A growing number of architects are considering sustainability and the environment in their designs, and luckily for them, building materials are evolving in tandem. Inhabitat recently covered mnmMOD, a standardized but customizable structurally insulated wall-panel designed by Santa Monica design studio Minarc. In addition to cutting construction time and cost, these reusable prefabricated panels contain recycled materials and minimize heat loss and gain for a low carbon footprint. mnmMOD left such of an impression on Stuart Magruder, former President of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the founder and principal of Studio Nova A Architects, that he chose to incorporate the panels into the renovation his own personal residence. Magruder, whose work includes the gorgeous Culver City Hill House, discusses sustainable architecture, environmentally conscious building practices, energy efficiency, mnmMOD, and the future of architecture with us below.
Image is property of Studio Nova A Architects, Inc.
Tell me a bit about yourself – Growing up? Early Influences? The path that led you to where you currently are personally and professionally.
Magruder: I’m an architect, a graduate of Princeton University where I majored in architecture. I didn’t stay in the field, I did a written thesis at Princeton rather than a drawn thesis. I ended up going into advertising for four years and then decided I wanted to get back into architecture so I came out to Los Angeles and went to SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture), the graduate school here in LA. I got my masters at SCI-Arc, got out in ‘97, and I’ve been here since then. I’ve had my own firm since ‘05. I was president of the AIA LA (American Institute of Architecture Los Angeles) in 2012 and won a national award. I apprenticed under Eric Owen Moss for a couple years out of school which was really fantastic, then spent about six years at Richard Meier & Partners in LA, so that’s my background. I try to do highly sustainable, contemporary work, that’s my focus and sometimes it’s harder than you think.
What sparked your initial interest in sustainability and green building techniques in regards to architecture and design?
Magruder: Probably the thing that started it was a camp I attended as a kid up in Maine and one of my counselors, who is now the head of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), Amory Lovins, who’s a pretty world famous nuclear physicist. RMI is all about figuring out, more so the power and transportation issues than necessarily building sustainability, but they’re trying to help us all move to a low carbon world. So, he was this camp counselor and I went off in the backcountry of Maine on a 12 day crazy backpacking trip. He was a great guy and that’s where I really got interested in the environment. I lived in Colorado as a kid and was always outside and skied a ton when I was young so, it’s always been about being outside and it’s really, you know, if you appreciate what nature has to offer you, you realise that there are things we’re doing that aren’t that helpful to the natural world. That’s kind of what led me into thinking, well, let’s be sustainable AND modern, you don’t have to do one or the other. So that’s how I got into it.
How did you first meet Erla and Tryggvi of mnmMOD? What were your initial impressions of them?
Magruder: You know, I can’t remember exactly where we first met. It might have been when I was, I’ve been really active as I mentioned earlier in AIA, and it may have been at some AIA event. But yea, they’re just great. They’re neat, they’re funky, they’re different, they’re really interested in doing things that are interesting which is kind of unusual. There aren’t a ton of those people out there so I try to gravitate towards people like that. They’re a good couple and they’re interested in the things that matter to me, and we’ve always been friendly in a colleague sense. I really enjoy their way of seeing things.
Why did you decide to use mnmMOD in the remodel and addition to your personal residence?
Magruder: Because of my friendship with Erla and Tryggvi, my confidence in their ability to pull it off, and my confidence in their understanding what I’m trying to do, as opposed to a fabricator trying to take my stuff, so I thought that was important. And the fact that they’re local is great.
Image is property of Studio Nova A Architects, Inc.
As it currently stands, what do you see as the most significant environmental shortcomings of the home building industry?
Magruder: Gosh, there are so many. I think it really is the kind of wall construction methodology right now, and this product is a good way around it. It’s more expensive than wood studs so that’s why it’s not happening on a regular basis, but as we move toward the requirement in 2020, which is really very soon, the state mandates that all residential, including multifamily, be net zero, and products like this are going to be required so I think a real deep re-think of how we put buildings together is what we need to do if we’re going to keep heading towards a low-carbon, or no-carbon future.
How does using mnmMOD help to solve these shortcomings?
Magruder: Well, it ties back to what I mentioned earlier about the break in the thermal bridge and super-insulating. mnmMOD’s insulation is integral with the metal so there’s just no gaps per se that are going to let heat or cold go through the building easily, so that’s what’s great about it and that’s why it’s a good product if you want to super-insulate.
What do you see as the most important advantages mnmMOD holds over traditional building practices-
– For Architects and Designers?
Magruder: It’s a way to achieve an energy usage goal, and it’s a more complex system than doing wood studs so in some ways it has that disadvantage because it takes a little more thought and your design is a little more difficult. But the point is, if you need to achieve a certain energy use, this is a product that will help you get there, that’s something it’s good for. The build-to-suit aspect is also key, so that’s definitely another advantage.
– For Homebuilders and Contractors?
Magruder: The real advantage from a homebuilder point of view would be the speed of erection. You can essentially get your framing up in a week or so, rather than a month or two. So there’s a speed, time and money benefit there which helps soften the burden of the higher price of the materials than just using wood.
– For Homeowners?
Magruder: I think it’s a couple things. It’s the super-insulation and that you should be experiencing lower energy bills. It’s the fact that it’s metal studs so you won’t ever have to worry about termites. It’s essentially a fire rated system so you’re not going to burn up your metal studs in a house fire. You also get pretty good acoustical. Not fantastic, but you get an improved acoustical envelope so the house will feel quieter. I would say those would be the main things from a homeowner point of view.
Image is property of Studio Nova A Architects, Inc.
What directions do you see the sustainable building industry going in over the next 5-10 years?
Magruder: That’s a good question. I think it’s going to be systems like this. I think there’s going to be a lot of competition for what Erla and Tryggvi are doing. I’m pretty sure the “big boys” are going to get into this as they realize they’re going to get screwed in 2020 if they don’t have a product that works, so I think you’re going to see a lot of movement in the building envelopes arena. That would probably be the biggest thing. We’ve already done a lot on energy efficiency around things like HVAC systems and water use. Certainly out here (Southern California), a more widespread uptick in the use of water-saving techniques and landscaping is going to continue to happen whether we come out of this drought this year or not, so I also think water is going to be a big one. Energy and water are really the same thing. When you use energy you’re using water because about half of all potable water in the country is used to spin electrical turbines. So if you use electricity you’re spinning a turbine and that’s using water and, certainly in this state, with water getting pushed around, if you’re using water you’re using energy so they’re kind of two sides of the same coin and if you’re efficient on either, or hopefully both, then you’re really making a big difference.
Would you encourage people who are considering building a new home to use mnmMOD? Why?
Magruder: Yea, definitely. The things I mentioned earlier, the super-insulation, the no termites and reduced fire damages, the durability surrounding steel which is great, and the acoustical benefits all are reasons why I would use it, why I am using it, and certainly why I recommend this system and some of their competitors on every project I’ve done. My own house will be the first time I get to use it. It’s hard, some of this stuff is tough, if you don’t have to do it, people won’t necessarily do it. That’s a big challenge.
Do you think the homebuilding industry is ready to shift away from wasteful wood framing techniques?
Magruder: Well to be honest with you, the question would be better phrased as “wasteful wood stud” because that arguably is efficient, fast, and cheap, but it’s not as good as something like mnmMOD’s product. I think it’s going to be. The only thing that may change it, unfortunately, and I hate to say this because I hate a lot of it, is regulation. So, when there’s a mandate that we have to be net zero, then we’re going to be net zero and then products like this one and other things will help us get there. But, it’s only when we’re forced to do something that costs more will anybody do it. Unless it’s a vanity thing, and usually that’s surface stuff. The challenge with a wall system is you don’t see it. Once it’s built you’re like ‘It’s a wall, whatever’, you know? So it’s a hard one. If it was like, a painting, then yea, sure, I could blow a ton of money on that and brag about it to all my colleagues and friends and it would be a trophy thing, but if it’s buried in gypsum board and stucco, you don’t see it, you kind of lose that connection to it.
In terms of the initial increase in cost, do you feel that the long term cost savings due to the increased energy efficiency totally offset the initial investment?
Magruder: I haven’t done a calculation on this and I don’t want to speak out of turn, but certainly, if you use mnmMOD panels and you do a proper sealing of the building which also isn’t done very often, and you have a real tight building from an air movement point of view then yea, you’re going to start to see savings. You may be looking at a 15, 20, 30 year payback but again, a wood stud doesn’t pay you back. So if you’re able to get something back I’ve always thought ‘wow, that’s a net-positive.’ It may not be a huge net-positive and the problem is when people try to sell this idea they’ll say, the additional cost let’s say is 20 grand more and you’re going to get back maybe 10 grand in 20 years. So it can become hard to justify if you’re tight and usually every single client is tight and will be like ‘ehh, this is more than I expected’. So it’s always a challenge to get it to work, and it probably does pay it back. The other issue that you don’t have on the larger scale side of the industry is if you’re doing a large office complex or a big multi-family or a skyscraper, then you’ve got a full suite of consultants and engineers who are looking at all these things and they’re saying ‘yea, we can pay a premium up front for this product but over the next 15 years you’re going to get back 50, 60, 100 percent of it and then you’ll start making money.’ So, it can be hard in the single family homes, smaller deals, to justify empirically.
Image is property of Studio Nova A Architects, Inc.
I can see in the larger scale it kind of boils down to a business decision at one point.
Magruder: Exactly, exactly. Yea, and they’ve got the data to make the decision and that’s what it comes down to. You don’t typically have the data at the small scale project to really justify it. You have a hunch, which is what I work off of, but people who pay the bills want more than a hunch.
Right, and that’s something we’ve discussed. When people buy a Tesla, they see you driving the Tesla every day. When you build a house with mnmMOD, once it’s done, nobody knows what’s inside, so that’s a challenge.
Magruder: Green bling! There’s a whole term out there, green bling.
So this brings up another question that’s not on the list, Tryggvi and Erla recently informed me that the mnmMOD system is fully title 24 compliant right off the bat, so having that assurance when building, what do you feel the significance of that is?
Magruder: Well it’s good. What it does is it allows you to be really efficient where it’s relatively easy to be efficient which is the walls, and then if you do want to add, say, a wall of glass which is always going to be thermally much worse than a wall, even a stud wall, then you have more flexibility to get a large glass opening, say in the living room where you want to have a view and you want to have 15 feet of solid glass, it can make that easy to calc out when you do your title 24 report. So yea, it definitely allows you to be efficient where it’s easy to be efficient.
Would you recommend combining mnmMOD with other efficient/sustainable/Net Zero-focused products and techniques like solar power, geothermal heating/cooling, green roofs, etc.? Why?
Magruder: Oh yea, definitely. There’s a whole menu of things you’ve got to do. You’ve got to do all that, and low maintenance finishes on the exterior, there’s lots of things you can do to help minimize the use of chemicals and consuming products. Building a building is like building a custom car. there are so many pieces to it, you’ve got the drivetrain, you’ve got the wheels, you’ve got the dashboard, you’ve got the sexy metal or fiberglass shell and the windshield and all of them are different and they all have different requirements and you have to figure them all out and do it well. It’s the same thing if you’re trying to do sustainable construction, you’ve got all these different pieces and you’ve got to try to nail the sustainability issue on each one. It can be a pain in the ass! That’s probably what I like about it, I like trying to figure out, at heart I’m really a nerd, so I love figuring out problems, and figuring out how to do things sustainably is a great problem to tackle. The other thing we all forget is that before we had all this electricity, we built much more sustainably. We did things much more in tune with what the environment gave us because we didn’t have a choice.
Would you say that using mnmMOD provides a huge jump start towards attaining net zero home status?
Magruder: Oh yes, undoubtedly. Super-insulation is the key to reducing your energy use in terms of HVAC, so yea, the first and the biggest thing you’ve got to do is be super-insulated.
Extrapolating from that, seeing as super-efficiency is the key to attaining net zero status, and mnmMOD is super-efficiency insulated, would you say that mnmMOD can be a key to attaining net zero home status?
Magruder: Exactly, that’s why I’m using them. That’s the whole reason. I’ll be honest with you, it’s hurting me financially, it’s a bit of a stretch. I had to really say ‘OK, holy crap, this number…’ It’s a big nut to crack, and I know I could do it cheaper with wood, but I decided ‘alright I’m gonna go for it.’ So I’ve jumped in with everything, including my kids and my wife, we’re all in the deep end together making it work. It’s a commitment and it’s the way you get a real sustainable home, so you’ve just gotta make it work. But you look at the numbers and you think ‘this is what it is and it’s this much more for a good reason.’ The non-committed fall off quickly. I’m excited, I’m looking at shop drawings this weekend, and hopefully we’ll get panels on site later this month. I’d love to get you out. It’d be great to reconnect sometime out on-site and get you to see it. I think Erla and Tryggvi are happy and excited because this is not a totally boxy house, we have some angles going on. Nothing crazy, but a little bit of bumping and grinding that’s, I think, new for mnmMOD to execute, so it’s kind of fun that way and it’d be good for you to see.
Is there anything else you can say about mnmMOD from a professional architect’s perspective?
Magruder: When Erla and Tryggvi and I were talking a couple years ago, I said to them the (mnmMOD) tagline could be something like ‘sustainable system by architects, for architects.’ That was something I thought was interesting, that they understand what an architect does. It makes that initial uptake easier.
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