To understand the thinking behind Loblolly House, a groundbreaking 2,200-square-foot vacation home on the Chesapeake Bay, consider the egg. Not just any egg, but the quasi-tragic case of Humpty Dumpty. Things started off auspiciously for Humpty; he had a lofty perch and a natty suit. But time and gravity had their way, and eventually Humpty was yesterday’s country scramble. Sadly, most celebrated contemporary architecture follows a similar construction pattern. No matter how beautiful and well designed a building may be, when it falls, its parts are usually wasted. Stephen Kieran, a partner at Philadelphia architecture firm Kieran Timberlake, was inspired by the idea of designing for disassembly, of creating a home that could literally be put back together again. “Most structures are built as if they will never be removed or relocated,” he explains. “But the reality of most buildings is that very few make it to a hundred years. We need to be responsible for the way they go together and the way we take them apart.”

Named for the shimmering pines native to its Maryland–barrier island environs, Loblolly House was assembled on-site in less than six weeks. The aluminum structural frame provides the means to connect every piece of the house with a simple bolt, and it can be disassembled just as easily. “I see this as a critique of the wastefulness of contemporary construction, and as a provocation for architects as builders,” Kieran says.

The news that the Loblolly House is slated to go into mass production with Steve Glenn’s LivingHomes prefab development company represents a great leap forward in what’s also known as flatpak housing: modular, eco-friendly homes aimed at reducing construction waste. A prefab Loblolly also marks a sea change in the way architects are tackling sustainability. As one of the first flatpak homes to come with thoroughly integrated circuitry, Loblolly is composed of “smart cartridges”—floor and ceiling panels that contain all the electrical, micro-ducts, radiant heating, and fire detection wiring. While other prefab companies require lengthy off-site work to build in utilities, Kieran Timberlake’s solution saves time and reduces environmental impact.

The exterior wall panels fold to create a striking visual effect and also house insulation, windows, and interior finishes. The structure is predominantly wood; every square inch except the aluminum framing is Forest Stewardship Council–approved plywood, birch, or bamboo. All finishes are nontoxic. A west wall is designed with airplane-hangar doors that allow the home to open to the offshore breezes in the summer, while a solar panel captures heat in the winter, boosting temperatures inside by 30 percent.

And the home does not sacrifice aesthetics for technical chops, avoiding the sterility of many contemporary glass-and-steel residences. The wood-fenestration effect artfully compliments the ethereal beauty of the loblolly pine. As one teenage visitor commented, “I get it. It’s like camouflage.” Kieran explains further, “We wanted to connect the house to the forest, have it feel a bit random, akin to nature. The effort on our part was to make the house not just in nature but of nature.”

Raising the home on structural piles provides added environmental benefits to the fragile coastal land on which the  Loblolly House rests. By reducing surface weight on the site, the design allows soil to erode naturally, and the home doesn’t prevent tides or wild animals from crossing underneath. The height also befits the designers’ inspiration: the idea of a functional tree house. “It has the simultaneous joy of the tree house: the danger element—you’re up high—with the security of being removed,” Kieran explains.

Interest in the Loblolly House has been so intense that the firm has a book coming out in May, Loblolly House: Elements of a New Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press). When asked about the future of prefabricated, kit-of-parts architecture, Kieran is confident. “We think it has legs,” he says. “We’re hoping on it. No, we’re counting on it.”

Story by Heather Wagner. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in February 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

A new direction in sustainable architecture
The Chesapeake's Loblolly House, with its striking exterior walls and innovative prefab components, hopes to provoke more builders to think sustainably.