General Modular Building Information

Professor Michael A. Berk, Registered Architect Interview

Professor Michael A. Berk
F.L. Crane Endowed Professor of Architecture
Mississippi State University
February 2008
For more information about Professor Berk's work in architecture please visit here.

Modular Today was lucky enough to catch up with Professor Berk. This architect teaches at Mississippi Sate University and recently won the 2007 EPA LifeCycle Building Challenge. He has focused on environmentally friendly and affordable factory-built housing. We hope you enjoy this interview with the architect Michael Berk.

Modular Today: How has teaching architecture and design changed over the years?
Professor Berk: In most schools of architecture, students and faculty are much more engaged in the nature and properties of materials, the nature of construction, the engineering performances of design, and 'how' all of these concerns begin to translate into 'the actual making' of architecture. Conceptual design in the 21st century is finally including issues of energy and ecology.

Modular Today: Congratulation on having your GreenMobile home being chosen by the Alternative Housing Pilot Program. What about the GreenMobile home are you most proud about?
Professor Berk: We are aggressively negotiating with developers around the country. Depending on the region and the manufacturer we hope to soon have a prototype ready for the marketplace. Any interested parties should contact Chase Kasper (Mississippi State Univ. Office of Technology Commercialization: [email protected]). The work related to the FEMA Alternative Housing Pilot Program (AHPP) grant will produce a stripped-down, streamlined version of the GreenMobile - - - it will be called the Mississippi Eco-Cottage. Prototypes for that project should be available by late spring 2008.

Modular Today: How do you stay current with the changing prefabricated home industry?
Professor Berk: That is one of my areas of focus and research . . . I guess that I just 'pay attention' to my colleagues and the marketplace. People like Pliny Fisk III (at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems) and his Gro-Home project are making amazing contributions to the field.

Modular Today: Consumers can be very confused about prefabricated construction, what aspect of prefab should consumers focus on?
Professor Berk: The reality is that 'better quality' occurs in an environmentally-controlled factory setting. Lousy cars and excellent cars are often made in the same factory. Materials, design, and ultimate performance should be the criteria. Minimally, buildings should meet the IRC (International Residential Code) standards, not just HUD. One should recognize, all codes are ONLY minimum standards. In the end, the credibility of the manufacturer should be of the utmost concern.

Modular Today: For home buyers that want to be environmentally sensitive what advice can you offer them?
Professor Berk: Energy Star rated homes are now being made in many areas. This is a minimum seal of approval related to energy efficiency. Soon LEED® certified manufactured home standards will be in place - - - these will be good standards to look for. However, individual research on the web will probably uncover other possibilities. Hopefully, the GreenMobile® will be available soon; we have had hundreds of requests to purchase our product.

Look for materials that are durable and non-toxic. Most laminated materials utilize unhealthy glues and adhesives that are unhealthy as they out-gas from the product. Look for real solid materials - - - not facsimiles; they will also last longer.

Most homes address energy concerns by claiming 'more efficient appliances and insulation'. Consumers should be looking for designs that 'open up' and take full advantage of the climate when it is delightful outside (which can be as much as 6 months out of every year). They should also look to home designs that maximize the solar aspects of building orientation and positioning of windows and overhangs to maximize light and ventilation. Engineers are trying to convince us that 'sealed up tight buildings' are good; this is true, but it is only good for efficiency of mechanical systems - - - in most cases it is not good for human health. We can be more efficient if we learned to open windows (for fresh air) and have openings in buildings designed such that electric lighting is not necessary during daylight hours.

Modular Today: You have been an advocate for students to have computers and be familiar with CAD. Do you think consumers should also become familiarized with CAD to better interact with their designer?
Professor Berk: No. Unless the consumer is genuinely interested and knowledgeable in construction and design, it can be more dangerous than good. Good design is not about the applications and tools - - - it is about intellect, training, and a deep understanding of that particular field.

Modular Today: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing prefabricated home designers?
Professor Berk: The stigma associated with this industry. Frankly, the industry should be shamed of itself for not stepping up the plate and delivering products that would appeal to a higher end market-place. The only associations most people have with prefabricated manufactured housing is low-end single-wide mobile homes.

The industry should be more visionary and find ways of convincing the public that their units can achieve higher standards of construction with better quality control. R. Buckminister Fuller made this argument more than a half century ago; he suggested the housing industry examine the aerospace and auto industry for inspiration, technique, and production. He noted that 'performance' is what drives those designs - - - as opposed to temporary stylized fashions.

Modular Today: What keeps you up at night (other than really spicy food)?
Professor Berk: Thinking about the new housing revolution - - - and how it all centers around 'factory-built' delivery and construction. . . and wondering why it is taking so long?