Off / Grid House
Albuquerque, NM : 2012
For our Off/Grid House project in New Mexico, our office worked cooperatively to produce an extensive catalog of formal versions; each offering different spatial opportunities. Like the Surrealist game, everyone in the office took turns building and/or modifying a digital model. Every move and its formal consequence was documented and represented in its totality, which allowed us to evaluate and compare the differences between each form at any stage of development. The process continued until we reached a critical threshold, past which the form lost all spatial potential. Additionally, if the tools we used began to hinder rather than promote versioning, we reverted back to a point in the process that was still formally productive.
By extracting the sequence of parameters that produced a form, or even a specific part of a form, we could recreate particular moments that were selected for the house. Variation of the parameters within the limits defined by the selected version allowed us to fine-tune the form and accommodate the functional requirements of the house. The specificity of each selected part afforded by versioning allowed us to solve issues unique to a particular condition of the project. In the event that a part was formally incompatible with its neighbor, we varied the appropriate parameters to alleviate geometric conflicts. Variation can facilitate transposition, but only after versioning has produced a set of differentiated forms.
The seams not only provided dimensional tolerance between adjacent parts, but they also became opportunities in and of themselves. Seams were activated as either enclosed space to be shared by adjacent programs and foster new associations of use, or left as branching voids to help circulate light and air. Though unexpected, the result was one of greater programmatic coordination and connection to the site and natural resources, a necessity when building an off-grid house. Had we not approached the project through versioning (going beyond the limits) and only through variation (staying within the limits), this would not have emerged from the process. Walter Murch makes a similar observation about the advantages of this approach for editing a film: “discontinuity allows us to choose the best camera angle for each emotion and story point, which we can edit together for a cumulatively greater impact. If we were limited to a continuous stream of images, this would be difficult.”
Though the process was non-linear and the cataloguing of form was restarted when necessary, we reached a point, a function of time and project scale, at which we began to evaluate the formal versions according to their potential for architecture. Of course, the basis for evaluation and selection of versions requires considerable attention. When designing an off-grid house, as our project required, the programmatic and spatial requirements have an additional layer of complexity. To graphically represent these requirements, we developed a program index: a diagrammatic description of information that predicates the organization of the program and its relationship to the context, including views, circulation, use, adjacency and the application of environmental control systems. This information was embedded through a set of illustrated codes. By changing the shape, scale, color, line type and line weight of each code, we could identify the type and amount of impact it had on a particular space. Ultimately, the program index became a map for how we began to evaluate and test the extensive catalog of forms that we produced at the start of the process. The forms that were both spatially provocative and best matched the needs identified in the codified index were actuated in the final house design. Requirements that were seemingly incompatible were matched with equally complex models, capable of handling multiple needs simultaneously. What started as a willful exploration of formal and spatial models subsisting in a state of limbo, became a realized set of integrated units indispensable to the project.