Thanks to reader JP for this link about a plan for open-source home architecture.

If the plan works, someday a consumer will be able to download buildable home construction plans and order custom-cut materials to make home-building a breeze, and much cheaper. The biggest obstacle will be the complexity of local building standards. But I can imagine local governments embracing the system if it allows them to input their unique building requirements into it as a filter. It might be a big money-saver for the town because every proposed building plan that comes through the system will already meet codes.

The thing that is missing from the downloadable architecture system, as far as I know, is the design element. I don't want to build a house that is nothing but a bunch of boring rectangles arranged over a foundation. I want a house that is designed with function in mind first. And for that I'd like to see some sort of "best design" subsection for the downloadable home plans.

I often think about how hard it was to design our current kitchen layout. Kitchens are a challenge because ideally you want everything to be next to everything else, which is physically impossible. Our biggest error was putting the flatware drawer in a place that guaranteed someone would always be standing in front of it when someone else needed a fork. It seems like a small thing, but design is about getting all of the small stuff right. I'd love to upload the design of our kitchen, after moving that one drawer, and see how it stacks up to other kitchen designs.

Current home design is all about appearance over function because consumers buy homes that look great while having a hard time imagining all the little functional flaws such as a lack of storage space, how sound travels, and that sort of thing. The big homebuilders and architects design for the camera, not for the consumer. When homes are designed to meet the best standards of function as voted by actual homeowners, the value of the typical home will skyrocket at the same time the cost of construction drops.

I predict that in twenty years nearly every house that exists today will be seen as a "tear down" because new construction will be cheap and new home designs will be extraordinary.

Imagine picking your house design over the Internet with the intention of doing much of the work yourself, perhaps with your own crew of helpers. You pick the design, pick the start date, and click BUY. From that point on, the system starts delivering materials according to a fixed schedule that the buyer can modify on the fly. You show up at the construction site in the morning and several Google self-driving delivery trucks are already waiting. Your construction-bot unloads the trucks and stages the building material where you want it.

You walk up to the pile of materials and use your smartphone to read the bar code and call up detailed step-by-step directions for what you need to do. You'll have exactly the tools you need because the system warned you a week ahead to be ready for this phase. If you don't own a nail gun, for example, that is added to your delivery at the same time as the materials.

I can also imagine that in this world of pre-cut materials we would see more of a snap-together building system that is easy for non-handy people to manage.

There is an enormous home construction/retrofit phase ahead of us, perhaps ten years out.

Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +34
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 13, 2013
Talking House:

Jul 10, 2013
Very great share of this wonderful post. Thanks for your nice job. Will come to visit again. <a href="http://www.kellyhandbag.com">hermes birkin</a>
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 4, 2013
It's dangerous to bet against technology, but I'm betting against this being only ten years away, or even 25. Do we really want unhandy amateurs like me building houses that might fall down on their kids -- or on the next owner's kids?
Jun 4, 2013
I seem to recall a sci-fi book where a device at the construction site would generate the parts and then each part was smart-tagged to tell you where it went, and local reference material was all there in case you didn't know how to put the pices together. Something tells me there must be an industrial machining project management solution Makerbot RFID tags an Android tablet with a wiki/document archive and RFID tag reader could achieve this goal... well... last week sometime...
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 4, 2013
I believe Sears & Roebuck offered something like that a century ago in their catalog.

But in a modern home, it's all the site prep, foundation, wiring, plumbing, HVAC, and finishing (plaster/dry wall) that would be challenging. Sawing through a piece of wood is incredibly easy. In fact, it's probably simpler to have a stack of 2x4s and cut each one as needed, than to sort them all.

The workable part today is called pre-fab, and they can be pretty impressive.
Jun 4, 2013
10 years? Nope.

50 years? Maybe. I doubt that it'll be common in my lifetime.

There are too many economic and social barriers to be overcome. There's a huge web of local regulations to untangle.

Scott says: [When homes are designed to meet the best standards of function as voted by actual homeowners, the value of the typical home will skyrocket at the same time the cost of construction drops.]

Nope. As with advances in other technologies, the newer stuff will be higher quality with a lower price. This will push down home values when it becomes cheaper to build new than to buy old, and will force older construction methods out of the market.

Personally, I support the idea of fast, cheap, and easy DIY home construction, but I also recognize that if and when it starts to become mainstream there will be general economic upheaval as the value of existing homes decline. Regulators are not going to be quick to usher in a new era of declining home values and underwater mortgages.

So... 50 years. Maybe.
Jun 4, 2013
Yeah, I'm far more likely to buy a new car in the next few years than another house (I already have two and barely use one of them).

I really like the "drive-by-wire" thing that was being discussed a few years ago, where you basically have wheels, axles, brakes, motor, and batteries in a fairly flat all-electrical chassis, with mounting points for the main car shell, seats, console, etc... The console being input and output devices (sending electrical signals like a joystick, receiving data like a web browser) to and from the chassis.

It seemed that a company making chases (sp?) like that would open up a vast world of customization for the automobile world. There was even talk of snapping on-and-off entire "uppers" where you could convert your sedan into a pickup or minivan in a few minutes with a winch in a garage... or businesses that could do it for you.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 4, 2013
I'd buy into this idea more easily if I did not spend so much time downloading (and then following) simple, step-by-step instructions for other people who seem to feel that exposure to anything new or in anyway related to technology is potentially toxic.

It doesn't matter is something is objectively easy to do. What matters is whether or not people believe they can do it. The first is relatively easy to achieve - especially with crowd-sourced improvements.

It's that second piece that sinks a lot of great ideas.
Jun 4, 2013
I think the closest thing to this today is the existence of fabricated homes. These houses are built in a factory to spec. Then they disassemble the house, move it to the site, and reassemble it. Sometimes the house can be quite spectacular.

But DIY manufactured homes is not really a feasible thing. If you have ever put together a piece of Ikea furniture, you would know that a seemingly simple assembly, requiring only a few tools included in the box, can be a maddening experience.

The actual framing of the house is the easy part, and already you can buy snap-and-lock plastic framing materials, for a significant premium over lumber. Wood is still by far the cheapest building material, which is why it is the most commonly used.

But as I said, the framing is the easy part. First you have to dig a hole, compact the ground, lay the foundation/basement, and connect the services. While you can do all these things yourself, it is time consuming and back-breaking work. After the frame is up you have to put the roof on, which often does come from a factory, but putting it on is not very easy.

Then you have to put on siding, and the interior, including drywall, mud, flooring, wiring, and plumbing. Again, this can all come ready-to install from the manufacturer, but it isn't actually easy to do yourself unless you have a lot of time and are very handy.

Altogether, putting a house up is a great deal of hard work. While improvements in manufacturing and supply will undoubtedly make the process cheaper and quicker, it is still a job that most people will leave to professionals.
Jun 4, 2013

Havent you been paying attention the past three centuries? Our current standard of living is made possible by automating many, MANY jobs and reducing the work required to make things accordingly. Yes, people were put out of work in the process, but if you look around you you'd see that folks dont have as much trouble finding jobs as a result as you might think. And if you were paying attention back in the 70s youd know that NOT seeking ways to cut labor costs almost doomed the American auto industry.
Jun 4, 2013
I don't quite see this happening on any real scale; at least not before we see it take root in other forms.

Motor vehicles seem a logical place to start. Imagine cars that AFFORDABLY allow similar tailoring to drivers' wants instead of a list of stock options. A compact whose back seat is replaced by secure, organized storage for professional equipment or sporting gear; a van with built-in carriers for large pets, positioned to allow noses at windows safely; seats fitted for drivers of non-average height or weight; refrigerated compartments for people frequently moving groceries long distances; the look of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang . . . You might have satellite factories connected to dealerships, where a small team of designer/mechanics work out the design with the customer, order a mix of standard components from a main plant, fabricate the unique parts to complete the specific request and put it all together, ready to tweak on site if the buyer has issues. These would not be quite so unique as the Batmobile, but they'd still be far more focused on specific buyers' needs and ideally no more costly than an off-the-shelf luxury car.

The intermediate step for homes will be finding ways to efficiently and affordably overhaul existing structures; especially if you can deliver fast turnaround (Even for people with money, waiting several months for the perfect house to be completed is not always an option). There are already businesses that jump in to do a quickie bathroom or kitchen makeover; what's needed is a way to make reshaping the house itself as fast and viable: ways to attach a modular room and make it match, for example. More buyers would be able to choose primarily on location, knowing an existing house could be upgraded to their desires and ready to occupy in a few weeks.
Jun 4, 2013
A year ago I read about an engineering professor who is working on a system for 3D printing homes. I hope he succeeds but I'm skeptical.

The current wood-frame home dates from the mid 19th century and balloon frame housing, which was ridiculed in its time, but proved to be surprisingly sturdy. My skepticism begins here. I have always found it hard to believe that, in a century and a half, there hasn't been a better idea in the age of modern heavy industry.

My guess is it is probably possible to slash the cost of housing and build higher quality homes from recyclable materials like wood, steel, aluminum, and glass, but it doesn't happen because imagine the economic shock this would cause when prices plummet and homeowners find themselves underwater. This is a revolution that needs to happen but policymakers will fight it tooth and nail; the impetus to preserve the status quo is too powerful. In the U.S. we are forced into an oligopolist economy of telecoms for the same reason and we pay twice as much for internet, phone, and cable for worse service than Europeans because the FCC maintains the status quo with protectionist policies.

So I believe we could live a much higher standard of living than we do by having engineers solve more of the world's problems ... but it doesn't happen because politicians don't want that kind of social change.

What you propose isn't an engineering problem, therefore: it's a political problem. And as others have pointed out in their comments there are many vested interests who don't want this kind of change.
-7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 4, 2013
So your plan is to eliminate the middle class by getting rid of plumbers, electricians, HVAC guys, carpenters, roofers, and all of the rest of the workers associated with the construction industry.

Weren't you paying attention over the last 7-8 years? The 2nd great recession, remember that? Deteriorating middle class, people out of work, people under-employed and taking multiple part-time jobs just to make ends meet? Any of that ring a bell? What do you think is going to happen when all of those construction-industry jobs disappear? And to the people who rely on them to buy their cars and groceries and other things? It is a downward spiral.

Unless you are a millionaire like Scott, this looks like another way to wreck whole economies on a massive scale. Taking away jobs without showing at least a plan for replacing them with differently-trained jobs is irresponsible and immoral. Stop asking if we can do something before asking if we should do that thing.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 3, 2013
I think you are severely underestimating the resistance to change in the building industry. There are already lots of advances in construction efficiency that have not caught on because of the large number of people who have a vested interest in the current system. Most homes are poorly designed and this fact has been known for decades but new home designs don't get better, they just follow current fashion.
Jun 3, 2013
I like lots of things about this idea, but the big problem is not design but production. I recently looked at wikihouse, and loved the idea, except for the BIG PROBLEM that nobody can make the parts for their house without a huge up-front expense. That upfront expense guarantees that the companies who have the tools to cut the pieces for your house will be able to charge enough that it won't be cheap. Until that changes, this is still a worse idea than grabbing a book about building houses at home depot or wherever and doing it yourself the traditional way.

I will get excited about this idea when Step One becomes "Cheaply build your own parts cutter/producer."

I would also expect the development of electrical and plumbing technologies to bring those industries down to the easy side of the DIY spectrum.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 3, 2013
I'd love to think we're 10 years away from this. I think the technology for the design is much closer than the actual building methods though - foundations alone, site prep, soil testing etc, is always something that takes time. Of course there are designs to compensate for this, and maybe there will be some sort if scanner you will be rent that will tell the computer about the block of land...

Even without this though, the idea of being able to design your own house, with function and beauty, and how you live as approved to the standard, is an exciting one for me.

A couple of examples. We don't sleep in the bedroom. We have a 5 bedroom house (though quite a bit of it is taken up with the home business) but we sleep in the living room - and have for the last 4 homes we've lived in.

And I'd love a two way cupboard with one side in the laundry, and the other side where you most often get dressed - bathroom, bedroom or even living room :)
Jun 3, 2013
The problem with this approach is that a "house" is not a single system that can be defined with a blueprint. Apart from the physical layout of the house, there are also electrical, plumbing, insulation, and heating/cooling systems at least, and probably a network system as well in new houses. These can interact and interfere with each other in subtle and complicated ways, e.g. when I was remodeling one of my bedrooms, I couldn't use the pocket door I wanted for the closet because one of the main plumbing lines for the adjacent bathroom happened to run through that part of the wall. It didn't *have* to be there, it just was.

If there is any customization allowed in the design of the house -- and that's the feature I think most people would want -- knowing how it affects the others is what makes an architect valuable. It would be quite a feat to do that reliably in software.
Jun 3, 2013
I have a huge problem with this: "Now you can print the building blocks of your future house in a few hours from low cost plywood, bring them to the construction site and assemble them with two or three friends in a matter of one day."

There are a couple of different possible approaches. One way is that after you submit your plans to the local fabricators to be CNC-cut (note, it's NOT "C&C" as in TFA) and you get back a bunch of precut lumber. OK, you don't have to cut anything, but putting up a house will take much longer than a day.

The other way is by prefabricating much larger pieces. Whole walls, roofs and so on, assembled, with wiring already in place then trucked out. But now you're dealing with large pieces on large trucks, cranes to hoist the pieces into place, and so on. Very cool stuff, but still not a "Guys Pizza Beer = Git 'er done" type project.

A really great example is the "This Old House" series on "The Weston House". I highly recommend binge-watching the whole thing, it's eye-opening, and totally the future of construction. First episode is here: http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/tv/video/0,,20618852,00.html
Jun 3, 2013
usmdj has put his finger on only part of the problem. Governments arent in the habit of !$%*!$%*! to new technological realities quickly. On top of that, city governments dont like to approve housing plans that give them less in taxes and fees than the occupant will cost them in services. For these reasons I beleive you are being optimistic on the timeline. It might come true SOMEWHERE in twenty years, but I think it will take a bit longer to be standard in most places.
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 3, 2013
Local government is not there for our benefit. It is there to provide jobs for the relatives and cronies of the politicians. Uncle Joe needs a job. Lets make him building inspector.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog