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Modern Modular: Lean and Green

11/14/2013 01:14 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

It seems a natural enough transition.

After years of transforming New York City lofts and apartments into modern spaces, Resolution 4 Architecture turned its attention to modular design.

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"The lofts were often small spaces with efficient layouts, with lots of built-ins and cabinetry, instead of little rooms," says Joseph Tanney, principal in the firm. "The cabinetry was built off site and brought in."

After 9/11, business ground to a halt, and the firm began to dig into the academics and practicalities of modular design. They found three tiers: First, the low-cost manufactured housing built to HUD specs, with little design opportunities. Then there were the high-end panelized homes, assembled like houses of cards.

In the middle were the modular homes built in factories, adhering to local codes and assembled on site like Lego's. And that's where Resolution 4 landed.

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"We felt a kind of kindred spirit," he says. "Because we'd been designing long spaces in NYC for some time, it was a natural extension of our practice."

The modular tubes they favor are factory-built: 16 feet wide, 11 feet high and 60 feet long. "That's what we call the modern modular," he says.

As their clients began to move from Manhattan to the woods of New Jersey, Resolution 4′s modular designs followed. Then came their big break: A phone call from Dwell magazine to enter a competition in 2003.

Not only did they enter, but they won.

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"Winning that competition shined a big light not only on what we were doing but on the entire industry," he says. "The idea of building a high-quality, lower-cost, meaner, leaner and greener house - the competition focused a lot of attention on us."

Since then, they've built about 60 homes, each different, and each tailored to client and site. "We've designed well over twice that, but many of them have been put on hold since 2008," he says. "Some have come back - we've done about one a month for the past 10 years."

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Little wonder. The homes' cost per square foot ranges from about $250-$350, with many - documented in their new book from Princeton Architectural Press - coming in at about $200.

"The cost of the boxes is about $100-$150, and the other half is on the site," he says.

Their book, Modern Modular, is now available from Princeton Architectural Press..

For more information, go here.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com, where portions of this post first appeared.