Housing concepts an artform

This is a tale of two Williams and a Cecile, their prototypes, ideas on sustainability and visions for dwellings on the move.

Their ideas have popped up on New Plymouth's foreshore as part of the new Puke Ariki exhibition, Kiwi Prefab: Cottage to Cutting Edge, which opened at the weekend.

French architect Cecile Bonnifait and Kiwi counterpart William Giesen from atelierworkshop have designed the Port-a-bach and Frametek's William Carter is the brains behind the Steel-framed Studio. The other two dwellings on Prefab Landing are the iPAD(TM) by Architex and Papai Design from Lockwood, but their stories will come later.

In a controversial move, Carter says that his building, made of lightweight steel framing, is more sustainable than traditional wood- house constructions.

"Steel is the product of the future," he says. "Steel is endlessly recyclable. You can pull it down, melt it down and reuse it. You can also recycle a whole house by shifting it."

Carter says New Zealand's damp climate and earthquake- prone environment are other reasons to opt for steel over wood. As well as being light and strong, steel framing doesn't hold moisture like wood, so won't grow mould.

Prefabricated steel framing is lightweight, making it easier and faster to lift into position. Its weight also makes it safer in quakes.

The studio could also be one of the answers to emergency housing problems, especially in the wake of a disaster like the Christchurch quakes or the 2009 tsunami in Samoa.

"One of the things I would like to see is this go to the [Pacific] islands as a kitset. We could ship it to the islands and provide information on how to put it up," Carter says.

"I like the idea of building something that's really practical - it's that practicality that really drives it. I want this to be cost-effective and easy to use, so that people can buy it in a kitset like Meccano and construct it themselves."

Giesen says the Port-a-bach doesn't need to be built, just opened up. Bonnifait and Giesen designed the mobile holiday home, which sits inside a 6-metre shipping container. It has a pull-down bed, fold-out bunk, kitchen and shower, plus a deck that can be enclosed like a tent.

Giesen says the idea stems from family summer holidays on Maori lease land at Matapouri Bay on the Tutukaka coast in Northland. "For years we had a bach there and a couple of caravans. One of the caravans got pulled down - what could we put there?"

The answer was the Port-a-bach. "It bridges the gap between a caravan and a house, and has the ability to fold out to create a larger living area and then fold back up."

Like the principle of a shipping container, the Port-a-bach is highly transportable. It can also be energy positive. Portable solar panels and maybe even small wind turbines can be hooked up to power it and when not in use the building can feed the grid.

Since its inception in 2006, the Port-a-bach has attracted a lot of attention. It has featured in high- end luxury living magazines, on websites and has been written about in regards to relief housing.

Giesen and Bonnifait still receive nearly daily inquiries from prefab-interested people all over the world, but the Port-a-bach remains a prototype - for a reason.

The atelierworkshop architects have learnt they aren't greatly interested in running a prefab production company and would love someone else to run with that.

"We are architects and we love designing things and that's what we spent many years studying to do," Giesen says.

Taranaki Daily News