self-fab big-box re-hab

Architects love nothing more than the challenge of designing the ultimate house-in-a-box, unless it’s solving the world’s environmental problems.  If you can kill these two birds with one stone, even better!  We bit off this simple task when we entered the IAAC’s (Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia) competition called Self-fab House.  The idea of the competition was to solicit research and proposals for “self-sufficient housing”, in which individuals re-gain control over their own dwellings and communities while using cutting-edge and/or local technologies to reduce environmental impacts.

Our proposal, called “deBox”, took on the emerging environmental, social and cultural problem of big box retailing, or more specifically abandoned big boxes.  If you haven’t noticed, there are more than a few of these boxes gracing our contemporary landscape. The Real Estate Advisor blog quantifies the issue and defines the big box as “a freestanding building occupied by a single retail tenant that contains between 20,000 to 200,000 square feet of space and is surrounded by a large parking area”.

So what happens to these “ghostboxes” when the retailer pulls up stakes and leaves town, or just moves across the street to a bigger box?   Julia Christensen has published a book on this topic – Big Box Reuse (MIT press, 2008).  Her website gives examples: a mega-church, a Spam museum, an indoor race track, a day-care center…but all are cursed by the bland-ness of the box, and the vast-ness of the parking lot.

For this competition, we asked ourselves: Could these decaying carcasses become the framework for a self-empowered, energetic alternative to typical suburban environments? We think so, see what you think.

The IECC selected our proposal for publication in the competition catalog. Beth Weinstein reviewed he competition and our proposal, recently on the Design Observer website. She is justly critical of the competition as “cultivating a romantic myth of the lone survivalist pioneer and the existence of vast expanses of virgin land”, but has these kind words for our proposal: “…many of the projects are admirable, either for formal elegance …or for conceptual or procedural propositions, i.e., “deBox,” by Boehm Architecture, which transforms abandoned big-box stores into communal settlements…

Next time you’re traversing the ragged edges of anytown, consider the possibilities for that decaying super-store.  Because as Julia Christensen says, “There is not a landfill on earth able to handle all the big boxes that we have sitting empty”.