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The Catalogue House

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When the market for architect-designed private houses finally dries up it will be said in today’s world the private house is passée and anachronistic and no longer capable of conveying architectural meaning of any relevance. We’re practically there now and architects have no option but to cast their nets wider and embrace the mass-produced home as the next least-worst branding vehicle. As far as net-castings go, it’s not that much wider because the number of people having a patch of land on which to build is just another niche market. Tapping into it requires both purchasers and purveyors to discard any remaining notion of the house as a one-off and unique creation of an architect. Many architects perfecting prototype houses for mass production will more likely reduce, not expand, the demand for architects’ services. Although every architect everywhere should feel the obligation to perfect a prototype house for mass production, it’s not going to help their cashflow unless a housebuilder pays them good money to do it, as well as the opportunity to put their name on it.

The purchaser doesn’t get the cachet of a bespoke house but, if they see value in what an architect provides, they can still say they have a designer house. It’s pret-a-porter rather than couture, “a print” instead of an original. The currently preferred term of “catalogue house” is more neutral than “off-the-shelf” that is too casual for purchasers and “limited edition” which remains too pretentious for developers. Developers Cube Haus are on the case, offering four designs by architects of whom David Adjaye is perhaps best known, though Skene Catling de la Peña also have a reputation for bespoke houses.

One of the advantages of bespoke houses is that they can be tailored to suit whatever the owner thinks makes themselves special but another is that they can be designed to suit site-specific charactertistics such as direction of access, direction of sun and wind, and direction of views to and from the house. An architect can’t go too far wrong if they design from these fundamentals. It’s a safe way to begin and also makes sure the selling point of site-specificity is well embedded as unassailable nice things like sun, breezes and views can be used to justify design decisions and, later, their cost.

Herein lies the cake-and-eat-it contradiction. The developers of catalogue houses want economies of scale and would rather have none of the adjustment or customisation that purchasers usually want. Even if it’s not gratuitous or whimsical, customization may be forced upon a purchaser by those less glamorous site-specific conditions such as size, boundaries, overlooking restrictions and party wall and rights-of-way agreements.

Skene Catling de la Peña claim to have solved this problem by giving their house a central “core” so living spaces can pinwheel around it within the limits of arbitrary site boundaries. [1] Charlotte Skene Catling says, “Our solution was to pull all of the complicated bits of the house into a central core, and then have the skin adapt to fit the awkward geometries of the given site. It feels more like product design than architecture.” This core must in some sense be structural but would be more convincing if it included such complicated bits as plumbing.

Adjaye Associates’ proposal does. Its bathrooms and circulation are combined into a single module to which other arbitrary modules can arbitrarily attached. It’s good thinking and shows how fluid our functional linking of spaces actually is.

As an approach I can vouch for it.

The structural system of Adjaye Associates’ proposal fits rectangular sites but modules of different dimensions allow a better fit to the proportions of the site. This is limited pre-customization and, while not in the spirit of modules, allows a better fit.

If smaller sites necessitate more customization and accordingly reduced economies of scale, then one way around this is to have 100% fixed designs on larger sites. This is what happens in rural Australia where the primary requirement is that a house be transportable in as few pieces as possible.

This is the route IKEA has taken since 1997 when it began to developo its Boklok range of catalogue houses. We’ve known about them since 2005. [2]

IKEA have their catalogue houses in their catalogue. I like that.

The other psychological block that has to be overcome is to not denigrate product design but embrace it if one is to deliver the full range of tangible values such as physical comfort, thermal performance and cost-efficiency that designing for manufacture can achieve. [c.f. Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio] Early on, IKEA teamed up with Swedish company SKANSKA who look like they know a thing or two about construction.

Larger sites and larger economies of scale are more likely to happen on urban peripheries or land previously occupied by industry or infrastructure. Rather than squash their product onto pocket urban infill sites, IKEA sources property with characteristics that can be sold as part of the product. Their website asks you where you would like to live, and shows you what’s available in that location. The system is sorted.


There are the three basic types of apartments, a semi-detached house, and a terraced house.

They’re all Skandi modern on the inside but we can forgive them that.

On offer in Uppsala are some Droskan that are a variation of the timber-clad apartment building Älmhult – which, incidentally, is the name of the Swedish town where the first IKEA store opened.

Uppsala is not sounding very central but, as a guide, 1.6 million Swedish Krona is US$180,000, which is very decent indeed.


They’ve done all the good stuff regarding planning and construction. I’m sure the windows are triple glazed and the insulation is more than adequate.

What fascinates me about these next images is the European-ness of the life they imply. If I went there once the projects are built and inhabited, I’ve no doubt I would see scenes like these.

It’s a quality present in this next image that’s definitely a photograph. The only demarcation of one property from another is those partial boundary screens that provide only 50% screening. Why? Because privacy is a two-way thing and it’s important to these people to know if they’re about to disturb someone else’s. For now, the sun is very low and people are outside and joined in their appreciation of it. We may have reservations about how these dwellings look but what if the vizualizations are accurate and it were really possible for people to be content and live happy lives free from architectural pretence?

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  • Hello, it was very interesting reading your POV on catalogue houses. The reality in many countries is sadly different. Check out Polish 1563 different house designs. The quality is low as is the price of the design (500$). The role of the architect is limited to adjusting the foundations depth and shifting partitions walls at client’s request. Throughout the years citizens got used to the price level and no way they are willing to pay for a custom design. Not that they feel the need to.

    • says:

      Hello Alia, I had a look at those house designs and they remind me very much of the situation in Australia as I remember it and doesn’t seem to have changed much. It’s much the same in that housebuilders offer customers a range of styles to choose from and, if they don’t want too many changes, the price won’t be a surprise. It’s a slightly different situation from the one you describe where only the design is purchased. In both cases however, there’s no incentive to optimize the design and construction so they both match. Of course, on some level, the design and the construction reflect each other in that you get what you pay for, but what usually happens is that “design features” are added to make it look like you get more than what you paid for. It’s not pretty. What I like about The IKEA houses is that they’ve adjusted the construction to suit the design and the design to suit the construction. (They also have a policy for how many are built and in what areas and who gets to purchase them, but I didn’t go into that.) In next week’s post I plan to write about the catalogue houses of the Japanese company MUJI.