Small prefabricated house from a company called Kodasema has been erected on the lawn in front of the Tallinn Creative Hub. It is a rather unique house with 27 square-metres of usable floor space, built-in cupboards and several surfaces for functional cross-usage (e.g. shower area is also used as a sink). I will be talking to Ülar Mark, one of the creators of Kodasema house concept, about the way they are trying to change the world while also hoping to shake the foundations of housebuilding industry.
Tiit Sild: Kodasema is a village in Roosna-Alliku Parish in Järva County. That is just about everything Wikipedia reports on this word. What is Your Kodasema?
Ülar Mark: yes, there is a village and our name comes from there. In fact, the house built by Kodasema can only be a KODA. The whole house is designed the way you could easily assemble and disassemble it. The first assembly of KODA took place in the factory.
Tiit Sild: during TAB (Tallinn Architecture Biennale), you invited us to participate in a three-hour discussion group. The topic was “Footprints” and the discussion revolved around new technologies, the future of building industry, the lifecycle of buildings, business models in housebuilding industry, tax fraud in building construction and ecological footprint created by a person over his or her lifetime. Such a global subject matter discussed by people with interesting opinions created a perfect atmosphere for ambitious ideas. You organized 5 separate three-hour discussion groups for people with different backgrounds.
What was the aim of these discussions?
Ülar Mark: Our aim was to look at the concept of residential construction in a wider and more holistic manner. The main challenge, as is the case with our KODA project, was to avoid the trap of “it has always been done this way”. The world and the possibilities it offers have changed significantly in the last 20 years. However, construction is a conservative field with a long established network of participants who are not keen on change.
We introduced our work, explained what we do and what we have accomplished after one year in business but also listened to suggestions to consider while building a place for living.
The building envelope will be closed only minutes.
The frontal panel of KODA is transported and assembled as a whole piece. Precision is important, so the windows and door have no frames.
Tiit Sild: Kodasema’s goal is to elevate the production of prefab houses to a completely new level. You often compare it to the automotive industry. What are you doing in a different way compared to, for instance, an ordinary plant that manufactures houses from flat elements?
Ülar Mark: The main difference is the reduced or almost eliminated workload on the construction site. A KODA is built in just 3-5 hours and that’s it. It doesn’t even need foundations. The recommended soil preparation consists of spreading a layer of gravel prior to placing the house in position. Plus the exterior and interior decoration panels can be quickly installed. Traditionally interior finishing work is mostly performed on site after the prefab house is set up, but in our case all of that’s done at the plant. This ensures better quality and lower installation costs. Of course, water supply, electricity and sewerage connections still have to be sorted out. Comparing it to a car factory is fitting, really. Why don’t houses come with sophisticated electronics? Why can’t houses be made with minute precision using robots? Why do all cars have nice, carefully considered designs but most houses seem to be constructed in a hurry, often with no design to see or speak of? It’s a glaring juxtaposition when you remember that a used car usually ends up as scrap within about 15 years, but a house is expected to remain in use for centuries. Logically, houses should have better design and functionality, but sadly the reality is very different.
Tiit Sild: is Kodasema more like a traditional house manufacturer or a startup that is still looking for its business model?
Ülar Mark: Kodasema can rather be described as a startup, that is looking for a new approach to building construction and construction process as a whole. For example, our house does not have window sashes in the traditional sense of the word. They are simply unnecessary since the whole panel itself is the window sash.
Usually window openings are designed to be fitted with window sashes at a cheaper price. However, this adds a number of problems: the space between the opening and window frame must be adequate for fastenings, the sash itself must be constructed of chambers, etc. All this in order to fill the opening while actually simultaneously creating thermal bridges.
Tiit Sild: the creators of KODA are six people with completely different backgrounds. Tell us briefly what these people do and what drives them. What brought this group together?
Ülar Mark: at the moment everybody seems passionate about the Koda project. Their backgrounds, however, are indeed very different. Hannes Tamjärv has founded a bank and a school and has been the brains behind a number of endeavours. Taavi Jakobson has made a name for himself in international administration of IT field and is also a writer. Kalev Ramjalg is a Master of building from concrete and a teacher who has also written several plays. Marek Standberg is simply a man of multiple talents ranging from chemistry to drawing comics. Andres Kaur is a project manager who has put up plants. And Ülar Mark, an architect who has, in addition to designing houses, launched the Estonian Centre of Architecture and created theatre design. All in all, it would be quite difficult to find a field this team cannot form an opinion about. Obviously, we also have several people who deal with specific problems: structural designer, designers for ventilation, water and sewerage etc.
Tiit Sild: you are completely devoted to the creation of KODA. The first prototype is ready. What have people´s reactions been? Are they willing to live in a KODA?
Ülar Mark: initial reactions have been overwhelming but we are trying to keep a cool head about it. First of all, we have already determined areas where improvements could be made and secondly, the measure of our success will be the number of Koda houses we manage to sell. I think we are providing a well-thought-out space and it shows. Before long, we shall be testing living in the house at its current location and there is no shortage of volunteers. The first trial will include us and then everyone else who wants to try and give us feedback.
Tiit Sild: KODA looks elegant, light and a little delicate. So what is it made of? What materials are used in KODA’s walls, ceiling and roof?
Ülar Mark: the walls, floor, ceiling are of a similar composition: fiber-concrete on the outside and cross-laminated timber boards on the inside, with vacuum insulation between them.
All the elements are joined into a whole using plastic beams. The combination of concrete and timber makes interior decoration easier and saves plenty of space and materials because the number of layers is reduced.
Tiit Sild: in your KODA design solutions you have implemented interesting elements, such as old sailcloth patterns applied to exterior thin fiber-panel wall surfaces in the course of their moulding, resulting in a truly special texture and lightness.
Can you tell more about that?
Ülar Mark: That was achieved after months of testing with all sorts of plastics, films and PVC boards.
The final result is appealing and ecological, recycling sailor clothes, capturing their pattern for future generations.
Tiit Sild: has the development process of Koda house been slower or faster than expected?
Ülar Mark: we hoped to reach the first prototype sooner but, in hindsight, it has actually been a fast pace process considering that we questioned and considered the necessity and form of almost every detail.
Tiit Sild: do KODA houses need foundations?
Ülar Mark: KODA doesn’t need foundations. The structure was calculated to allow the floorboards to rest anywhere on stones.
Tiit Sild: which are the development stages of a house as a product? How often do you meet?
Ülar Mark: looking back, there seems to be a certain rhythm to our work, but during the work process we just did what seemed right to us, often maneuvering between issues that emerged. We did not hold specific meetings, it actually feels like we have been living together for the last year and concentrating only on this project.
Initially, we worked from 9 to 5 and later almost around the clock. I can´t imagine we would have got even close to our current results, if everybody had worked traditionally at his desk in an office, meeting once or twice a week.
Tiit Sild: how long does it take for a KODA to be ready - from producing the elements at a plant to actually assembling the house?
The first prototype was ready within a year. At the moment, our aim is to reach a delivery time of 2-3 weeks.
Tiit Sild: many similar undertakings have been less than successful. To date, there has been no breakthrough in the field of modern modular houses, in terms of both technology and appearance. What makes you different?
Ülar Mark: I could list lots of reasons, I guess. Why can you manufacture cars in modules and not houses?
The car market is more uniform, there is less fluctuation.
One of the issues with the construction industry is that real estate booms are interspersed with more subdued periods of demand. Add to that the different wishes of different customers, regional differences and strict regulations of local authorities on building plans and implementation.
We tried to solve all these problems on the drawing board and we offer a product that has all the answers.
An early 1 to 1 scale mockup of the house (left) helped to understand the possibilities of the space and also to figure out more creative solutions.
Tiit Sild: you have finished the first prototype. What are the main lessons you have learned during the process, how will the next house differ from the first one?
Ülar Mark: the prototype is and will be a test house. During the whole process, we allowed ourselves to make mistakes. If you don´t allow errors, it is very difficult to come up with something new. If the prototype didn´t have any faults, it would have been a wasted opportunity.
The main lesson is to remember the simple truth: the importance of a Team and their dedication, i.e. time. In fact, the willingness to dedicate yourself and concentrate on something is on the decline. As a result, original solutions have become scarce.
Today, the main focus is on cheapness and sales.
Tiit Sild: you are an architect. You gave up working with fellow architects and focused on a new and quite specific field that demands a different set of skills. What is its appeal to you?
Ülar Mark: to me, everything that surrounds us is one single environment. When we build something on this planet or shift materials from one location to another, we should think about how to do it in the best possible way. If there were a better approach or term than architect(ure), I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to use it. I can’t agree to anyone hijacking the concept of architect(ure) and limiting its scope. If I need other skills for more efficient project work, I’ll have to acquire them. I’m fascinated by how deep I can become immersed in my work, thoroughly researching new issues until I find clear and exhaustive answers. After all, an answer to every question we pose exists somewhere out there. Once you achieve the result you want, you should review the initial questions you asked, as they often can and should be rephrased in view of your achievements. That’s something you can do repeatedly, defining your objectives again and again. The conventional practice is for the architect to do the commissioned work and then forget about it ASAP, because tomorrow’s a new day and a whole new world. For various reasons, input from the architect is less and less required in drafting the concept of a building. And later, when construction’s underway, everyone prefers the architect to get involved as little as possible. I was never interested in going down that road. I did try to adjust my attitude, but it never worked.
Tiit Sild: now that you are involved in product development, how does your workday differ from the time when you worked only as an architect?
Ülar Mark: more meetings, details, abstract discussions, creativity, doing U-turns and starting things all over. Much less cursing, gossiping, nagging, conflicts and disputes within myself.
Tiit Sild: what is your next big objective?
Ülar Mark: I am not sure about the next one after we have achieved our first simple objective – build thousands of houses that are becoming better in quality and design and cheaper in price. As a professional, I feel more like a car designer than an architect, the only difference being that I also feel responsible for the way the car parks look.
Founders of Kodasema: Hannes Tamjärv, Taavi Jakobson, Ülar Mark, Kalev Ramjalg, Marek Strandberg, Andres Kaur.
Photos by: Andres Kaur.
Here you can find more information about Koda.
The founder of Kodasema Ülar Mark (in the picture below) was interviewed by Tiit Sild (katus.eu).
Ülar was also a jury member in the architecture contest of prefabricated houses.