A Flock House stands in Flushing Meadows Park, in Queens, New York, dwarfed by the 140 ft tall Unisphere. © Mary Mattingly
A New York artist’s latest work envisions an urban environment in which housing is small, mobile, and linked to other houses.
August 28, 2012—Mary Mattingly is an artist in New York City whose work asks bold questions about how people live their lives in the modern world. Her latest work, the Flock House Project asks the question, what if urban housing were small, portable, and linkable?
There are three Flock Houses making their way around the city this summer. The houses are 10 ft tall geodesic domes designed by architect Robert Wall to be constructed for less than $2,000 by utilizing scrap plywood, electrical conduit, and other waste material from construction sites. The houses are portable and partially self-sufficient for energy and water needs.
“I imagine Flock Houses functioning as one part of a future urban layout planned around modular and mobile infrastructure,” Mattingly said in written comments to Civil Engineering online. “For instance, Flock Houses could be rolled to train tracks and latched to the end of a train, or latched to one another to create a larger home. On a citywide scale I could see them functioning as a housing/living system component in this larger infrastructure, redesigned to be mobile.”
The project’s genesis can be traced to Mattingly’s 2009 Waterpod Project, an autonomous floating ecohabitat that housed 4 to 6 people and served as a study of living on the water in a contained ecosystem, Mattingly said. Waterpod travelled the East River for six months, docking at times at local piers.
“I wanted to rethink these ecosystems, imagining them as smaller units that could lock together to be scalable, and could traverse land but also water and latch on to underused structures,” Mattingly said. “Unlike the Waterpod, these units are specifically incomplete ecosystems to promote sharing, bartering, and working together to source and exchange extra resources. People will need to supplement some food and occasionally water, but for the most part, necessities including shelter, power, food, and water are provided for in a Flock House living system.”
The development of the prototype Flock House at the Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology was a nonlinear process, informed as much by trial and error lessons in the salvaging and fabrication process as by formal design drawings, Wall said in written comments to Civil Engineering online.
“The main structural elements that we developed were the laminated plywood ribs, aluminum ladder base, and an electrical conduit shell,” Wall said. “Early on, there was a lot of discussion about single integrated structural systems versus multiple component systems. One of the primary reasons for choosing multiple components was that they could be fabricated separately by different teams in different locations, and local or more readily available resources could be used.”
Flock Houses feature aluminum ladders for structural support at
the base, laminated plywood support members, and electrical
conduit frames. © Mary Mattingly
Aluminum ladders provide a solid, lightweight base for the dome’s floor, Wall said. An added benefit is they provide ready attachment points for building systems and transportation devices. The laminated plywood ribs were chosen because they are readily available as construction scraps and are simple to fabricate. The weathering issues inherent with plywood are addressed by sealing the ribs with resin.
The electrical conduit that is fashioned into the triangular panels of the dome was selected because it is manufactured to be readily formed by simple hand tools, Wall said. The infill panels covering the conduit frames are made from a variety of found materials.
“In order to bypass local code requirements for plan approval and work permits, we designed the pods based on maximum allowed floor area, floor height (2'-0"), overall height (10'-0") and width (8'-0") and time at a single location (less than 30 days),” Wall said.
Mattingly lived in the prototype, using her experiences to develop adjustments that make the structure more functional. Two more Flock Houses were constructed and the process of siting them has begun. The three houses have been on eight sites so far this summer. Plans are under way for longer-term sites in the future.
“So far, most of the residents have been artists and writers,” Mattingly said. “In one location, a Flock House was used by a homeless person, and I was living in one on a rooftop.”
Each house has a rainwater collection system that includes storage and purification. A natural gray water cleaning system directs water into sub-irrigated planter beds. Power sources are solar panels and bike and lever power generators. The structures come apart in six sections, can be wheeled around, locked into place, and lifted from the top, Mattingly said.
“Living in the Flock House on the rooftop was incredibly peaceful amid a busy downtown Brooklyn. Time passed slowly,” Mattingly said. “I would fall asleep when it grew dark and be awake at sunrise. I took time to work on the structure, record my experiences, prepare and cook food, read, work on artwork, and climb. There is plenty to explore on rooftops.”