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Architects on Prefab - Douglas Cardinal

June 15, 2015

photo: Bruno Schlumberger

by Bernie Desjardins

In Canada, Douglas Cardinal is famous for having incorporated the cultural traditions of the country’s First Peoples into impressively useful, technologically advanced structures that are best described as works of art—although their functionality and quality of design are beyond question. The Aanischaaukamikw - Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou, Quebec is just one example of this. Douglas’ signature curvilinear style is featured in many of his buildings, including the vast, magnificent Canadian Museum of History, which is located directly across the Ottawa River from the Parliament of Canada. Internationally, Douglas is the creative genius behind the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, which accompanies the iconic Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and United States Capitol building on Washington’s National Mall. Within the architectural profession, Douglas is recognized for his groundbreaking work as one of North America’s earliest adopters of computer technology for architectural design.

Douglas Cardinal is well aware of the many benefits of prefabrication, including how problems that arise in site-based construction—weather, waste and vandalism, for example—can be avoided. But what does he consider to be the greatest benefit of building prefabrication? “A higher-quality finished product” he says, quite simply.

Douglas says that what initially sparked his interest in factory-based construction was that it offered the greatest potential to reduce the cost of housing. In decades past, prefabricated buildings were considered to be inferior to site-built structures, and there was a prevailing impression that a homebuyer would choose a prefabricated home based on economic considerations. As technology and methods have improved over the years, however, factory-built structures have taken the lead in quality, including accuracy of construction and structural integrity, while remaining cost-efficient. Manufactured housing is also “ideal for disaster relief,” he says, “because of the speed and efficiency with which it can be delivered.”

“If a single, custom car was built in somebody’s driveway, it would cost about five million dollars,” says Douglas. It would be unthinkable to build a car this way, yet most homebuilding in Canada is still done using a comparable method. Always one to embrace progressive technologies, Douglas is enthusiastic about the prefabrication of building components, the use of which he expects to increase in the future. “I have long had a preference for ‘shop-built’ components; I prefer to have as much of the building prefabricated in a shop as possible—space frames, panels, and plumbing stacks.” Kitchen and bathroom modules can be prefabricated, allowing builders to take advantage of the precision and efficiency afforded by factory-based construction. “If we’re going to compare it with automobile production ... even cars are now constructed using various assemblies rather than always dealing with individual parts. Housing can be built using a similar approach,” Douglas says.

Of particular interest to Douglas Cardinal in considering the advantages of building prefabrication is the precise control over processes that a factory setting makes possible. Process control in building factories results in very little, if any, appreciable waste. But in addition to the “green” and cost-efficient aspects of prefabricated building, Douglas says process control is important in other ways. “In-factory processes can be redesigned for different projects, the work environment is much safer, and everybody working on the building has the final product in mind,” he says. Every aspect of a building’s construction can be established, monitored, or modified using Building Information Modeling (BIM) software. “BIM systems help to coordinate the various disciplines involved in constructing a building.” Instead of “doing site-built inside a factory”, there is a need to redesign manufactured housing to take full advantage of factory-based construction processes.

“A major challenge for volume producers of housing is to make each unit unique, rather than having them all look the same. New and different approaches to assembly and different materials and textures are needed to accomplish more of this,” says Douglas. Thanks to modern technologies like BIM, it is now much easier to customize designs. But the public needs to become more aware that customization of homes can be accomplished to a much greater degree than in the past, he says. “It is necessary to teach people that customization and variety are possible. People want homes that have a unique identity. Choices should be made that are those of the homebuyer, and BIM makes this possible.”

Innovative building materials are continually being introduced into the marketplace, and Douglas Cardinal is quick to realize the potential of these new products. Sandwich panels made from a foam core sandwiched between sheets of plywood or other material are very promising for future application in prefabricated building, he says. “With sandwich panels, thermal bridging is greatly reduced. And when fire-resistant board is used, the result is increased fire safety.” When he designed the Long Point First Nation School, Douglas opted for the use of another relatively new and very promising material called cross-laminated timber (CLT). Douglas says that when he designed the school with CLT panels in mind, the limitations of the factory and the necessary retooling of it had to be considered. This, however, was found to be a relatively straightforward challenge that was worth the effort.

Douglas’ Cardinal House, a relatively small residential building using panelized prefabrication, was an early foray of his into prefabricated construction that is currently in use in China. He is now considering a design for a similar type of home using CLT , for which there is increasing application in Canada, and which offers enormous value-added potential for the nation’s forest industry.

Prefabrication’s potential for reducing the cost and increasing the quality and efficiency of building construction is recognized by many. Those with vision, like Douglas Cardinal, are leading the way in applying new technologies, materials and tools to harness that potential, and create some of the most outstanding homes and buildings the world has ever seen.