ecoMOD lands: Modular model makes waves

Last week we highlighted the Piedmont Housing Alliance's collaboration with the Charlottesville Community Design Center in creating three modular houses in the 10th and Page neighborhood.

Now the Alliance is at it again. On December 10, the PHA and the UVA School of Architecture held a ribbon cutting and open house for ecoMOD1, a modular experiment in Fifeville, the OUTin House.

The ecoMOD design/build project is the brainchild of UVA architecture professor John Quale, who led the UVA design team that took first place in the 2002 Solar Decathlon sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Their winning solar house entry was innovative but very expensive.

After that foray, Quale wanted to pursue a more pragmatic design goal. As in the 10th and Page Street projects, he wanted to question conventional building practices by using innovative design to create an ecologically sound, affordable house that's also easy on the eyes.

The ecoMOD design/build project involved nearly 50 students in architecture, engineering, commerce, business, economics, and environmental science.

"Unlike most architectural programs," Quale explains, "in which students pursue their own design goals and rarely see their work leave the page, this project required them to check their egos and work as a team."

Over the course of a year, 20 of Quale's architecture students collaborated on designing the house, and 12 of them actually built it this summer. Apparently, the idealism surrounding the project was contagious– either that or the architecture students were excited to actually be able to pound a nail after so many years of theory.

"Design should be for everybody," undergrad Maryln Moedinger said at an exhibit of the project in May. "When people cannot afford a home, something's wrong. This is about using design to fix the real problem of affordable housing." Of course, it's doubtful the ecoMOD project alone will "fix" the problem of affordable housing, but it may be step in the right direction.

The 1,290-square-foot, three bedroom house on 7-1/2 Street was put together in UVA's Milton Airport hanger, then trucked to the location and craned onto the foundation. In addition to its open, light-filled floor plan, which makes it seem bigger than it actually is, the house has structural insulated panels that make it highly energy efficient.

A rainwater collection system filters water for drinking, the first of its kind in Charlottesville. The project is also an attempt to influence the modular industry. "Most modular houses are too big and can't fit into small streets like this," says Quale. "This provides another model. The goal is to license the design and, hopefully, convince modular manufacturers to go into production with them."

To make the house more affordable, the PHA is offering its standard down payment assistance and low-interest loan packages, but it's also piloting a land-lease arrangement with the Virginia Housing Development Authority, the first of its kind in Virginia. If all goes well, the PHA plans to sponsor two more ecoMOD houses.

"This has been a long time coming," said Quale at the open house. "It's been a very long, complex process." Indeed, the house won't be completely finished for several more weeks. Quale had hoped to prove something by finishing the modular house in less time than it would take using conventional construction methods, but that wasn't to be. Because of several site changes and the complex nature of the collaboration, the house has taken over six months to build.

What about the house's effect on the largely African American neighborhood? Not surprisingly, Quale is upbeat about the neighborhood reaction.

"The neighbors have been great," he says. "They would bring us cookies and brownies while we were working, and our next door neighbor let us use her electricity once when ours went out."

Still, the angular, modern design makes it look like an alien spaceship has just landed on 7-l/2 Street. Across the street, two young men look slightly amused by the spectacle of 20 or so people standing around in the cold chatting and waiting for the ribbon-cutting ceremony to begin.

Clearly, it was a day for the idealistic young architects to celebrate the completion of their idealistic project. Let's just hope function follows form.

Over 50 UVA students and faculty collaborated to make this ecoMOD house a reality.