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Prefab Gets an Upgrade

Oct. 17, 2017

Nomad Arc elevates the prefab construction model, proving that beauty, durability, and mobility can peacefully coexist.

Anyone who follows architectural trends has witnessed the evolution of the lowly shipping container into a sort of panacea to the industry’s call to reuse and repurpose building materials. These crude, inexpensive building blocks have been transformed into luxurious homes, hip coffee shops, and corporate spaces, as well as the go-to solution for affordable housing challenges. What’s not to love?

For starters, retrofitting a shipping container for occupancy isn’t as easy or cheap as it may first appear. When factoring the costs of site preparation, assembly, insulation, HVAC, lighting, plumbing, etc., the price of an average container home is $184,000 before shipping and land costs, according to a CNNMoney article. Additionally, from a structural engineering standpoint, shipping containers are designed to withstand deflection, or the degree to which a structural element is displaced under a load, which is ideal for transporting goods but not for the stability required in housing construction. So, while the shipping container model is certainly a viable (and in many ways noble) one, it clearly isn’t without limitations or complications.

When a client requested Los Angeles-based Delta H Design, Inc. (DHDI) to design a ZR Acoustics recording studio as a shipping container, the firm set out to study the popular prefab concept and improve upon it. Being in close proximity to one of the world’s largest ports in Long Beach, Calif., proved serendipitous, as it afforded DHDI the ability to conduct extensive research on shipping containers firsthand, according to Principal and CEO Hanson Hsu.

“We did a great deal of research on the structure, construction, waterproofing, and thermal natures and properties of shipping containers,” Hsu explained. “What we discovered, besides the fact that it was a revolutionary design that changed the world of commerce as we know it, is that it isn’t necessarily the best for architecture because the cost to retrofit it and the amount of materials and labor it takes to actually turn a shipping container into a viable, permitable life-safe structure is actually not worth it. You might as well just build a new structure.”

He noted he has never been a fan of prefabricated construction because so much of it comes off as unattractive, rickety, and cheap. So in working on the ZR Acoustics studio project, Hsu did what any innovator would do: he took an existing idea and improved upon it to create Nomad Arc, a groundbreaking, elegant line of environmentally conscious structures designed to cultivate freedom and flexibility.

“We basically used the concepts of the modularity [of shipping containers], meaning our modules are roughly shipping-container size,” Hsu explained. “They’re 8 feet by 20 feet or 8 feet by 40 feet in order to use a lot of the same shipping mechanisms that shipping containers do.”

That’s essentially where the comparisons stop. Both from a structural and aesthetic point of view, Nomad Arc is heads and tails above any prefab construction model to date, featuring clean, elegant lines with inspiring facades that nod toward mid-century architecture. Designed for longevity, these transportable, modular buildings are prefabricated for residential and commercial use. Sustainable, affordable, and adaptable, these high-quality, attractive spaces are becoming the new “platinum standard” of prefabricated structures that are built to last.

While each module of Nomad Arc is designed to stand alone structurally, when assembled as a complete edifice with all modules, the overall structural integrity surpasses the strength of any one module. Hsu said the modular structures are designed to withstand everything from hurricanes to tornadoes and earthquakes, thanks to their steel construction. From a design standpoint, they also embrace today’s trends toward openness, flexibility, and nomadic living (hence the name).

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“People tend to live in larger open spaces with fewer walls—the loft-style living is very popular now—and people tend to be more nomadic,” Hsu said. “They move more often, with the average homeowner moving every seven years. And so the concept was to create something that was very high end at a moderate to reasonable or low price that was flexible enough to move. [Not flexible meaning] that you could bend it and twist it, but flexible [meaning] that while it’s designed in one configuration, you can take it apart and move it with trucks and cranes to a new location and reassemble it for about the same or less cost than the cost of escrow.”

Although Nomad Arc has tremendous appeal for the residential market, its flexible design also makes it equally attractive for commercial applications. As Hsu noted, the driving force behind the system is freedom of usage interiorly defined by furniture placement. Thanks to the open, flexible plan, Nomad Arc can easily be populated with desks and office furniture to adapt to any client's needs.

“Because of the open, loft design, it can be fitted with cubicles or offices,” Hsu said. “It’s designed to be easily adaptable, a canvas of space so to speak, leaving flexibility for applications in both commercial and residential realms.”

By way of example, Hsu offered an illustration of a lighting manufacturer that was moving its factory from one area of L.A. to another. Like many clients, it found an inventive way to apply the transportable nature of Nomad Arc. One outlier thought was to use a Nomad Arc fully assembled right in the middle of the massive 100,000-square-foot factory as the showroom and offices. Then, when the company’s 10-year lease is up, it can simply disassemble the structure and move it to another location (or turn it into something else entirely), not only creating a higher aesthetic and quality for the building but also keeping any tenant improvment budget spent in the pocket of the client vs. the landlord.

In terms of costs, Hsu noted its new Zaha Hadid suite comes in at about $900,000 to $1,000,000 for 3,700 square feet of space (standard), and a 1,900-foot model is currently in the works. While the price tag is considerably higher than the average shipping container home, Hsu said that because Nomad Arc is constructed in a factory, the price is fixed; there are no change orders or surprises after the fact. Also, the cost of a traditionally constructed home with the same square footage in Los Angeles is essentially double or triple. Additionally, the Nomad Arc model eliminates the tenant improvement conundrum, in which remodeling or upgrades made to a rented space by the tenant may be forfeited to the landlord if the costs are not recouped before the end of the lease.

“Here, it’s different,” he added. “You own or lease the property, you own the structure, and you can do what you want with it. And it amortizes across the lifetime of the structure, which by the way we’re estimating with proper maintenance as a minimum of 50 years and possibly up to 100 years.”

Further adding to Nomad Arc’s value proposition is the fact that the interiors are rich with high-end fixtures and finishes. The units feature the most innovative new systems and technologies inside and out: optional transportable foundations, steel moment-frame modules, energy-efficient roofing systems, fire proof mineral wool insulation, Porcelanosa homemade bathroom and kitchen tiles, acoustical drywall, custom kitchen cabinets, state-of-the-art Poggenpohl kitchens, and energy-efficient Miele appliances, to name a few. With a minimal building footprint and zero ecological impact on the building site, Nomad Arc is also environmentally conscious, leaving the land as it was found after relocation.

“Essentially, it’s a fixed design with a great deal of flexibility internally because of the open space that allows you the freedom we’re talking about: the freedom to be able to create and move non-weight-bearing interior walls and being able to furnish it however you want, as well as being able to move [the entire structure],” Hsu said.
If this is the future of prefab, “home” may not only be where you hang your hat, but where you ship your house or office, too.

Renderings courtesy of DHDI

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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