Walker Pope Residence, Orcas Island, Washington.

Walker Pope Residence, Orcas Island, Washington.

The concept of modular construction along with senior housing makes for a very specific project type. How did this come about?

I’ve been noodling on the idea of modular senior housing for a long time. I’m 7/8th of the way through my life now, and I’ve got to start thinking about a different way to live. I grew up in the modern era, and I always saw a hole in this area of living and designing. I can’t find anything in the senior realm that I’d consider dying in, let alone living in.

And this hole refers to the exclusion of modern architecture in senior housing?

It’s a conversation about living for tomorrow and not for yesterday and what that means for our present state of housing. The ideas are based around community space, smaller spaces with multi-functions and being able to walk to goods and services or a favorite restaurant.

From what we understand, you’re not just thinking about these ideas, you’re living them.

My own house on Orcas Island is a modular system based on a 16 foot grid. It’s generated enough interest on the island that I’m currently working on a modular system that would allow for multiple units. Each of the four to six units would be on one level for easy access. The 16’ x 40’ modules would equate to floor plans of approximately 500 to 900 square feet.

The dimensions you’re working with are presumably dictated by the method of delivery?

Exactly. A typical flatbed truck can accommodate a 16-foot maximum width. Interior functions like the living, dining and kitchen areas are constructed together and shipped down the road to be set on a foundation or piers at the site.

What other hurdles are you encountering with the system?

Modular systems have a few drawbacks—like where do we put everything that we’ve accumulated over the years in a 750 square foot space? But the issue really boils down to lifestyle more than the belongings that folks or their families need to sort out.

Also, in a place like Orcas Island, very few people are familiar with the concept and people are hesitant to give up their traditional views of housing. A couple of years ago, I was involved with Unico, who built and promoted two modular prototypes with design collaboration from Mithun and Hybrid. You may have seen the units on display at the base of Rainier Tower in downtown Seattle. The CEO, Dale Sperling, was given both units at the end of the project, and he tried to relocate them on one of the islands as a personal residence, but the City of Bainbridge Island was going to have serious issues with their non “island aesthetic” unless he installed gable roofs on them. There are still some challenges with modular housing in the public.

Sketch by Gordon Walker

Sketches by Gordon Walker

That sounds just like Bainbridge Island. Aside from the cultural paradigm shift that needs to occur, what are the technical challenges?

The software used to fabricate the modular units is quite important. Because so many units could potentially be produced from one source, any problems with the software or the original template can be problematic. I’m finding some good shops like Guerdon out of Boise, who have lots of experience in modular construction. There’s also a little shop on Orcas called Stem; they build great little one-room sheds that could be used as vacation houses.

There have been many attempts at such prototypes from the shipping container angle; any thoughts there?

In a couple of past studies, we found that prefab containers are a bit more expensive than stick framing.

Senior housing seems like a very practical housing type. Given the theoretical direction that most architecture schools are heading, is it too practical to be taken on as a studio project?

Last year, I taught a design studio at the University of Washington on modular student housing and introduced it to the students like this: With this economy and the way housing is going, they will probably never design a house for themselves. We didn’t learn as much as we wanted to learn, but it became more of a student learning tank. Dave Miller, chairman of the UW Department of Architecture, and I have discussed doing a studio again this winter quarter, and modular senior housing would make for a good study.

The only senior housing projects we’re familiar with downtown seem more like storage facilities (the one at Denny Way and Fairview Ave N comes to mind).

It is kind of like a parking garage for older people, but I don’t mind the density. Ralph Anderson, for whom I went to work in 1963, lives in the “Horizon House” in downtown Seattle. He’s 85 now, and I see him regularly. He built five or six houses for himself and his wife, and he’s deliberate about where and how he lives. You walk into the lobby of the Horizon House and you’ve got great artists like Jacob Lawrence and Alden Mason’s work all over the place—it’s the place where sensitive artists-types live out their lives. The seniors at Horizon House are a nice example of people who might want to live in something else.


It’s kind of a shame to take the wisest individuals of our society and lump them all together in an out-of-the-way location.

I can see a project like Nicholas Court, which I designed with my son Colin on Capitol Hill [Seattle], working well as a half-dozen senior housing units. It would be a nice integration of younger and older demographics.

The economics of building eight or a dozen units has its own set of problems. The city’s parking requirements quickly add cost to a smaller project. If the city would waive the parking for situations like senior housing, where everyone doesn’t have a car, it would make the project type much more feasible. I think the current DPD director would be open to looking at waiving parking requirements for something like senior housing—that would be very helpful. Also, the coordination of permitting needs to be streamlined.

How about the attitude around modular housing in general?

The only thing that has happened around modular housing is custom. The MOMA show, for instance, was art rather than a practical display of housing.

Yeah, we attended. It was a joke. Had MOMA called it “art” that would have been one thing, but the title of the show was Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. Unfortunately, this is what’s driving the public perception of modular housing.

The mind-set of modular housing hasn’t yet changed in America—people still want to over-customize the modular house. It needs to be more like a car. Owning property in common is also a big change for Americans. I was talking modular housing back in the late 1950s with other students. And here we are, fifty years later, and we’ve done this [takes a pencil on the table and shifts it one inch]. We’ve still got a long way to go.

Whenever we see images of European senior housing, it’s always a gorgeous modern box set within a pristine mountain landscape. Wouldn’t it be easier to just emigrate to Switzerland than try to reinvent senior housing here in America?

You guys might be ready for that, but I couldn’t afford the ticket.

How is it that Europeans are so damn good at senior housing and America is so terrible?

They’ve had to deal with less space, by and large. I heard an interesting thing on NPR, and I’ve been incorporating this more into my own thinking. There was a study on the different cultures of the world, and one of the findings was that the Danes are probably the most cohesive culture on the globe. This is for several reasons: they’re well educated, they have a good standard of living and good medical standards. It also concluded that the Danes are comfortable because they have low expectations. It’s totally different in America; when you come to America, you’re going to succeed and make it hell or high water. The Danes don’t have that—they have the concept of “enough.”

We architects are always thinking about how we want to live, but how are we going to get the non-architects interested?

There are certain functions that are going to drive the movement—a desire for smaller houses that don’t require so much maintenance and cleaning, the efficiency of the space and ability to get around within it, proximity to goods and services and living amongst people who can keep an eye on each other. It’s a lifestyle change, and modular senior housing is better than the alternatives. It allows for townships which make more sense because you get to have neighbors around you, and you can walk to the café.

…and modular senior housing could actually influence the rest of us.

Yes, there are two main audiences for modular senior housing. First, teach it to the students because they can bring these concepts into reality in their careers [moves the pencil more than one inch], and second, provide it to the seniors because they need alternatives now. Then you can sandwich the rest [of the people].

Final thoughts?

What we are currently building is the memory of what was, and it no longer works. We need to design and build for the future, not the past.