Daring, Modernist Homes -- on the Cheap


By Thane Peterson I suspect that William Massie, 38, is on the cusp of becoming a well-known name in the field of architecture. A professor at the University of Montana at Bozeman, he has been pioneering the use of computer and other advanced technology in designing inexpensive but daring homes.

You can check out photos of a shimmering vacation house he designed in Montana for a British couple in the August issue of Dwell magazine. It's a four-story, 2,000-square-foot silver tower shooting up from the plains -- and built for just $145,000. If you include the cost of the land, Massie's fees, and a septic system, the total comes to $225,000 or more, Massie says. Still, it's a stunning structure for about the same price as a conventional cabin or chalet of the same size.

Massie is a sort of poor person's Frank Gehry in that, like his famous counterpart, he designs his daring curved structures on a computer. The difference is that Massie's computer is an inexpensive Dell PC attached to a numerically controlled cutting machine in the cramped shop of his four-person architectural firm in Bozeman.

A DO-IT-YOURSELFER. Massie makes heavy use of concrete, cut steel, and other inexpensive materials to keep construction costs low. The cutting machine creates Styrofoam forms that are taken directly to the job site, where concrete is poured into them to create arches, supports, and other elements. Massie's firm further reduces costs by doing some of the construction itself, sometimes acting as general contractor on its projects.

You read it here first: Massie's ideas are going to have considerable influence because they're easily adapted by small architectural firms and give clients on a budget a chance to build a daring, modernist home. In recent years, he has won several prestigious Progressive Architecture awards from Architecture Magazine, and he has been invited to lecture at Yale, the University of California at Berkeley, and other major architecture schools.

Now on leave and living in New York City, where he won one of the most prestigious awards for young architects -- the annual competition at PS1, the contemporary art arm of the Museum of Modern Art. For his "Urban Beach" project, Massie has built brightly colored artificial ponds in PS1's courtyard, lined with rubberized truckbed liner in brilliant shades of lime green, pink, and yellow. To provide shade, there are large cut-steel and pipe structures next to the ponds.

I recently caught up with Massie, who is frantically scrambling to finish the PS1 project, by cell phone. Here are edited excerpts of our talk:

Q: Six years ago, you left an established New York architectural firm and moved to Montana to teach and build up your own architectural firm. Why?

A: I was very interested in experimenting with materials and the construction of architecture. I thought that was the only way I could do it.

Q: What's the thrust of what you're trying to do in your designs?

A: To me, the watershed [concept] is that we can now go directly from the digital information on a computer to actual [construction]. Architects used to do abstract drawings and give them to a contractor, who then reinterpreted them.

Q: That means you can design the construction forms on the computer and take them out to the job site and use them to build the house?

A: That's exactly right. We're now also using a lot of laser-cut and water-jet-cut steel. But we [still] use a lot of [Styro]foam because it's strong enough to build a construction form into which you can pour concrete. This allows us to create wonderful forms out of concrete. That's inexpensive [because] it's usually forming the concrete that's costs a lot, not the concrete itself. We can machine out the forms ourselves and make the process relatively economical.

I worked a lot of this out in the Big Belt House in the Big Belt Mountains, which is my own house. It's a huge experiment -- a series of buildings funded by my wife, me, my family, my friends, the bank, and everyone else. One of the things I did there was take a global positioning survey and digitally map the site so I knew every curve of the ground exactly. I took the computer model and based the design of the house on the geometry of the site so it kind of blends into the landscape. It's quite fascinating.

Q: O.K., but why is this interesting to anyone but rich people?

A: What I'm trying to do is an extension of modernism [that goes back to] its true beginnings -- when modernist homes were reasonably priced. If someone is thinking of building a typical suburban house, I can do an interesting modernist house instead for the same amount of money. People don't have to pay a huge premium to live in a beautiful and somewhat experimental space. The way light rakes across something curving is completely different from the way it strikes a flat wall.

It's those kinds of things that are now possible. And we know from the auto and aerospace industries that the ability to develop complex shapes is not just an aesthetic [achievement]. In making an automobile side panel, for instance, you can use less material to form a shape that is stronger on impact. I'm applying the same fabrication processes to architecture.

Q: Where do you expect to go from here?

A: The big challenge now is to change scale. There are limitations to the equipment we've been using and our resources. I'd like to do a large building using these techniques, and I'm hopeful I will be able to soon. There's a company on Long Island called Maloya Laser [in Commack, N.Y.] that donated work to the PS1 project. They're now buying a huge new, highly automated German laser machine with a capacity of something like 10 feet by 20 feet. You can take a sheet of plate steel sold by the pound and [cut] it into finished parts. I'd like to do a commercial building using that. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online


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