Studiohome by nFormal Design - Design Bureau

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The team at nFORMAL design

Studiohome by nFormal Design

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Once upon a time, Chicago-based architecture/design firm nFormal Design— comprising Paul Graham and Erik Wood — envisioned a better live/work space for itself. And like the firm's name, it was to be an unconventional project, one which would to change the architectural landscape in Chicago forever. We spoke with the design duo to learn a little bit more about its vision.

What was the impetus for the design?

There were many factors that affected the design, but the main impetus would be to create a different style live-work unit that was efficient, contemporary, but still fit on a standard Chicago lot. Although this design could be transplanted, it is definitely meant for the Windy City. Studiohome is also able to be converted into two living spaces at a later date in case the need for the studio/gallery should change.

What were your primary inspirations (designers, architects, places, etc)? 

Well, we have always had a fondness for Mies [Van der Rohe]. Most people don't really understand his process, and although a great many of his buildings look similar, the details were actually very different. This relentless quest to perfect a kit of parts has a lot more merit than one would think. As mentioned earlier, the standard Chicago lot was a big inspiration, and we also wanted a collection of design details that we could build ourselves. The hands-on aspect is a huge requirement for us. In fact, the mural on the wall is a photo taken by Paul when we visited Chicago to study Mies. Everything really ties in together.

Why is the building method controversial? What's the advantage? Any disadvantages?

The construction method is a modular unit not designed specifically for construction, but it has been used all over the world. In fact, the units are used everyday in a capacity that is much more demanding than the stresses of a building creates. 

The advantages are many. First, these units have already been used, and repurposing something is much "greener" than recycling or building completely new. They are already wind- and water-proof, so they create a wonderful environment—if insulated properly — to live/work in, and with the weather we have in Chicago, it makes it to where once can essentially build from the inside-out. 

The disadvantages are mostly in dealing with the module size, attachment methods, and building codes. We actually enjoy tackling the first issue. For us, trying to make the modules wrap around the program is something akin to solving a large puzzle or a game of Tetris. Building codes are just obstacles that need to be addressed and managed.  These modules fit within the requirements of most codes, but since there is nothing technically specified, architects/builders have had to jockey — successfully — in other areas of the US to build using this method, and we want to be the first in Chicago. 

So it wouldn't be more sustainable to convert an existing structure into a live/work space?

Not necessarily. What most people don't realize is that renovation creates huge amounts of waste and uses extra resources. Most of the materials have to be new anyway — insulation, interior framing, etc. — so tearing that all down to rebuild it doesn't always make sense unless you are trying to restore a historic building. That is always a viable solution, and in the future, we would like to combine the two...integrating this "controversial" building method within an existing structure. 

How might the ideas behind Studiohome be extrapolated to bigger and different projects?

Right now, we are employing the notion of speaking to Rahm [Emanuel] about using this as a springboard for low-income housing. The largest issues with this would be getting it approved by the City of Chicago and circumventing the idea of what most people have in their head as to what a "home" is. We believe that people in the US could live smaller (as they do in Europe), but we aren't going to get rid of our junk. So how do we create smaller spaces with more efficient storage? One example is the storage wall in the hallway that creates dimension, but also is a place to store books, videos, and what people in the north like to call "chotchkies."

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