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Weekly Chew: Pamela Bell, ex Olympic snowboarder and prefab enthusiast reckons she’s found the Holy Grail of design and construction

Weekly Chew: Pamela Bell, ex Olympic snowboarder and prefab enthusiast reckons she’s found the Holy Grail of design and construction
Having dabbled in more than a few extraordinary career ventures (Olympic snowboarder, clothing label creator to a Master of Architecture), Pamela Bell now has her sights firmly set on prefabricated building in New Zealand. But why exactly does she think it’s the Holy Grail for the design and constru

Having dabbled in more than a few extraordinary career ventures (Olympic snowboarder, clothing label creator to a Master of Architecture), Pamella Bell now has her sights firmly set on prefabricated building in New Zealand. But why exactly does she think it’s the Holy Grail for the design and construction industry?

Who the heck are you?  

I'm a mum to 2 pre-schoolers who keep me on my toes, and to stay sane I indulge my grey matter in the design-meets-business world of prefab. 'Prefab', 'prefabrication', or 'offsite' refers to any part of a building that is made away from the final site. It  is about building in larger chunks than the sticks that are traditionally cut up at site. It's potentially a way to build in a way that is more productive, efficient, higher-quality, greener, cheaper and faster. 

What inspires you? 

Ideas, people, connecting with shared visions for the future and ways to improve, refine and spread the word on high-quality design.

Biggest influence?

Mentors—particularly women who have successfully combined a passion for their work with a passion for their family (the greatest challenge in life).

How did you transition from being an Olympic snowboarder to establishing your own snow clothing company, to going on and obtaining your architectural masters in prefab housing?

I'm a lover of all things snow since being a kid and was lucky to have great family snow-times growing up. Skiing turned into ski-racing into snowboarding. The snow clothing company (Fruition) was a great creative outlet and grew with my aunt's partnership and guidance into a fantastic range of outerwear and printed merino garments in the 90s—alongside my Olympic path to the ‘98 games in Nagano, Japan, where I was thrilled to be the first kiwi Olympic snowboarder. The pursuit of an alternative sport pathway is actually a very fine combination of design/creativity and business/entrepreneurship. I learnt a huge amount along the way in terms of self-management, sport psychology and sponsorship.

The Master of Architecture evolved out of the proverbial question that you have in the last year of your Bachelors degree that can haunt you for the rest of your life. My question was 'why has prefab failed historically, and what can make it work in the future?'. The Masters was a way to frame it, so that I didn't come out empty-handed, just in case the answer was 'no'. Luckily the answer was 'yes, prefab can work'. I then came up with some guidelines for the future and this is how PrefabNZ was born. Now we run prefab events and connect enthusiasts and inform about prefab to the wider public 

What’s the fuss with prefabricated building design?

Prefab is fascinating—it is right at that point where design meets business. It is the Holy Grail for the design and construction industry. There is a great quote from the Museum of Modern Art (New York)'s 2008 'Home Delivery' exhibition (see it HERE) that says prefab is an agent for invention in material, architecture and sustainability. It is the wackiness of prefab and how it is a catalyst for innovation which is so appealing. It’s also future-focused which makes it really interesting and extremely relevant.

The 'house' was just a way to narrow the scope of my MArch thesis. Prefab is in fact as much about commercial and infrastructure as it is about residential construction. But the plethora of post-2000 modern green architecturally designed prefabs make for great eye-candy—like the Architex' iPad and Studio Pacific Architecture's k-bach.

iPad, designed by Architex

kbach, designed by Studio Pacific Architecture

Where does prefab housing fit into the Kiwi architectural picture?

Prefab comes in 5 types (or sizes)—the smallest being components, then panels (2D), then modules (3D), then hybrid (combos) and finally the complete building (or transportable). Component-based prefab is in almost all newly-built houses in the form of pre-nailed roof trusses and wall frames. 

At the other end of the scale, NZ has a rich cultural history of transportable baches for remote sites. It is the typologies in between, the panels and modules, which are used more extensively in North America and in Europe/UK, which are of greater interest to the future of the kiwi prefab. This is where we are looking to in the future, especially the hybrid (module plus panel) typology. Imagine a bathroom/kitchen/laundry module being lowered onto your floor slab, then panellised walls being slotted into place....now you can see what might be possible...

Prefab buildings are the focus of a huge national retrospective exhibition that will be at Puke Ariki (New Plymouth) starting in March 2012. This is in development with Victoria University of Wellington (Mark Southcombe) and will involve several life-size housing exhibits along with a substantial book and an overview of prefab in NZ since colonisation. It will be away for people to get up close and touch prefab, plus there will be hands-on aspects of how you can assemble components yourself and see the future of digital fabrication at the scale of housing.

Prefab buildings can be in any materials for any site for any custom client vision, therefore architects are an integral part of the prefab planning process. Remember, prefab is just a means to an end—it is a process, not an end product. So the role of the architect remains unchanged, it is just about designing with larger chunks, off-the-shelf components and an ability to repeat certain details. It is a high-quality custom approach, made all the more feasible by current digital technology which enables file-to-factory manufacturing. Of course the design has to be frozen earlier on, so that is about a more explicit dialogue with the client and project group.

Favourite building?

I love the form of Freyberg pool, Oriental Bay, Wellington. The user experience of the main space is fantastic, especially how you can swim in sunlight, that is pure magic.

Building you’d most like to tear down?

I'm looking out my window right now and don't know where to start.... next question.

Your philosophy?

I have an inner gravitational-pull towards challenges, so I just have to find a way to live with that and not self-destruct. It's less philosophy and more about understanding what makes me tick at a personal level.

Favourite quote?

This quote is a goodie: 'innovation is disruptive' (Malcolm Gladwell in 'what the dog sees'). Basically that change is painful. It is similar to sport when you are trying to change your technique—if you don't feel discomfort, pain, or weird, then you're not making any change at all.

Favourite café? 

I'm a fan of the Fidels/Havana/Deluxe/Aunt Sally's/Maranui school of Wellington cafes. There are a small group of very sharp cafe owners who bring an indispensable spirit to the capital city.