs of the user. Architects and structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers can use an integrated design approach that incorporates all of the buildings systems into a fabricated singular form or into the modules of a prototype so that when assembled, the prototype is a fully functional building. This integrated design approach is challenging conventional construction industry standards. With advances in computer modeling software that allow for sophisticated analysis of building geometry and spatial relationships that can instantly use geographic information and building material properties and quantities to create, analyze, and refine prototypes in 3-D, in real time, the only limit is the architects imagination.
Prior to World War II, Bill Levitt joined his father’s real-estate company and later with his brother Alfred Levitt, an architect, began building high-end custom homes on Long Island in New York. The family business was successful until an embargo on the private use of raw materials during the war put a halt to new construction and led to a housing deficiency. Bill Levitt went to serve in the Navy where he perfected the use of interchangeable parts to mass-produce military housing. After the war he was able to purchase one thousand acres of onion and potato fields on Long Island and he set out to capitalize on the government assistance that returning soldiers were receiving under the G.I. Bill, which amounted to a surplus of low-interest mortgages.
In 1947, Bill Levitt began mass producing pre-cut building materials in a factory in California and shipping them to the site in Long Island where already poured concrete slabs on grade awaited and an assembly-line approach was used to erect 150 (16 per minute in an 8 hour work day) 750 sq.ft. Cape Cod style houses. In 1989 Bill Levitt told the New York Times that, "What it amounted to was a reversal of the Detroit assembly line. There, the car moved while the workers stayed at their stations. In the case of our houses, it was the workers who moved, doing the same jobs at different locations." The national need for new and affordable housing led to a demand for larger “Levitttowns” in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and began a national trend. Bill Levitt became known as the godfather of suburban sprawl.
Western European architect and planner Léon Krier, known as the godfather of the New Urbanist movement in America, was among the first to identify and articulate the problems associated with the concept of the disposable, adaptable, plug-in, modularized systems of architectural prototypes. He cites historical precedents and American trends that teach us that the faster-cheaper-more scenarios of standardization and mass production used to create low-density housing in rural areas, such as Levittown, are often economically, environmentally, socially and culturally unsustainable. Low-density housing in rural areas requires higher per-person infrastructure costs and higher per-capita use of energy, land, and water. Social and cultural needs are neglected as connectivity to transportation networks that provide access to social, cultural, and civic institutions and access to daily goods and services are often non-existent. Increased auto-dependency instigated by suburban low-density housing is commensurate with an increase in big box retail establishments and strip malls and a decrease in the economic infrastructure and social fabric that supports the urban core of towns and cities, ultimately resulting in a diminished quality of life for suburbanites and city dwellers alike. The faster-cheaper-more scenarios of standardization and mass production associated with architectural prototyping are often equated with poor craftsmanship and the unsightly use of products that simulate natural building materials.
The financial crisis of 2007–present, which has resulted in the collapse of large financial institutions, the bailout of banks by national governments, the downturn in stock markets around the world, and the worst crisis in the construction industry in ninety years, as well as millions of foreclosures, has slowed suburban sprawl for now. A new national trend towards the renovation and “greening” of existing buildings and a newfound respect for the inner core of towns and cities has begun. Can architectural prototyping be used to revitalize neglected urban cores and create a healthy urban effect? Can architectural prototyping be used to counteract the environmental, social and civic degradation that is a by-product of the American suburban drive-in utopia? And finally, can architectural prototyping be used to create value in architecture via the resurgence of fine craftsmanship to create places that history will respect? Today’s architects, planners, and civic leaders will decide.