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Insta_House – The Art of Losing

Architect Maziar Behrooz says that to create an extraordinary building, you need to take something away. With the $149,000 insta_House, he’s put that precept into stylish practice.

Architecture, the critic Robert Hughes observed, “is the one art no one can escape.” When it comes to residential architecture, however, the most exciting work tends to go to the very rich (who can afford to commission modernist fragments against their ruin) or the desperately poor (think of the strange and beautiful straw-bale charity homes of Samuel Mockbee). If you are a person of slender means living on the East End of Long Island, where half a million dollars buys a shack with low ceilings, small windows, and a great deal of linoleum, chances are the architecture you inhabit (or which inhabits you, after a fashion) is fairly artless. Probably you don’t aspire to own a masterpiece. Really, you may tell yourself, a structure of modest cost and dimensions whose design is informed by the time and place in which we live now would do.

As a socially-conscious response to the tight real estate market, Maziar Behrooz, an architect with offices in East Hampton and Manhattan, created the pre-fab insta_house, the first of which is to be installed on Shelter Island this summer. Constructed out of corrugated steel shipping containers, the two bedroom, two bathroom 950-square-foot structure costs a mere $149,000.

“People don’t believe it’s for real,” says Behrooz from his Chelsea office in the shadow of the High Line. Tall, angular, and built to a purpose–rather like his work– he’s wearing a button-down shirt, jeans, riding boots, and black-rimmed spectacles. “There’s been so much interest from all quarters. To build a home for $150,000 in this market is unthinkable.” Especially, one might add, a structure with a feeling of open space. A broad staircase, eighteen foot ceilings, and double-height horizontal windows contribute to the impression of a more expensive house.

Originally designed as a studio building in Amagansett for an artist on a budget–the prototype took an award from the American Institute of Architects –the insta_house was later reconceived into its present form. Contrary to convention, Behrooz set the price at the outset, a move, he says, that freed him and his team to approach the project through a process of deduction. What could they take away? (A basement, for starters. The house rests atop concrete pilings that can be raised to create a carport or storage space.) The result is a piece of architectural sleekness without frippery or bling in which every design element serves a function. The water heater is hidden behind the staircase; HVAC cooling and heating units are outside. Because it is such a simple structure, it can be fabricated in eight weeks and installed in a week flat.

There’s a rightness to the project, given that Behrooz is best known for far more elaborate works (the AIA award-winning Arc House in Amagansett, the Hanging Gardens house in Wainscott). But he’s no society architect. Not wanting to be pigeonholed as a designer of luxury homes, he applies himself to affordable housing projects every chance he gets.

Talk turns to the great touchstones of modernist architecture. Behrooz notes that “all those buildings are based on a single idea. I say if you want something extraordinary, you have to give something up. The overarching parameters of a space can be more important than the small things.”