«Prefabrication is not a limit; it is a discipline». In conversation with Valentina Moretti of Italian based Studio More and Zoë and Jonathon Little of UK based Koto design studio
Prefabrication and modular techniques along with their expertise have been enforced in several fields and are invariably regarded as synergies of opposite sides; as independence and interrelation; as standardization and customization; as fixed module and flexible design. Valentina Moretti, Studio More’s creative director walks us through her journey into reshaping the architectural industry through the family’s business. «The fifty-year-old company my father had built centered around prefabricated wood and concrete. As an architect, I wanted to try to innovate the business of prefabrication, as we had mainly targeted industrial sectors. By that I mean parkings, commercial malls, offices and factories. After extensive analyses, I discovered that prefabrication is not a rigid entity; prefabrication is flexible, you have the complete power to alter the structure due to it being built in a factory by skilled workers controlling the quality of the product». This form of architecture aims at discovering the most favorable answer to the informal architecture, residential buildings in particular, which in most cases is portrayed as chaotic. A chaos that has been a result of informal builders’ actions for expansion that has emerged in such a format. «We decided to create a business unit under a different name than Moretti, we gave it the name ‘More’ meaning more service, more quality and more technology. By service we imply focusing on providing our own designs to the client instead of resorting to outsourced architects, which is something that we have done in the past. With architects now working in our team we are able to control what happens in the site in order to satisfy our client; a client that has chosen to trust us with his lifetime investment of creating a home specifically catered to his needs».
With factory-controlled quality, reduced construction schedules and a smarter use of materials makes it considerably more sustainable than conventional techniques. «The main difference is in the production process; everything is built in the factory without having the need to operate on the construction site. Every component of the house creates details, these details are the key to quality which is why we focus on these details and test them in every construction site». Moretti explains the measures they take when operating on a new project starting from the design phase and ending with the client, «how you produce the house, its lifespan, raw materials, where they originate from and how you are able to extract it from its environment are all factors we take into consideration for every new project. For instance, when extracting concrete from mountains we bear in mind the land or landscape that would be under threat in order to acquire the material. These buildings must be cohesive and in harmony with its surrounding, we also have to educate the client on how he would typically operate and live in the house. The building’s orientation will set our work done for us in terms of heating and air conditioning making it a high-performance building».
Modular architecture poses a dynamic organism that grows and changes according to the requirements and projections of its clients. «We use natural materials in our designs, taking into consideration the materials chosen along with its colors in order to conceptualize how it will sit well in the landscape. Our houses are not hidden in the greenery, they have a strong visual identity without trying to be an entity of another historical period. What we build is both actual contemporary and eternal. To give you an idea, we built a house close to Pavia located in a small village that was designed entirely in red bricks, it was quite difficult to come up with a design at first as the site was surreal on its own. We designed a contemporary farmhouse as the result, respective of its landscape, the shape and colors were similar to the existing village’s red bricks with its pinkish hue and pitched wooden roof, proving the harmony between the building and its surrounding. I want to build prêt-à-porter architecture that would be considered Alta Moda or Haute Couture, creating unique pieces with sustainable materials. With prefabrication, while you are not able to improvise, you ensure efficiency through having to predetermine everything. Prefabrication is not a limit it is a discipline».
According to Moretti, prefabricated structures have come a long way especially in the past year, «several of our clients have started to appreciate the value of homes a little bit more, some have asked us to make their houses bigger and others who come from the city asked us for isolated homes with a garden. With the rise of the pandemic, homes have become imperative places to invest in being as you now spend most of your days at home, not to mention the fact that all projects are done quicker because of it being predesigned. I am pleased to see architecture take a new position in the market». The advancement to this niche market has not only been in terms of new technology but also through increasing levels of recognition among builders and owners that if they do not start investing in prefabrication, the industry will at some point leave them behind.
With a few anomalies, today’s building practices encounter inefficiencies that are detrimental not only to clients’ time and money, but the well-being of the environment. These include material waste, labor costs, long construction hours and excessive levels of maintenance; modular construction plays a role in breaching the gap that conventional architecture has created and potentially has the power to overhaul the industry as a whole. UK based Koto design studio, co-founded by Johnathon Little, Zoë Little and Theo Dales, brings to life examples of a deep appreciation of Scandinavian design and aesthetic. Through their minimalistic approach, architecture from their standpoint is selfless; it is not self-serving but is about creating harmony between the design and human nature and complying with the virtue and tradition of each context. Zoë Little points out, «our projects are sustainability-led, which is something that is unusual in the prefabrication word. We create design driven products that bear the Scandinavian and Japanese aesthetic. Simplicity, functionality and minimalism – are all qualities that we adopt in our designs and is not something you see in many prefabricated buildings. Modular has a generally bad reputation because it has so far not been innovative or particularly attractive». Johnathon Little goes further into saying, «our angle is less profit driven but in exchange is quality design and delivering something that is sustainable in the true sense of the word. When you think of modular architecture you think of containers or think of products that are not built to last and are purposed as a quick fix. Our approach is that anything we build is built to last a lifetime».
The three core design principles that Koto design studio abides by with any project they take on is being design-led, sustainable and to deliver via modular. With Koto it is not about the over-the-top constructions, it is about the relationship created by the building with the context and its contribution to society and nature. «We are modular designers and we partner with modular manufacturers globally to deliver our products. That entails interviewing and meeting each other and having to go through a process with each and every manufacturer. It is a growing global network of manufacturers and each one of them has a different build, process or construction technique to deliver our buildings. We have some manufacturers that produce CLT (cross laminated timber) or produce in CLT which is highly sustainable because it embodies a vast amount of carbon, we have traditional timber frame manufacturers and then we have hybrid manufacturers with some being more sustainable than others». With regards to their take on sustainability, «the ambition is to be carbon neutral and the majority of our projects, especially in the UK, are at worst carbon neutral – generally they have a positive effect on the environment. There are two ways we deal with sustainability: the embodied carbon in the production of the building, mostly if not entirely timber fabric, timber window frames and doors trying not to use steel and concrete. This has been the basic principle along with embodying a low carbon level in the building. In the more minor terms, we use natural insulation materials, non-VSO paints, restricting the amount of transport that we have to do to get the building from the factory to the site. Regarding business operations, we offset so our operations are carbon neutral».
Shifting the focus from conventional constructions and recognizing modular and prefabricated structures as the main protagonist in the architectural industry is not an effortless process as it may seem. Johnathon Little confesses, «there is a mindset that prefabrication is cheap and unsustainable. Good prefabrication isn’t necessarily cheaper than traditional built but it is certainly more sustainable and time effective. There are misconceptions to fix as the industry grows or see it grow in the direction that we would like to see: design led and sustainable. Currently the modular and prefabrication world is for the most part led by commercial gains and not necessarily by design. There is a lack of design input into the modular world and until recently architects hadn’t been involved at all – you would have engineers, surveyors and business leaders who would run the design and manufacture and control the costs. Even then, to get that quality and hit those sustainability agendas, at the moment, there are not enough manufacturers to create enough competition to keep the prices down so when you work in a niche market in the modular world it has a certain price tag and is something to consider». The future of architecture is not worth considering without the future of the construction industry as a whole. With the precision that Koto design studio presents, high performance buildings are the result; with much more time and price certainty building in a factory. Zoë Little concludes, «We have managed to create sculptural forms using modular techniques and that’s not something that has been done so much. We sell not just a product, we sell a lifestyle, taking time in nature and all of the things that have a key message with everything that’s happening and needing to actually have a connection with nature».IMAGE GALLERY
More Studio is an Italy based studio and is the soul of Moretti – Building on Human Values. Creatively directed by Valentina Moretti. More meaning more service, more quality and more technology in order to transform traditional construction methods to modular and prefabricated structures for clients in a modern and sustainable manner.
Koto Design Studio is a design studio based in the UK co-founded by Johnathon Little, Zoë Little and Theo Dales. Known for their Scandinavian and Japanese inspired constructions that defy conventional architecture by adopting modular and prefabricated constructions. Koto design emphasizes simplicity and modernity creating harmony between the solids and voids; a distinct approach that is seen in their work.