You can order pretty much anything online these days. (And during the lockdown, it honestly feels like we have—bidets, jumpsuits, and palm tress included.) But for Walker McKinley, principal of McKinley Studios, there's one final frontier of online shopping left to cross: buying a beautiful modernist home. And as a partner in the new pre-fab home brand Commonplace, he's hoping to help make it happen.
The modular home fills an important housing gap. Mass production and simple assembly drive the costs down, making home ownership affordable and accessible. With Commonplace, the goal is to not only deliver homes inexpensively and quickly, but to do it with, well, style. "I think all of us remember the trailer parks of an earlier decade, and it's not something I was interested in at first," says McKinley. "But on the other hand, as an architect, we're involved in so little housing on a regular basis—most homes don't need one. And while it's fun to build villas for successful people, this was an opportunity to bring great design to everyone, and give an impact on everyone's life and a social impact on the world."
Commonplace is on its third variation of its built-in-Alberta prefab home prototype, dialling in on the details and streamlining the process, with the goal to be in production by 2021. Soon, you'll be able to pick your finishes and do you financing online—a future where it's just a few clicks to a new home.
Part of the affordability equation is about hitting that Goldilocks size: "Not too big, not too small, just right," says McKinley. "We're using the word 'essentials." The two-bed, two-bath initial base units will be around 1,800-square-feet, plus a small internal courtyard. A two-storey, 2,400(ish)-square-foot unit is in the works as well, and McKinley speculates that a mini, 1,000-square-foot option could be a possibility in the future—perfect for a laneway house. The goal is to build them as sustainably as possible, and the final product may even feature solar power.
Now might be the most pertinent time in history to launch this bold venture, as a locked-down population re-evaluates its priorities and the value of home. "I think there's an interest in simplicity right now," says McKinley. "Especially with COVID, the notion of what really matters in a home is resonating. It feels weird to want a 20,000-square-foot home with a bowling alley. I just want a great little home that gives me all the important everyday things I need, and if I can afford it and it's low maintenance, it allows me to do other things in my life." If you're not housebound or house poor, what might be possible?
For people who live in B.C., where housing prices are the highest in the country, the idea of an off-the-rack house with architectural street cred, shipped right to a lot, has plenty of appeal. "There's also groups of people who have land on a lake and don't know how to get a house on it, or who have farm land and are curious about making the property into a home," says McKinley. He also floats the idea of building multiple units together in an enclave, with shared common spaces and condo amenities.
The specific scale and restrictions of the form has been an interesting challenge for McKinley and his team, who typically work with sky's-the-limit clientele. "We're usually allowed to do whatever we want; limitations were new for us," he jokes. Working within the geometric and technological limitations that go along with modular designs and flatpack restrictions, he's still pushing to make the designs feel high-end. "From the design itself to the quality of windows and finishes to how they're joining the walls, we didn't want it to feel prefab," says McKinley.
The renderings are impressive: images that wouldn't be so out of place in the pages of WL. If this the future of on-demand architecture is also the future of online shopping, we can't wait for a very special delivery in the future.