The Adaptable House

By Pamela Plumb

A review of The Adaptable House by Avi Friedman

Published on October 1, 2005

The Adaptable House
Avi Friedman

McGraw-Hill
$45
cloth
270pp
0-07-137746-8

In his new book Avi Friedman, director of the Graduate Housing Program at McGill, persuasively lays out his arguments for radical change in the North American residential housing industry. According to Friedman, new housing should respond to changing social norms, evolving definitions of family, demographic changes, and the urgent need for the development of sustainable living patterns. Readers alarmed by the recent proliferation of “McMansions” and other signs of conspicuous housing consumption in the Montreal area will find resonance with Friedman’s argument for change on the part of consumers, building codes, and the housing industry.

In The Adaptable House, the ways in which houses can be made smaller, adaptable, affordable, and more ecological are carefully detailed with copious numbers of floor plans and illustrations. Adaptability, according to Friedman, is the ability of houses to respond to life-cycle changes due to aging or disability; to family growth patterns, and to variations in living and working patterns. Adaptable house design allows for flexibility in terms of unit size as well as design choices. The examples of built projects Friedman has chosen are mainly his own.

The Grow Home, probably his best-known project, employs the strategy of leaving parts of the house unfinished or without partitions. This reduces initial construction costs and allows the house to “grow” with the owner. As the book progresses, Friedman explores how volume, building envelope, the placement of stairs, and services such as electrical and plumbing can facilitate or hinder flexibility and change. He also shows how technological changes in construction materials such as the development of engineered wood products help make house construction more flexible and affordable.

If Friedman is to be believed, technological and structural changes in the construction industry will transform future housing production. Taking his inspiration from the auto industry, Friedman would like to overhaul the existing mass-production housing industry. For example, he writes:

“Homebuilding in the twenty-first century will be marked by a significant departure from present practices. The closest analogy rests within the realm of the car. Industrial design, sophisticated automated production, and response to market demand have transformed the auto industry. It is likely that the home will undergo a similar revolution. Building a house will be more like choosing and fitting prefabricated components than assembling studs.”

In The Adaptable House, Friedman details his methodology and its transformation through the application of prefabrication and mass production, connecting it up to his most ambitious project, a 102-acre sustainable housing community near Quebec City. Realised in collaboration with two Quebec City developers, the project La Forêt de Marie-Victorin is now in progress.

This book attempts to serve several functions: to educate and inform a wider audience about the need for sustainable building practices that respond to North American cultural and demographic shifts; to provide an informative reference for design professionals and students; and to promote Friedman’s own projects. The cause of adaptable housing and sustainable development, however, could have been better served with the inclusion of a wider selection of projects with a diversity of approaches. Although The Adaptable House is loaded with interesting and useful information, Friedman’s vision is the dominant one. In the effort to create a “home delivery process,” the quantitative has been emphasised at the expense of the qualitative and experiential nature of architectural space. Therefore, while a valuable resource, The Adaptable House should not be taken as a how-to book.

Friedman’s writing is clear and accessible, and this book should be of interest to anyone concerned with house design, housing needs, or sustainable development. mRb

Pamela Plumb is a Montreal architect.

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