Sunday, November 9, 2008

The wutizit factor of Clayton's i-house

MIT designed House-of-the-Future had "it," at Disneyland.

Fuller’s Dymaxion house had it.

And the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile has it, and it tastes good.

Clayton's i-house

Although it doesn’t look like a food item, the i-house has it too, a high wutizit factor. It is the type of structure that might cause a passerby to say:

“What is it?”

“Some kind of single-wide right near a utility shed or phone company switching shack?”

When people are looking for a house, they don’t usually want a high wutizit factor, even if the three top priorities of “location, location, location” are perfect. If you see people pointing at your house, you want it to be because it is handsome or cute, not because they are trying to figure out what it is.

Marianne Cusato’s tiniest “Katrina Cottage,” at 300 sq. ft., is both handsome and cute:

Following the tradition of a vernacular -- in this case the shotgun style of Louisiana and Florida -- and if the proportions and quality of the house are done well, then a general acceptance will follow, right?

EXCEPT, there are issues of size and zoning, which has been a big stumbling block for the Katrina Cottage since its introduction in 2005.

People not living in them, apparently feel good about the toxic FEMA trailers are disposable, and will be gone some day, to a landfill, but the residents of of some neighborhoods in New Orleans, shudder at the prospect of communities of attractive small cottages, less than a thousand sq. ft., that could stick around.

Cusato’s designs use a vernacular in a way that makes it sing. They have proportion and style. Log siding on a double wide manufactured home is successful at evoking the charm of a log cabin, on some manufactured homes, but on others it just looks like lipstick on a hockey mom. Cement plank costs less, and it doesn’t rot and termites won’t eat it.

Modernism doesn’t have as much of a reference point. It is not following an existing style, even a fake-look tradition, like log siding is supposed to look like a log cabin. It isn’t easy to make a house look good when creating something brand new. “Keep it simple” would be a good plan to follow for a manufacturer to keep costs down.

Wealthy people can afford to buy new modern style houses, no matter how unusual the design, because they don’t have much of their net worth tied up in a house. Middle and lower class people have to worry about resale value. After working thirty years to pay off a mortgage, most want their house to be worth as much as possible.

Few people make outside appearance their top priority when buying a house. With all the ugly houses around, that is obvious. However, most people veer toward traditional, even if it is referencing a style that ends up not being all that successful.

I know what it is like living in a house that attracts attention for being odd. Years ago, I bought this funny looking 1930's owner-built cottage in a picturesque mountain town in Colorado:

You can laugh if you want. I did the first time I saw it. It is hard to tell from the photo, but the window on the 2nd story is somewhat to the left of center from the picture window in the story below. It has two entrances in the front, with two stair cases. The one on the right is curved. People used to ask me if it were a duplex. The condensed vertical proportions of the house make it look different too. The hipped roof is different too. I thought I’d get used to the way it looked, but I didn’t. When my brother saw it, he dubbed it the “Hobbit House.” It is set back in the cliff and looks bad on all sides.

Inside, the house was cozy, sunny and practical. The first floor ceiling was too low, another thing I never got used to. A side wall with big windows overlooks a neighbor’s terraced flower gardens. Fortunately, the house is elevated about six feet higher than street level, and the street in front was steep. People didn’t look at my house when driving by. It wasn’t in a high traffic area anyway. People on foot would stare at it though, the few who might take a stroll in the neighborhood.

That town was full of quirky little houses, and some of them were cute and interesting. Mine was just odd. Not one person ever called it cute upon seeing the outside.

My priority in buying the house was location, and the location in that town was expensive. The price I paid was a steal for the property alone. It tripled in value in six years. For the same price, I could have had a nearly new townhouse in a neighboring town that was boring, and noisy when people went to work in the morning. From this house, I could run a few blocks and be up in trails in the mountains, walk downtown along a pretty creek, and even go in caves.

So, I bought into a funny looking house, for the property value and location. For initial buyers of the i-house, they have to take a chance on the way it looks. No property comes with the i-house.

Why didn’t Clayton go for a simpler double-wide design?

Introduced this summer, here’s a photo of the Cavco solar “Freedom” park model, which can be used off grid.

Most “park models” are 400 sq. ft., and look similar. They have regular peaked roofs, sometimes with added gables. They are classified as an RV. Snowbirds live in them in Arizona and Florida. I’m showing this, because it is a fine design.

Although its construction -- with 2 x 4 sidewalls and R11 insulation -- is not nearly as good as the i-home, it is a nice looking style. They went with a simple shed roof (for the solar panels) and clean lines. Inside, they use Ikea cabinets and bamboo floors, just like the i-house. The solar park model is on the market now, starting at about $45,000, and according to one article, a company person says they are “flying out the door.”

I wish they’d fly out the door with better insulation, but the size and the way their manufacturing facility is tooled, probably puts a restriction on that.

The feeling of solidity in a house has a lot to do with wall thickness. Seeing a thick inside perimeter of a window, for example, reminds you that you are in a house, not an RV.

Except if offered as an upgrade, nearly all single-wide trailers use 2 x 4s in the sidewalls instead of 2 x 6’s. It appears the I-house uses 2 x 6’s, at least.

Clayton has alluded to the fact they’ve spent a lot of money making this i-home. I don’t understand why they didn’t put more effort into its appearance.

I like modernism. But will the i-house look good or fit in anywhere?