Last September, Zane Fischer, CEO of Extraordinary Structures, told an Albuquerque audience that the supply of truly affordable housing is dwindling and lamented that building costs often dwarf income levels. He was a speaker at TEDxABQ, a local event affiliated with the New York-based TED (technology, entertainment, design) conference program. The housing problem is exacerbated by the fact that people tend to be “culturally attached to detached housing,” he said. “We think that a single-family house with the big yard is a signifier of success, and a whole bunch of ’em on a shady street is the perfect neighborhood.”
Then we face another challenge: So many people are averse to high-density living, and typically the only provision for that in cities is the apartment house. “What we can do,” Fischer suggested, “is follow the lead of the maker movement and take these manufacturing tools and apply them to fabricate human-scale housing locally.”
That’s what his nine-month-old company is all about. The maker movement is designed to give democratic access to sophisticated tools formerly restricted to large-company factories. As Fischer was gearing up to launch Extraordinary Structures, he helped inaugurate a maker space in the Meow Wolf building on Rufina Circle. As the arts collective’s program grew there, Fischer moved the MAKE Santa Fe space to his business location on All Trades Road. It’s outfitted with a laser cutter and a slew of 3-D printers. In his adjacent shop, he has a planer, a joiner, and a drill press. But the star of the show is the ShopBot router, on which are created the parts of Extraordinary Structures buildings.
This awesome tool is a large, software-controlled router. It’s basically a robot. “We take a design into a CAM [computer-aided manufacturing] program on the computer and turn it into a toolpath, and we designate bits and depths and it goes through its program, moving up and down and side to side, diagonally and circular, making all the cuts we need on a panel.” In that way, Fischer produces the components of a panelized construction system of his own invention. Each wall panel is made up of two sheets of plywood separated along the sides with perforated plywood studs, all keyed together with a series of alternating cuts, like lap or halving joints, and screwed together. The resulting void is filled with insulation. The finished panel-boxes are notched at the bottom and can be tilted up on a foundation-mounted sill plate much like a SIP (structural-insulated panel) module. “But with SIPs, there’s a lot of embodied energy and intensive chemical production involved in gluing, and you need a crew and a crane to assemble them,” Fischer said. “What we’re doing is a panelized construction system that one or two people can build with and it gives you a choice of both sheet and insulating material like mineral wool.”
Fischer has availed himself of the services of engineers with the New Mexico Small Business Assistance program (a collaboration of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and the state of New Mexico), who pressure-tested the panels and evaluated their thermal efficiency.
Extraordinary Structures built a backyard studio that won approval from the state’s Construction Industries Division. “They hadn’t seen anything quite like it before, but they were willing to accept it as an alternative to traditional framing,” he said. And visitors to his operation off Siler Road can see a 200-square-foot prototype dwelling, the SaltBox Tiny House, all decked out with a full-service kitchen and bathroom (including a wonderful wooden soaking tub made by the company’s Katherine Lee), a Murphy bed, air conditioner, wood stove, and plenty of shelves and storage spaces. The outside is clad in horizontal-seam 22-gauge steel, “a contemporary, low-maintenance material that I think ends up fitting in to the palette around here, without being stucco.”
Inside, the walls were left unfinished and look handsome with the knotty-pine-face plywood used on the panels. The roof is standing-seam metal on trusses built by the company, and the floor is end-grain mesquite from Old Wood Inc. The bathroom walls are paneled in bright, waterproof white acrylic.
“This could be an accessory dwelling, a backyard studio or office, or a workshop,” Fischer said. “An accessory dwelling unit is hooked to the primary dwelling, and these can add to the housing supply without doing large multifamily developments. It gives the homeowners additional equity, and in the long term increases property-tax revenue, so I see that as a win-win. The city is working on a new housing plan, and we’re hoping to see some loosening of how it might incentivize people to do accessory dwellings. One of the things that might stop you from doing a guest house in the backyard is that you have construction workers coming in at seven in the morning for eight months. We can do it much faster and with much less equipment and machines.”
He and Lee spread half a dozen conceptual building plans, produced in SketchUp, on a large table in their computer room. “We think we can build many of these out to a pretty nice turnkey level for $165 a square foot,” he said. “Our mission is to create a product, a panelized construction system, that can exist in a variety of kits or can be easily adapted, even to something custom. With the tools and software we’re using, we can enter a building’s footprints and design parameters and have it autopopulate with modular components so we can kind of create a custom kit for someone.
“We can offer a variety of services, from sending a file to a shop that has a router near you to flat-packing all of the panels [on a truck], to quasi-flatpacking, where we assemble the panels and pre-insulate them so when you get them, they’re ready to be tilted up. You put one panel up, put another next to it, and they’re locked together with little wood keys at the ends and you just keep going and you very rapidly complete your structure. All the openings are already cut out for electrical, ventilation, windows, and doors.”
Regarding style, Fischer said the system basically yields a series of boxes, “so in a way it’s Legos for big kids. I see people who are ready to put sweat equity into their house, for the affordability, so we’re trying to make that kit. But we’re also holding off a little bit, because we want the first person to truly assemble a kit to be close enough for us to help them if they run into trouble. And then as far as extending our product out into the broader construction industry, we need to finish up some certifications so that the state will accept it.”
Fischer said he and his employees have spent considerable time turning away potential customers and explaining “why they probably don’t want a tiny house on wheels, because it’s a travel trailer and most places don’t let you live there full-time; it’s going to depreciate as opposed to gaining value like a foundation-built house on a piece of land.” Rather, those people should take advantage of all the good engineering boasted by today’s lightweight travel trailers.
Lee added that an Extraordinary Structures tiny house can be moved relatively easily, if needed. “And it can be easier sometimes to put a building on a site rather than building it there.”
The company offers design services at $100 per hour and digital fabrication services for $150 per hour machine time. A 200-square-foot modular SaltBox Tiny House, on a foundation or on wheels will cost about $15,000 if the owner builds it, or about $50,000 if Extraordinary Structures builds it. For entrepreneurs, artists, inventors, and others who want to work on their own design ideas in the MAKE Santa Fe space, a $65 monthly membership gives you access to a laser cutter and 3-D printer. A fun example of what’s possible is the 3-D printed toy Lee made based on the company’s cool logo that was created by Lacey Adams Design.
So does Fischer intend to patent his panelized construction system? “I’m not very interested in that,” he said. “I find myself responding to the open-source idea: design globally and manufacture locally. I benefit from designs other people are sharing, and if others can benefit from designs that we put out, it’s a benefit for everyone.”
See www.extraordinarystructures.com; the company’s also on Facebook. Fischer hosts a TEDxABQ Adventure at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25; check out www.tedxabq.com — and he co-hosts a Global Service Jam with MAKE Santa Fe and MIX from Friday, Feb. 17, to Sunday, Feb. 19; see www.makesantafe.org/learn/global-service-jam.