Next year, Resolution: 4 Architecture will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its founding in New York City. The number feels unreal because partners Joseph Tanney, AIA, and Robert Luntz, AIA, still seem like the fresh-faced new kids on the block, reinventing how to design and build single-family custom houses.
They founded the firm in 1990, toiling away on custom renovations to “long, linear” box-like Manhattan apartments. Those jobs taught them a great deal about spinning tight dimensions into delightful, livable spaces. Then, in 2003, came their big break: They won Dwell magazine’s invitational competition to design a modern prefabricated home. They beat out 15 other firms for the honor, including some venerable architects.
The Dwell Home ignited a fever for prefab, launching RES4 on its core mission. Rendering: RES4
The ambitious effort was backed by a young couple who footed the bill for the fabrication and installation of the house on a rural parcel in North Carolina, with some in-kind help from building product manufacturers. By 2004, the Dwell Home was built and the buzz had spread around the country, inspiring modern house enthusiasts and modern architects alike. It felt like a revolution at the time. Young modern architects were going to solve the problem of bringing high-quality, affordable residential design to the mass market.
And then came the housing bust. Many factories went under, and many architects eventually set aside their grand, transformational ideas about factory-built houses. Not so, RES4. The firm kept at it—refining the learnings that came from that first Dwell Home and the houses that flowed from it.
“It turns out that it’s been an evolution and not a revolution,” Joe concludes. And fortunately for the health of the firm, it did not overreach and over leverage. “We’ve been taking baby steps throughout, and it’s the space we operate best in. Our short-term goal is always to do tomorrow’s house better than yesterday’s.”
The firm continues to iterate its modular offerings and they remain a core part of the practice. But RES4 has never lost sight of the bread-and-butter work that sustained it in its early years and through the recession. There are still plenty of loft buildouts and remodels in the portfolio, and some commercial work as well. “We’ve always been multidisciplinary as a practice,” says Joe. “We recently completed a treehouse—and it was not modular. We do a wide range of things, so the scale varies quite a bit. When we do commercial projects or office spaces, we’ll often do the signage, too.
“And with the houses,” he adds, “we’ll specify finishes and furniture, or even do the landscape. We’re quite hands-on and all-encompassing. The scope depends on the client, project, and scale—and what we’re trying to accomplish. But we’re also happy to work with other designers.”
Mod and Not Mod
Because the firm is so well known for its achievements in modular design and construction, clients have developed certain expectations about what a RES4-designed house should look like. It’s a funny kind of typecasting that’s oozed into the firm’s site-built work as well. “We recently completed a house in Arlington, Virginia,” Joe explains. “It’s site built because the owner wanted to start a construction business and learn on the job, but he was very concerned that it should still look like a RES4 modular house.”
In a way, the typology has become the aesthetic. And it’s done so just at the point when the RES4 work has reached a level of refinement such that it’s difficult to tell whether a house was built in the factory or on-site. At the same time, there’s a current vogue among modern architects for the long-box volume that’s completely unmoored from what can fit on a tractor-trailer.
Stacked boxes solve a factory and transportation problem, for sure, but they also resolve idiosyncrasies of site. With an array of boxes, you can levitate the building over topography and rotate it to capture views, natural light, and ventilation. You can play with materials, solids, voids, indoor, and outdoor space. Those are great attributes no matter what the means of construction.
Building this way on-site does add cost, however, and that’s where the factory delivery model shines. Although it isn’t always the case, Joe still maintains prefab can be less expensive than full site construction—but there’s a caveat: “You don’t ask the factory to do more than they can do well.”
“It’s important to understand their limits,” he explains. “Many architects learn the hard way trying to design a domestic space and then get it built in a factory. It’s not an academic design exercise. There is time and money involved, and they’re just not aware of the costs. It’s important to go in at the beginning and know what will be done in the factory and what will be done on-site. You need efficiency of implementation to achieve a higher level of predictability.
“We use the factory like a contractor, and we try to leverage the economies,” he continues. “Our prefab houses are still specific to each site, client, and budget. We just happen to use the factory to build most things. Doing it that way, prefab can be faster, cheaper, and better than site-built. In our early years, we were limited to the products the factory had. But since then, we’ve established relationships with certain vendors, and we’ve been able to expand those connections to membranes, tiles, windows, and other materials. Clients’ expectations continue to get higher and higher.”
That said, Joe admits, there are not many factories that can deliver the quality he needs for those high-expectation clients. And that’s a perennial problem, even for the architects who solve the riddle of designing for factory constraints and capabilities. It’s in part what’s driven some to try to start or buy factories—a precarious proposition.
The big venture-capital-funded players entering the market in recent years don’t address the right problems for RES4 and other high-end custom residential firms either, says Joe. It’s the revolution/evolution problem again. “What’s interesting is, the entities we’ve met with who’ve attempted to start a revolution have encountered a rocky road. They’re really going to be best suited to larger projects—multifamily, hotels, commercial building. Custom building is still a very local business.”
In his heart of hearts, he worries about the long-term viability of the kinds of factories his firm requires. “Where the next level and next phase needs to be is the quantity and quality of partners. I see more people looking outside the States, to larger-scale entities in countries where factory-built housing is more commonplace and more sophisticated.
“It’ll be a missed opportunity if we can’t sustain factories here. There’s a great opportunity in creating urban and suburban spaces,” he says. “But it’s a misguided approach to try to go big and fabricate in one location and then try to go everywhere with the product. It’s not the solution for every project, and it’s not a magic bullet. For every project you have to consider the location, use, and budget. One-size-fits-all is not the solution many newcomers to the space think it is.”
In the meantime, RES4 continues to iterate its well-developed system of modules. For years, the firm worked on the problem of the 16-foot-by-60-foot module, which is the maximum size that can be transported by tractor-trailer on public highways. The firm has devised a system of modules for “communal use” (kitchens, living, and dining areas) and ones for “private use” (bedrooms, sitting rooms, closets, bathrooms). And there are patterns of arrangement or typologies to achieve desired square footage and other programmatic and design goals.
In the past decade, the firm has investigated the possibilities of smaller modules—the more nimble 12-foot-wide ones, for instance. “The Fishers Island House started exploring various other dimensions, and mixing, matching, and organizing 12-foot-wide modules in various compositions and types. That’s been exciting,” says Joe.
Day labor, materials, and modules for the house, built in 2012, had to be transported to the island by standard ferry, so the smaller dimensioning was critical.
Above and below: The 2012 Fishers Island House required ferrying modules from the mainland to the island. So, RES4 turned to a system of smaller12-foot-wide modules. The typology used here is a combination double-wide/triple-wide hybrid for a total of 8 boxes and 4,469 square feet. Photography: Resolution 4: Architecture
The firm continues to enter design competitions—most recently, New York City’s “Big Ideas for Small Lots” housing design competition—and it’s interested in applying its modular understandings to micro-units and other multifamily building types. There’s also a passion for building out whole prefab communities, perhaps in exurban locations.
Single-family custom work remains the mainstay, however, whether prefab or site built. And the site-built projects provide their own evolutionary opportunities to stretch professionally. “We love exploring new avenues of construction. In addition to wood, we’re doing a steel fabricated building in Brooklyn and a precast building in Florida,” says Joe.
After nearly 30 years on the job, the new kids on the block are still keeping it new.
Joseph Tanney, AIA
Robert Luntz, AIA
Resolution 4: Architecture Projects
[All information and descriptions provided by the architects]
Modern Modular Projects
Fishers Island House
Fishers Island, NY
Typology Series: Double Wide/Triple Wide Hybrid
Modules: 8 boxes
Size: 4,469 square feet
Photography and drawings: Resolution 4: Architecture
Located off the coast of Connecticut and Rhode Island, yet occupying a body of water in the state of New York, Fishers Island is accessible only by ferry. While during the summer months the island’s population swells to over 3,000—year-round residents total only about 300. Delivery of daily supplies and materials is therefore limited. Contractors live on the mainland, creating short workdays due to the commute, thereby causing construction of a new home to take longer and effectively cost more. Leveraging off-site construction, shipping volumetric prefabricated modules—complete with plumbing, electrical, and finishes—makes for a much more cost-effective method of building on the island. The boxes were designed specifically not only for the client and site, but also to fit on the ferry.
The client, a family of four with 2 recent college-graduates, has extended family that also lives on the island. This house is designed to accommodate and entertain them all for generations to come. Often called “the ark” by locals, the house is comprised of eight Lego-like boxes sitting on a panelized concrete foundation that was also prefabricated. Integrated into the sloping landscape, the long and linear vessel is organized by public and private uses. The main level contains communal living spaces that span three parallel boxes, while the second floor contains the immediate family’s private spaces. The ‘east wing’ contains guest rooms and a stair down to a large bunkroom below for future grandkids. As the main gathering and entertaining area, the roof becomes another level of living space, essentially an outdoor room, partially covered and equipped with a kitchen, seating, and an outdoor fireplace.
All of the structure’s horizontal surfaces are utilized for roof decks, green areas, or solar panels. Hot water generated by the sun keeps the house warm via the radiant floor heating system during colder months.—RES4
Res4 Modern Modular Typology Matrix
North Fork Bay House
Laurel, New York
Typology Series: Lifted Double-Wide/Courtyard Hybrid
Modules: 2 boxes on a steel frame
Size: 1,650 square feet
Photography: Resolution 4: Architecture
This compact home, overlooking Great Peconic Bay, was designed as a weekend retreat for a young family of four from Brooklyn and as a seasonal retreat for their Florida-based grandparents. While the home is not located within any official FEMA-designated flood zone, the client was concerned about potential flooding given the proximity to the water. In response, the house is raised up on a steel frame, which allows for views through to the bay upon arrival. This strategy also improves views from the main level, and creates space below the house for parking, an outdoor shower, storage, and a small workshop for the grandfather’s woodworking projects, including his latest, a small sailboat.—RES4
North Fork Bluff House
Mattituck, New York
Typology Series: Z-Type
Modules: 4 boxes on a conventional basement
Size: 5,100 square feet
Photography: Resolution 4: Architecture
This multigenerational home was designed as a summer retreat for three siblings, their parents, and their kids. On a bluff site overlooking Long Island Sound, the challenge was balancing privacy from the neighboring cul-de-sac with the desire to open the house to the view. The central communal space opens to a pool deck overlooking the water. The roof deck extends the outdoor living space, with a lounge area around the outdoor fireplace and an artificial turf bocci court and putting green. The basement level, designed to receive ample daylight, is for the kids with a large playroom and bunkrooms. —RES4
Park Slope Townhouse
Brooklyn, New York
Size: 5,000 square feet
Photography: Eric Soltan Photography
This new construction, five-story townhouse is home to a young family of four. Maintaining an indoor-outdoor connection throughout was important to the owners, so despite the narrow 25-foot lot, balconies and terraces open each floor up to exterior space. The main communal level includes double height living space with a wall of folding glass doors to the rear terrace. An open tread stair, created from Parallam beams, wraps around a black steel clad wall to stitch together all levels, for easy vertical living.—RES4
Hudson River House
Size: 2,375 square feet
Photography: Emily Andrews
Located on one of Croton-on-Hudson’s highest overlooks, this compact home – designed for a couple nearing retirement – was intended as a modest backdrop to the dramatic river views, with just enough space for two. The living space, with full height windows, is open and airy – fitting for a house floating in the trees. A long kitchen island and low built-in cabinetry provide storage while maintaining sight lines to the landscape. The interior palette of white oak and light grey provides a muted backdrop to highlight select pieces from the owners’ pottery collection. The pool is located under the house, as the owner likes to swim in shade. Metals panels on the underside of the house bounce light and reflections from the pool water below.—RES4