COLD FORMED STEEL AND BUILDING MASS HOUSING
The mass housing revolution that never was. The web version CNN Style (1) uses this title to introduce Jean Prouvè, great leader of the mass housing revolution. Prouvè’s revolution (2), between the 1930s and 1950s, was an amazing research into prefabricated steel houses: an ethical conception of form applied to mass housing, where terms like mass production (each building is designed as a repeatable prototype), flexibility of use, transformability (without demolition), demountable/reversible, are associated with architecture for the first time.
A research that crashed against the ‘excessive power of reinforced concrete’(patriotic material) and heavy prefabrication, due to political choices that, as happened in our country after the Second World War with the Fanfani Plan (3), preferred high employment over innovation. Today the evolution of Cold Formed Steel is a descendent of Prouvè’s highly advanced studies, and is an innovative technology used for the production and installation of light steel frames, often little more than a millimetre thick, to build the primary/secondary structure of buildings based on the S/C system (structure/cladding) that is the paradigm of stratified dry construction (4).
This technology has been widely used for many years in countries where steel has a well-affirmed construction tradition, like the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia, and which now, way behind the others, is beginning to spread in our country as well thanks to certain companies that are investing in research and innovation (5). A declination of steel which, in parallel with the high-tech connotation of numerous constructions in recent years based on the formalist glorification of mechanical details, demonstrates how it can be widely used even in low-cost contexts (6). It is important to underline (following the tone of the CNN document) that Prouvè’s failed revolution is far removed from the utopian nature of certain historic vanguards. On the contrary: it is almost an opposition to certain formalist (anti-constructive) and modernist (Prouvè’s famous comment on Breuer’s famous tubular steel chairs: “there are just vermicelli”) vanguards, and should be intended in the most profound sense as a (possible) answer from a (design) culture that acquires and innovates methods (the building industry) to respond to historically determined demands, limitations and needs (economic-social context/housing demand).
This consideration leads to certain reflections and questions about today. After the post-modernist, deconstructive tide and, above all, after the crisis (not just economic) of architecture-spectacle at the turn of the century, when Global style translates the Pasolini style approval into architecture, can a design concept be recomposed as a knowledge process with respect to the economic-material context (limitations, resources, aims) that can lead form discipline (architecture) to a (new) principle of responsibility?
Or is the innovation of production and construction processes caused by the so-called digital revolution, just an artifice for achieving free forms, whose reason for existence lies in their formal autonomy, or can building industry innovation determine planning that is aware of the costs-benefits, resources and formal quality? Prouvè began a processus du travail that lead from the design to the prototype and finally to mass production. After repeated perfections (that were so experimental they were submitted for patents), and constantly returning to the drawing board and workshop, the steel industry produced rolls of steel sheet four meters wide and with a varying thickness between 10 and 25/10°, which was welded, bent, beaten, punched, crimped, bolted to become pillars, girders, sheds, walls, stairs, windows, panels and, finally, houses. A limited small scale series that would now be called mass customization. Today this sort of ‘integrated’ processus du travail coincides with the BIM (7) (Building Information Modelling) method, combining production and building management: due to software evolution it seems more practical for there to be interactivity between the phases and the experts, addressed to a close dialogue between conception, planning, production and building construction and management, regeneration or demolition/dismantling at the end of the life cycle. It now seems highly relevant that industrial production is increasingly less standardized (catalogue production) and more and more customized (mass customization), further to the use of numeric control machinery, using continuously developing CAD/CAM processes, and a file generated in the architect’s office (file to factoryviii. It is clear how innovation in materials technology and management and calculation software must be integrated in order to move the more professional players in the country: universities, architects and enterprise, driven by political and economic policies pursuing a “new realism”ix, to trigger what is now an unavoidable evolution in the building industry, reconnecting research, project and building. To close, I wonder if it is still logical to continue with a self-centred university? One that lives in its own world and is cut off from reality; with architectural micro-studies with lead on their wingsx; with ‘entrepreneurs’ who still act as if they were in the 50s-60s- (but in a highly different economic and social context!) when in fact we need ‘entrepreneurs’ who acquire techniques able to regenerate/build the houses we live in. Combine construction system innovation (CFS) and production process and building management (BIM) is an exceptional development opportunity for the building sector, first cultural then technical, that universities, architects,industry and enterprise should grasp. The mass housing revolution is now!
by Diego De Nardi
By Fiona Sinclair Scott, CNN, and Sophie Eastaugh, for CNN http://edition.cnn.com/2016/06/13/architecture/jean-prouve-pre-fab-housing.
(2) On Prouvè see in particular D. De Nardi, Jean Prouvè, Idee costruttive, Torino 2001; D. De Nardi, Jean Prouvè. Il faut des maisons usinées. Le baraques in acciaio di Jean Prouvé (1901-1984) in AAA N°19/2004.
(3) For a full analysis of the housing policies in the Fanfani Plan (1949) see P. Di Biagi (edited by), La Grande ricostruzione. Il Piano Ina-Casa e l’Italia degli anni cinquanta, Roma 2001.
(4) On dry construction see M. Imperadori, Stratified dry construction, Module n. 273/2001, Milan 2001; M. Imperadori, La meccanica dell’architettura, Milan 2010; Matter n. 37/2002; Arketipo 3/2010. Also see D. De Nardi, Per una figuratività delle tecniche. Tre paradigmi della costruzione a secco, in AAA n°57/2014.
(5) I refer in particular to Cogi S.p.A, which financed a research project with Trento University to verify the energy and structural efficiency of the patented CFS system. Cogi is also promoting a partnership with the PrefArch Group – Prefabrication Architecture (www.prefarch.it) to develop architectural models and prototypes.
(6) For this see in particular G. Morabito, R. Bianchi, La decrescita prosperosa dell’edificio, Rome 2010.
(7) “BIM is not a thing nor a type of software, but a human activity that involves, first and foremost, broad changes to the building sector processes.” In C. Eastman, P. Teicholz, R. Saks, K. Liston, in Il BIM trad. it. Edited by G. M. Di Giuda and V. Villa, Milan 2016.
(8) On the relationship between architecture and digital production see in particular: C. Abel, Architecture Technology and Process, London 2004; B. Kolarevic, Architecture in the Digital Age: Design and Manufacturing, London 2003.
(9) I use new realism with the meaning given by Maurizio Ferraris, as an acknowledgement of a changing season, after historic experience of mediatic populisms, of wars after 11 September and the recent economic crisis, and the great challenges, ethics and politics we are faced with. Quote: M. Ferraris, Nuovo realismo, Milan 2015.
(10) Quote: V. Gregotti, Il piombo sulle ali, Casabella n.607/93