From woodbutcher to prefabulous

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    I can still see my father balancing on a rafter above my head, trimming the end with a chainsaw. He was extending the woolshed – not a job that required professional assistance in his opinion. A dairy farmer, he tackled every farm job he could, a few of them dangerous. Dad could cut down big trees safely or chase a wild cow and her calf through the bush without being gored. “Every now and then I jump behind a tree,” he told me, as casually as if recounting a trip to the gumboot and dog tucker shop in Waitara. 

    Dad could shoot a wild boar from his porch, even with his WWI-era Lee-Enfield with the bend in the barrel. He was a horticulturist, logger, tractor mechanic, weather guru, soil expert, plumber, concrete layer, fencer, animal whisperer and house builder. He repaired the things that broke, and then when they broke again, he repaired them again. 

    I was reminded of my late father’s ridiculously wide skillset, funnily enough, when poring over a coffee table book about designer prefab housing. “The demand for more energy-efficient, sustainable housing is on the upswing, and prefabrication is a rising solution,” announces the cover blurb. It’s an American book, filled with the unfamiliar term ‘Accessory Dwelling Units’ (ADUS), otherwise known as ‘granny flats’ –  self-contained dwellings on the same land as a primary residence. 

    This made me think about the houses Dad built in paddocks on his farm. I guess you could call them ADUS.

    One was a two-story building for a hippie mate who worked in a demo yard in New Plymouth. The finished house was filled with deco stained glass from demolished bungalows; a big stylistic influence for Dad and his friend was the cult American book Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art (1973), with its whimsical treehouses with bendy branch balustrades. A generation sighed over the hand-carved windowsills, the cedar shingles and pyramid meditation rooms.

    Dad built a very different house on the farm for my mother after my parents separated – part of an arrangement which satisfied everyone except the lawyers. He made her a pretty holiday house, with his chainsaw, from a pencil sketch. It turned out well – a sunny cottage with a high ceiling, big windows, a deck, one bedroom and a ladder to a super cool mezzanine floor. Every board, ladder-rung and windowsill came from farm trees, except the ridge beam, a giant reclaimed Australian cedar log, forever muddy from the rainy-day Dad hoisted it. “Shouldn’t we wash it?” I asked, and he said “no, the mud will fall off naturally”. It never did. 

    Fifty years after Handmade Houses, the Western world has a housing problem and a supply problem, caused by the war problem and the pandemic problem, as well as demographics. In her book of prefab houses, Prefabulous for Everyone, American author Sheri Koones speaks for much of the globe when she writes: “Along with the general shortage of housing, there is a tremendous need for more efficient small houses, as well as more affordable houses.”

    And did I mention the climate problem? Our climate chickens have come home to roost, and there are houses in Koones’s book which have replaced homes lost to fire and hurricane. These prefabs were built quickly and efficiently, and designed to withstand burning embers, water damage and strong winds.

    In short, small houses are booming, and Prefabulous for Everyone captures the zeitgeist the way Handmade Houses did back in 1973. The hip new prefabs would have been anathema to the individualistic ‘wood butchers’ of the 1970s. But building speed and efficiency matter when you are trying to save money and waste, or when your house has just been carried off by floodwaters. In another sign of the times, some of these buildings have special ‘piers’ that allow the house to be moved. 

    A piece in The Conversation in June by American architecture professors Jeff Kruth and Murali Paranandi made the case for more ‘backyard houses’ in urban areas. 

    These buildings add density “by stealth” to existing neighborhoods, no bad thing they say, because it allows them to tap into an existing infrastructure grid, unlike sprawling new suburbs. They encourage shorter commutes – cheaper for the commuter, less congestion for other commuters and, of course, better for the environment. These builds make it easier for older family members to ‘age in place’ – a big trend, apparently. They also provide space for younger people who may not be able to afford a larger home.

    Los Angeles, which has a chronic housing shortage, recently launched a programme offering homeowners and developers 20 preapproved ADU plans, from a studio to a three-bedroom house, ready for construction after a site check. 

    Prefabs, ADUS, culturally appropriate intergenerational housing, preapproved ADU plans, disaster housing, managed retreat – these are concepts for a new urban age.

    • Jenny Nicholls

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