Lukas Petrash, Class of ’06
When Lukas Petrash ’06 was growing up in Texas, he learned to do a lot with very little. He made his own toys, fashioning a kite from a plastic bag and string, as well as a paintball gun from scraps of PVC, using wild berries for ammunition.
Petrash’s early inventions were a preview of his promising architectural career, which focuses on ultra-low-cost sustainable housing. His first project, completed after his junior year at USC’s School of Architecture, was a transportable bedroom addition for his parents’ house. On a $550 budget, he designed and built a 48-square-foot room. This set the precedent for the project that brought him international attention from several shelter magazines - building a completely sustainable home for $12,000. That’s $9.88 per square foot.
That project began in summer 2005, when Petrash returned to Huntsville, Texas, to work with the Sustainable Builders’ Guild of Huntsville, an organization that collects leftovers from lumberyards and contractors. Petrash took on the task of building a 484-square-foot two-bedroom house from scrap materials. The job required not only designing and building the structure, but also making sure it met all building codes. “Everyone told me it was impossible, and they were pretty close to right,” says Petrash.
Despite others’ skepticism, the president of the guild, Dan Phillips, had confidence in Petrash. Phillips says of Petrash: “He was a quick study, fast and relentless in everything he learned. I was riding in the shadows if he got in trouble or if he had any questions, but he carried it on completely.” Working only during the summers, Petrash completed the project in 13 months. The house was built for Petrash’s aunt, an artist, and he named the house the MCD House, using her initials.
Early in the design process, Petrash sought assistance from his mentor, USC architecture professor
Goetz Schierle. Schierle teaches a class on structures that Petrash credits as significantly influencing his current career path. “Unless we know how things work structurally, it will limit how we can dream,” says Petrash.
Schierle offered Petrash feedback on his drawings for the MCD House and was very pleased at the result. “Lukas’ house is much more unique than a typical design,” says Schierle. “It is very artistic. Students like Lukas really only come along once in a while.”
Petrash is quick to credit the school. “Before I came to USC, I knew nothing about architecture. It is wonderful to think that I have a lifetime ahead of me to practice all that I had the privilege to learn. I enjoyed USC so much that my younger brother, John-Paul ’07, chose to come, and now my younger sister, Grace Anna ’11, is at USC as well.”
After graduation, Petrash headed to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design for a master’s in housing and urbanization. While there, Petrash did extensive research on the history of prefabricated housing, seeking to understand why houses are produced so differently than cars and why hundreds of attempts to mass-produce houses in the United States have failed. He is currently completing a book on the subject.
“With this economy, people are going to start thinking about how can we build housing more affordably,” says Petrash. “I think they are going to start making the same mistakes that they have been making for the last 100 years; this book is to help prevent that.”
Petrash is now prefabricating eco-friendly houses that can be shipped internationally. He recently finished construction on the first set of houses, which will be erected near Milan, Italy. All the prefabricated pieces (including furniture) for two small houses fit into one 40-foot shipping container, which means, Petrash says, “a person can have a sustainable home anywhere in the world for as little as $30,000.”