Moscow native and Princeton resident Marina Rubina is passionate about what she does — architecture that is firmly grounded in structural engineering, which is her second master’s degree. Sometimes her comfort with the equations gets her in trouble, but mostly it allows her to come up with elegant solutions that may seem complicated but turn out to be easy to build and, with the help of modular construction, cheaper than the ground-up alternative.
When Rubina and her husband, astrophysicist Anatoly Spitkovsky, first arrived in Princeton and lived in university housing, they started thinking about whether to buy or build a house. The decision was made for them, during a Communiversity weekend, when they took her visiting younger brother to show him the ultramodern house by J. Robert Hillier on Quarry Street.
Although the house, which stands out from its surroundings on Quarry Street, aroused some controversy, Rubina finds it “fun” and not at all like a McMansion. “I think from an urban standpoint it is a really good thing to make smaller houses that allow opportunities for more families to live close to town and for people to walk, not drive,” she says. “That’s why I love this neighborhood — it’s beautiful and quiet, but so close to everything.”
Rubina decided when she saw a “for sale by owner” sign on Quarry that afternoon that she really wanted to live in that neighborhood. She negotiated back and forth with the owner and received his go-ahead call when she was in labor with her older son, Daniel. When he said, “I’m ready to sell the house,” she responded, “Can I call you back tomorrow? We’re having a baby right now.”
Rubina’s house, a 2,500-square-foot modular, was the experiment that helped her convert the moonlighting work she had always done into a full-time practice. Her own house, along with another house being finished now for a client on Prospect Avenue, are opportunities for the architect to demonstrate her belief that modular construction can include customization, as well as standardization. See mission statement, page 47.
The installation of the Quarry Street house turned out to be a little complex with regard to finding a way to maneuver the module onto the lot. The property had a hydrant in front, which they at first figured could be capped for one day so the truck could drive over it. To effect this, they called the fire marshal and got an okay. Then they contacted American Water, which told her it could be done for $5,000. That sounded outrageous to Rubina, who told them she would get back to them.
When she called American Water back, the company had raised the price to $10,000, so Rubina went back to the drawing board and came up with an alternative plan. With the blessings of her next-door neighbor, Shirley Satterfield, the module was left in her driveway rather than Rubina’s after backing its way through the driveway of the Waxwood apartments across the street. The crane came through the driveway of another neighbor, Councilman Lance Liverman, into Rubina’s backyard.
Then, with Satterfield sitting on her porch, the crane lifted Rubina’s house over Satterfield’s house. “It was a giant cooperative effort; everybody was involved,” says Rubina of her neighborhood.
Not too long after the house was done, Satterfield was at a meeting of the Princeton Historical Society planning its annual house tour. When she told people about the house that had been lifted over hers onto a property that formerly held the head house of the quarry that had been on the street many years before, the society decided to put Rubina’s house on the tour — despite the house itself being contemporary. “People come to see historic,” Rubina says. “Their first reaction was, wow, we thought we liked historic, but we want to live here: there is no trim or moldings to dust.”
The tour visitors were also physically drawn to the materials she uses. “What I really like about architecture is that it has enough texture or natural materials where people want to touch it,” she says, contrasting it to a tour she took of Craftsman architecture from the 1920s in California where she was told, “Don’t touch anything.”
Rubina got interested in modular houses in graduate school. “I was working on a project in San Francisco, and at some point I realized that the remodeling costs for that house cost as much per square foot as I was paying for rent every month,” she says. “It hit me that something was seriously wrong with that situation and there must be a better way to do this.”
At the same time, she was working on a studio project at school on affordable housing, and the contrast between it and the astronomical costs of remodeling drove her to research a way to reduce construction costs, and she started to look at the off-site fabrication of houses.
California did not have much off-site fabrication, although Pennsylvania has huge amounts, centered largely around the Scranton area. Rubina interviewed several factories to see how the process works, and when she asked, “How do you build these things?” she was told, “We don’t build, we fabricate.”
Fabrication is much like an automobile assembly line. “When a car is made on an assembly line,” she says, “someone has pre-drawn and predetermined what needs to be done, and on the assembly line they just do — they don’t have to figure it out, and this saves time and waste.”
Normally on a construction site, she explains, there is a lot of inherent waste, for example, if something is cut too short, it gets thrown in the dumpster. But when a house is fabricated in a factory, an engineer has created shop drawings that illustrate all the parts and pieces of the entire house and how they go together, down to the level of how many 2 x 4s they need of a certain length and how they attach to each other. Then all the wood is cut on the first day.
“There is no figuring out, thinking, cutting too short or long,” says Rubina. “In that way they save a lot of time and save waste. They use smaller pieces left over from previous projects for the next, and you’re not only saving money but it’s also green.”
Rubina found the off-site fabricators she met with in California very frustrating. “I found that their goal was to design a standard model that would get reproduced over and over — a house that was built 50 times,” she says. What got to her was that they really didn’t spend the extra time thinking everything through. For example, they were not careful about selecting the size of bathroom tiles and arranging them so that the builders did not have to cut tiles to fit around the window.
Many companies that build modules did not, she found, really go in for originality. “If you go on any of their websites, they have standard designs, but none of them are anything interesting or special. They are all standard, boring boxes,” she says.
But for Rubina, modules decidedly do not imply boring, because the methodology is actually reasonably flexible. “I don’t see anything inherent in the method of construction that would generate that kind of architecture,” she says of the boxes. The limitations have to do with the width allowed on a highway, 16 feet, and the length achievable in a factory, which is only limited by the spacing of columns in the factory, which can be as far apart as 70 feet.
“What I figured out is if you understand how they do it, there is nothing limiting,” she says. “You can design anything you want as long as you understand their system. The design can be unique as long as it fits their parameters.” For example, if you need a module to be wider or longer, then you just divide the house into more sections.
But producing houses with original designs meant that the fabrication factories had to be willing to experiment. During the economic downturn, when they were desperate for work, however, they were willing to talk. The one she chose to work with was Future Home Technology in Port Jervis, New York, and Rubina explains why: “When I would come to all the factories and show them my plans, they would say, ‘Oh my goodness, this is crazy.’ When I showed up to the factory that built it, they said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is crazy — we love it, and we’ll do it.’”
“They were bored with doing the same thing over and over,” says Rubina, noting that her own house won the American Institute of Architects 2012 AIA New Jersey Design Award; a movie of its installation, taken by her husband, is available on her website, www.mrubina.com.
Rubina’s parents are both engineers — her father, electrical, and her mother, civil. She sees a direct line from her father, through her, to her son. “My dad is one of those true engineers. He always tinkers, and it is fun to see that my younger son is exactly the same,” she says, adding. “I think I am like my dad.”
In 1992, two years after the Soviet Union fell apart, her family came to the United States from Russia. Rubina, 16, landed in the suburbs, in a high school in Fremont, California.
“When I came here, I was certainly not fitting in very well,” she says. “I had no clue of what was going on.” In an Advanced Placement calculus class when she was a junior in high school, the teacher announced that the students needed to pay $75 to take the test at the end of the year. When, in response to her parents’ question about whether it was required, the teacher told her no, they figured they could wait until the end of the year to decide. Except that they really couldn’t. “At the end of the year, finally when I figured out what it was, I couldn’t take the test,” she says.
In college she majored in architecture and minored in structural engineering, whose denizens are “engineers who design houses who make sure they don’t fall down.” And as a graduate student, she earned degrees in both architecture and structural engineering.
The process that works for her involves the combination of her architectural and engineering backgrounds into a satisfying back-and-forth process between ideas and construction solutions: “I sit with a blank piece of paper, and create and generate ideas. With my engineering background, I look at all these cool ideas, and ask, ‘How can we make them happen?’”
Because of her own solid background in structural engineering, Rubina is comfortable with the calculations necessary to ensure that buildings will be stable and architectural solutions workable. But while in graduate school at Berkeley teaching an undergraduate course in structures for architects, she learned that not all architects feel this way. “Lots of architecture students are very scared of structural engineering, which they all have to take,” she says. “When teaching, I was trying to tell people you are trying to build a basic understanding, an intuition. You don’t have to do the calculations; you can have a structural engineer do them.”
Rubina met her husband, who is originally from Kiev, Ukraine, because they were both part of a Russian comedy group at Berkeley. The group participated in competitions where they presented some prepared material and also did some improvisation. She is still close to members of the comedy troupe, although most are still on the West Coast.
When she finished her master’s degrees, her husband was still working on his doctorate. She continued to work with Berkeley architect Peter Brock, as she had done all the way through college and graduate school. “I think of him as this amazing architect in its true meaning: he is one of the people who really cares about design and also is really knowledgeable about construction processes and how to put materials together,” she says.
Brock’s office even sported a woodshop where they would build out portions of their projects, figuring it would take longer to explain what they wanted than to just do it themselves.
Luckily Brock, originally from Delaware, went to Princeton as an undergraduate and comes back for reunions, and they talk at least monthly and send each other what they are working on. “He is my friend and mentor and amazing collaborator, and one of the saddest things about leaving California was not having Peter so close,” she says. Rubina and her husband moved to Princeton in 2006 when he took a position on the Princeton University astrophysics faculty.
Her first year in Princeton, Rubina worked for Richardson Smith, a small Princeton firm, and she worked primarily as project architect for the redesign of the chapel at Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart into a library, which she says was an interesting challenge.
Then she moved to Kieran and Timberlake, a Philadelphia firm with 40 to 50 people. There she learned that her own comfort with structural engineering could put her in conflict with actual structural engineers. She says, “I worked in a large architectural firm, and we would come to the point where we would design something and the structural engineers would say it is impossible to build and I would say, ‘Actually it is not true; this is how you calculate it.’”
“I was constantly pushing them that they have to be more creative and get out of their comfort zone,” she says.
She was with the firm for two years, but was laid off after her maternity leave, which coincided with the economic downturn. “It was a great experience working on a larger project,” she says, adding, “I hope eventually to build up my practice to that level and work on schools and university projects.
Many contractors, says Rubina, have told her that at first glance her designs look very complicated, but they turn out to be easy to build. “I don’t look at complexity for the sake of complexity,” she says. “I try to come up with ways that it is not that hard to do but doesn’t compromise the design.”
Without giving up on quality of life within the structures she creates, Rubina does keep in mind ways to save money, and offsite fabrication is one of her tools, as is the use of relatively inexpensive and easy-to-use natural materials that “can be put together in interesting ways that give a lot of texture and richness and you want to go touch it.”
She also focuses on the quality of light in a house and its effect. “It is amazing how much bigger spaces feel,” she says.
Unlike many architects, Rubina also does construction administration, which means she is there on behalf of the client to make sure the work is done per the original drawings.
She values working with a “true craftsman,” like her construction contractor on the house she is building at 235 Prospect Avenue in Princeton, Dave Fabiano. “Dave is a really good example of someone who stands behind his work, is really proud of it, and knows his craft,” she says. “I’ve worked with some who slap it together and see what the architect thinks.”
She also appreciates what she can learn by developing a good relationship with the builder. “I try to get to know the builder and figure out why they do what they do and follow their construction logic,” she says. But if a builder does not follow her drawings and does not tell her ahead of time about a change, that is problematic, for two reasons: first, because it is not what she wants, and second, because she wants to learn from the problems.
For Rubina, a 7,000-square-foot house is overkill. The two houses she has built in Princeton, her own and the one going up now on Prospect are much smaller and more economical, but both are comfortable and have a sense of spaciousness that she creates by bringing in lots of light, connecting with the outdoors, and combining functions.
In her own house she tried where possible to combine functions in several ways. First, cabinets for shoes and coats that line the entrance hall face the kitchen and use the same cabinetry. “It hides the shoes and coats, but at the same time makes the kitchen feel larger,” she says. “I look for design efficiencies.”
Or, the home office that her husband also uses when he works at home, has a bathroom next door and a pullout sofa. It will become a bedroom when their parents visit. Or, if someone should break a leg and be unable to go upstairs, there would be a place in the house for them to sleep.
Another combination of function happens on the second floor, where, instead of hallways with rooms off of them, there is a small landing, with a neat little extension, all lined with windows, that functions as a children’s playroom.
“By combining all the square footage that would have gone into pure circulation — walking — it becomes a fun space, and we don’t need another family room or living room,” says Rubina. “Because it is open, it feels larger even though it is a small space, and it is a loft that overlooks a large space.”
Both the office and the kitchen are on the first floor, at the front of the house. “If the rooms you use are in the front, it builds community, and if your eyes are on the street, you keep the neighborhood safe,” she says.
Next to the half-stairs going down to the carport is a white structure they call “the iceberg” where they stage stuff that needs to go up or down the stairs. The basement has one room that also accommodates toys, but is out of sight.
The living room has an entertainment center along the stairway wall that sits on an attractive cabinet. It houses the audiovisual equipment, and also has a slot underneath that serves as the air return for the HVAC system. At one end, the cabinet has a decorative vertical segment that hides an ugly structural column.
Her older son chose his room because of the backhoe that was behind it the first time he visited. Her younger son lives in the “tree-house” at the front of the house where, before bedtime, he can count all the vehicles in the street.
The house’s windows, many of which are floor to ceiling, all have roller shades that black out the light, and lights and thermostats are all controlled from a single switch in the house as well as from cell phones. So when they land at the airport, they can turn the heat back on so it is toasty when they arrive.
The house is Energy Star certified, with high-efficiency HVAC equipment; an on-demand water heater; a tight exterior building envelope that is well insulated and sealed; extremely energy efficient windows; and they get extra credit for not having a garage or a fireplace and for being located close to town. “Because of the green features, our electricity and gas bills are as small as when we lived in a two-bedroom apartment in university housing,” she says, noting that at first they thought their meters weren’t functioning.
Her backyard is low maintenance, with native plants that don’t need to be watered or pruned, and she has “no mow” grass that only needs to be cut twice a year. She uses large rocks, many left over from the excavation, to create zones in the yard and also to help collect water during heavy rain and release it slowly. For really hot days, she can use water from her underground rainwater collection system.
At 235 Prospect, Rubina has had three different groups at work on the construction: the general contractor, Dave Fabiano; a crane company, City Erectors; and a set crew, Hickory Lane Construction, which is focused entirely on modular homes. The set crew removed all of the protective materials that were wrapping the modules for the road, connected the modules to cribbing that allowed the crane to lift modules up and set them in place, bolted the modules together in the basement and placed supporting metal columns, lifted the roof and installed the dormer, and assembled the garage, which had been shipped in pieces.
Modules come with windows, doors, drywall, and rough plumbing and electrical. Compared to typical Princeton construction costs, Rubina says, the savings are on the order of 20 to 40 percent.
What was unusual about the 235 Prospect house was how the architect and owners handled the existing house on the property. Because the rooms were too small and the ceiling too low for today’s standards, they would have been effectively rebuilding the house in any case. So they decided to go for modular but retain the existing foundation, the basement, and a small piece that was added on seven years ago, which holds a small room with a fireplace and a full bath to the side. They also added a porch in the front and bumped the office out three to four feet.
When they took down most of the existing house, they set aside and stored all salvageable materials, which included the full custom kitchen that had also been put in seven years ago. “Rather than throw it out, we decided to see if it fits and give it a new life, and my goodness it works,” says Rubina. All it is missing is two to three cabinets, and these will be built by the original cabinetmaker.
Both Rubina and the owners really liked the south-facing backyard, so they were careful not to cut down any trees. For Rubina the property is an extension of the home, and a large set of sliding doors leads from the kitchen/great room out to the yard. These doors have about a two-foot overhang, which keeps out the sun in the summer when it is hot and high in the sky, but lets it in during the winter.
In the front is a spacious and airy music room/office with windows around the corner. “It’s on the northeast, with beautiful morning light,” says Rubina. “I like an office facing the street — a command and control center where you can wave at people.” She also likes windows in the corners. “Practically all rooms in both my house and the Prospect Avenue house have corner windows — I love those. They create very special views, light, and sense of openness. To me a window in the corner helps to remove the barrier between the inside and the outside.”
Running up the center of the Prospect Avenue house is a stairway faced with windows from top to bottom. There are two children’s bedrooms, and an open playroom area that could be made into a bedroom. Looking at the windows that reach up to the ceiling in the master bedroom, she says, “It makes the space and light different; it really glows.”
Another advantage of this house, and modular in general, are the double walls where the modules come together, which create a greater sound barrier between modules and between the upper and lower floors of the house (normally the ceiling of the first story and the floor of the second are the same, but a modular house has a double-floor assembly).
Rubina has a definite opinion in the conversation about knockdowns and McMansions, but she distinguishes between the two. Old houses, she says, fall into two categories: those with lots of deferred maintenance, which may be leaking or generally falling apart; and those that people have been keeping up and are in good shape. Given current construction prices, she explains, it is inefficient to remodel a house in the first category. “To fix it up is so expensive it’s not worth the investment; that’s how houses get knocked down,” she says.
One reason remodels are so expensive, she adds, is because of the surprises that may lurk. The carpenters try to protect themselves by raising their prices.
Regarding McMansions, Rubina has some serious problems. “The developers are not trying to design a house; they are trying to design a real estate listing,” she says. As a result, a house needs to have all the elements that will maximize the number of people who are going to look at it.
Pointing to her own house, she notes that the open area next to the kitchen also leads into the living room, but it may be labeled an eat-in kitchen rather than a dining room, which she uses it for. “To me, the solution to McMansions is to design houses for people to live in, not trying to design real estate sheets for a thing you are trying to sell,” she says.
“The other big problem with McMansions,” continues Rubina, “is that they have no relationship to the land.” She realized this many years ago when her brother was helping her measure a modern Craftsman house in California for a renovation. Because of the tight relationship between the house itself and the walls, planters, steps, and decks that expanded the house outside, she says, they couldn’t tell, as they were measuring, where the house ended and the outdoors began.
This contrasts with the usual McMansion. “With developer houses, it’s like a spaceship has landed; it has no relation to the outdoors and doesn’t incorporate any landscape features,” she says.
She designed her own house to work well with the property. The light from outside makes the rooms feel much bigger, and the doors to the deck open completely. “You can be inside and outside at the same time,” she says, adding that she sees her job as considering the space outside as a room.
Rather than having huge rooms like those of a McMansion, she says, she just has to make sure that the inside and outside relate to each other. Of course she also has to consider the solar orientation. The L-shape created by her living room shades the outdoor space, so that when she puts an inflatable pool on the deck in the summer, it will warm up in the morning, but by afternoon will be shaded. Her view is that the architect should “shape the outside space and make it part of your living environment.”
Another benefit she sees of “houses that are not just boxes” is that people can look out the window and see their house, which makes it feel bigger. A wing like she has also gives shape to the space outside and adds some privacy, without having to build a tall fence.
The part she plays in trying to tamp down the desire for McMansions involves gentle persuasion. When people ask her whether she can you design one for them, she says, “No, I will design something smaller and more efficient that will have less space but the same amenities — it doesn’t have to be so huge.”
“I feel that if I were to design something that is truly beautiful, unique, and small, I think people will come and see the difference and say, Maybe I don’t need a monster of a house; I could be happy in a 2,300 or 2,500-square-foot house, have an outdoor space, and an electric and gas bill that are less,” says Rubina. “That’s my hope — we’ve got to do something.”
Marina Rubina, Architect, 28 Quarry Street, Princeton 08542; 609-683-1376. www.mrubina.com.