Open source housing the fantasy – part 4.

The evening after we’d come back from the site I spent a lot of time trying to get a better sense of the viability of the scheme.  The open source housing website was the most convincing aspect of the whole project. This website was designed to facilitate the complete process of the construction on a house.  Initially a user would register and start a design in a 3D graphical modelling program. A house had to be designed using components from the standard set, and the software had an understanding of which components could fit together. Similarly when components were moved to a close proximity in the model they would snap together in ways that were valid for the pair of components. I discovered that there were standard builds that could be loaded and then modified or not. Additionally, the designs of other users of the software were all available From all of this investigation of the software I felt that this standard set of components would allow, within reason, a reasonable variety of houses to be designed. There would be similarities between all of the dwellings of course, but not so much that my sense of style (not a very well developed sense in my case) was offended.

And then, after a design was completed, a design rule check would be run automatically showing a list of problems and indicating each on a 3D visualization.  The design could then be edited to fix the problems. The documentation indicated that in most cases the 3D editing program would be able to make sure that design rules were obeyed during the creation of the design, this was facilitated by having very strong and light components.

Once a structurally sound, standards compliant design was complete other software produced parts lists and then built a plan for the construction. This plan contained the sequence of operations on the house components in the order that would produce the finished dwelling, but in addition to this was another sequence that showed the operations required to build the components of the house. This second sequence was the most complex since it relied on a group of house builders to work together, but geographically dispersed, to construct components for all of the members’ house builds. The software would not only produce these sequences but would allow all the members of the dispersed team to interact with other, so for example as members of the group finished particular components the builders would log in and mark of that the items were completed. The software would then organise transportation of components as required so that builders would have access to components as required for each of their build plans. The complexity was daunting.

I was conflicted and confused by the capabilities of the software when contrasted with the other aims of the project. It seemed hypocritical to rely on the one hand on this sophisticated program, and then on the other to advocate a style of building that was designed to use as little technology as possible. So I added myself anonymously to the forums that were used to discuss the project. I was heartened to discover that the on-line behaviour in these forums was for the most part unusually polite. After reading for almost an hour I came across the following explanation from a woman who I recognised as being one of the original founders.

“Some people have criticised us for our use of the technological advantages of computer system. Apparently we’re supposed to give up all these advantages and build our houses with stone axes. We say one thing and do another, advocating simple tools and then we go on about a massively complex tool. They suggest out ideas are without merit because our project is not future proof if that future is not bright but instead is a collapse. They even go as far as to suggest we are hiding something and really just want to collect free labour in some sort of pyramid scheme of woodworkers. We are told that we are actively deluding people by playing on their romantic ideas about living in houses built built by the owners and that augment nature rather than pollute and waste it.

What I want to say is that of course we want to use technology where we can, but only in ways we know we can do without. The design of the house building components employed many hours of simulations and is fixed. We’ve proven that these components are a good enough set to be radically useful without needing redesign. The components and the houses can be built without power tools or electricity, but it is quicker if you do have access to these things. And finally, the most criticised element, the build management tools on the web. I admit, this is an incredibly useful tool, it stops waste, optimises time and generally enhances the efficiency and quality of the build process beyond measure. It can be replicated with people though, not as well, but the process is well documented. This is the point and the essential trick built into the project. The backup plan if you want to think of it like that. So there is a book, widely distributed, which contains the procedures, plans and techniques from which the computer system was built. “

Open source housing the fantasy – part 3.

So my family and I arranged to meet with 3 builders who were all newly minted owners of a land release. The location was to the north and west of the states capital and about 5 hours drive from home.  These particular builders were also members of the 12 person group who were the instigators of the scheme and were obviously intent upon getting the homes up as quickly as possibly to prove the scheme was viable. They had apparently given themselves 4 months to get enough components together for 6 houses and another 2 months to construct these houses.

So we finally arrived at the first of the builders places. It turned out to be a rented property with a triple garage of which two spaces were totally given over to the various jigs that were used to produce the house parts. The third space was used as storage where a number of the house sections could be seen.  The main impression was of the lack of tools in the workshop. I learned later that the system was engineered so that one of the outcomes was the requirement for the least number of tools,  and part of the construction pipeline included the production of these tools so they need to be fairly simple. There was apparently a ladder of increasing complexity until the finished product was reached.  After a while we all went out to the back of the rented house and sat around a table talking.  One particular question I had was why there wasn’t any reliance on computer controlled tools at all, the answers to this question worried me a bit. Apparently after a fair bit of discussion it was decided that, even through a website was available for design and project management, the system was meant to be able to transition (if required) to situations where computers were not available. That is the system should be usable in the case of a general disintegration of society or more prosaically in areas where cost or lack of infrastructure necessitated simpler methods. At this point I realized that I had seen very few power tools lying about in the workshop.  The argument went something like this: ordinary hand tools could be stored carefully and could last unused for many years and would work without electricity.  And in the worst case once these tools ran out in a disintegrating society it was conceivable that they could be re-made with just the application of knowledge and hard work.  Electrical and further computer controlled electrical tools were at too greater remove from a primitive kind of society even with the knowledge available.  This was not to say that the tools were dumb. There was apparently a lot of clever design involved and a lot of high powered optimization of both material usage and characteristics but the overarching goal was always to make sure the implementation and use of the system could be restarted in lowly circumstances from the specifications and explanations.

So, there was the ‘book’ that described the system (which was freely downloadable) and meant to be transmitted in a similar way to the design of the clock of the long now .  This book was meant to be all that was necessary in order to start up a new house building scheme.   I found that I could purchase the book and download it to my kindle.

I did have a few reservations about the new sense I had of the project however I was pointed towards another online book and web site . Unfortunately I also came upon this stuff. However these people I was speaking with seemed to me to just be interested in providing a way for ordinary people to get housing they could construct themselves where the design and construction methods were informed by the best a technologically advanced society could provide. They were just concerned to make sure that the execution remained possible without a reliance on that society.  To list the main criteria for the system design as I now understood it we have:

1. The use of hand / wind or water powered tools only

2. The minimal set of common parts sufficient for interesting / functional / energy efficient housing

3. The minimal set of jigs and other tools

4. Accuracy of building dependant on the fewest variables possible (for instance advanced geometrical methods to get accurate jigs so that accurate parts can be repeatably made)

5. No reliance on complex materials requiring advanced technology to produce eg plastics.

6. Parts are to be 2 person lift maximum

There was a lot more including sophisticated siting and orientation instructions along with drainage, reclamation, sewage and other systems.   All listed for different climate types – and oddly these climate types and locations were listed for countries all around the world. Apparently these people whom I was speaking with were part of an extended internet based group who had all contributed to the designs from a massively rich fund of technical knowledge. For instance there were apparently experiments going in a university in Germany on a method of producing sheet wood from chips in vats with various chemicals easily obtainable in the countryside.  I had noted that there was a reliance on plywood in the constructed house parts which seemed to me to be a failing – although apparently plywood was invented in the 19th Century and so is not necessarily out of scope for home construction – the difficulty is probably the rotary lathe (which could conceivably be hand operated).

I came away that evening feeling conflicted. On the one hand I was disturbed by the dystopian character of some of the discussions I’d had but on the other hand I felt that a lot of their technical ideas were sound. I really believed they were serious about this project and I was very interested in monitoring the project. Whether my family and I would get involved was another thing. I really wanted to see the final outcome first and I wanted some help in analysing the writings of the group to make certain this endeavour really was based on sound scientific principles and not just the imaginings of a group of dreamers.



Open source housing – the fantasy, part 2.

After dismissing the open source housing plan as a pipe dream we had spent a year attempting to find a house to buy. And what we found was almost a nightmare. Massivly expensive land prices coupled with detached houses that almost filled the blocks. (As an aside in Australia we are very greedy for space for example  in Germany the average house size is 100 square metres for 3 people, over here we have an average of 227 square meters (2003 census)).  All these homes designed in a similar way but all different but looking like a hodge podge on the typical street.  Nothing really stylish. And all built to the 5 – 6 star energy rating standard  but I suspect not out of any sense of duty or environmental responsibility but just because if you don’t you will find it more difficult to sell the house for a good price, and the quality of the builds, so poor.  Units and townhouses we found were built in a similar manner. And the difference between what is affordable and what is possible… To move upmarket to get a house designed and built to have style and to use energy efficiently we would incur a massive expensive, for example from the same site: standard project homes $900 – $1500 / sqm, architecturally designed homes $2500 – $4000 sqm. So the standard is currently 5 star moving to 6 and a designed home 8 – 9. So this means that if you have the money you are able to save money with an efficient home.   Although we have a dissenting view from the master builders of Australia which is basically saying the 5 star is enough and the law of diminishing returns applies to going for higher star ratings. Also see note below.

In any event that an architecturally designed home was out of reach and due to land prices and cookie cutter design along with poor implementation it seemed that any new home was not that desirable. Older homes seemed to mostly have poor energy ratings (or were too expensive) and the costs of upgrading to a higher energy rating would probably also be prohibitive, particularly with the already huge mortgage.

So I checked in again to the Open Source Housing site – and found to my amazement that they did seem to have got some land.  There were about fifty sites all around the country. The prices seemed amazing but then the catch – the land was only available if all of the chunks were fully subscribed only then could the deal go through and sales could take place.  At this point only 17 sites were fully subscribed. This meant that for our site ie the site closest to where we were able to live, we would have to get together the money to purchase a site and then wait until the chunk was fully subscribed – meanwhile paying of the quite large loan repayments – before even thinking about building. This sounded almost impossible.  Perhaps if the bank would provide help to this scheme. (Joke).

Additionally due to the lack of local subscribers,  the other part of the system, the local collective house parts builders these did not yet exist.  Not all was bad news however as there were some builders in areas about 5 or 6 hours car travel distant.

If you recall the Open Source housing system has two main components: 1) purchasing land tracks (chunks) and removing the costs charged by developers and 2) collectively building the house components in a kind of distributed assembly line where these components are pre-designed to fit together and to build efficient homes. Hopefully with enough variability to be interesting.  In any case now it was possible to visit some of the builders.  No built houses but we could see the components in various states of manufacture and the tools and jigs used to create the components.

* Note:  However it seems that it might be possible to do better for around the same cost:  for example a house with an 8 star rating, whatever happened to this scheme?  Doesn’t seem to have taken off.  We can only hope.

Open source housing – the fantasy, part 1

This is a fantasy.  It is about something that I have been thinking about for a long time – the construction of my own house.  Part of the reason is the pain I feel from having to rent expensive accommodation with the particular problem that because we don’t own the house there is no way that we can address the major issues I have with the design.  The most important design issue  is the lack of attention to energy efficiency.    I also feel deeply that I have in some sense failed to provide the security and stability of home ownership.  And finally, we are all sick of renting with the periodic imposition of the inspections the constant worry about damaging or soiling the house and the knowledge that all the money we spend on rent is getting us no closer to ownership.

Housing is expensive in most of the places in Australia where people want to live. There are a lot of reasons for this but I think the main reason is that housing is most often treated as just another way of making a profit and so the speculators, investors and developers cause the housing prices to escalate to a level where large swaths of the population will be unable to purchase a home.

With this fictional account I want to try to describe a system where it is possible for ordinary people to design and construct their own homes for prices that are within their reach.  This system would be designed to allow couples to be involved in the complete process of design, project management and construction.

I guess my initial idea came from watching some of the Grand Designs episodes where the Grand Designers used a technique that I believe was called computerized pre-construction which is where whole wall modules were built in factories and fitted together on site in order to build a house much more quickly than by ordinary methods.

And so I begin my fictional account.

We found out about Open Source Housing during a Google search for sustainable living. It seemed an interesting idea and I would have felt hopeful except for the fact that no houses had yet been built.  And even worse, no land had yet been purchased. The idea seemed to be to take the construction of green housing and the sale of land out of the hands of builders, developers and government and hence to remove the fees, charges, mark-ups, red-tape and bureaucratic nonsense embedded into the process of going from land to dwelling.

The web site was fairly basic and right up front were some disclaimers and a list of risks and probabilities of success for various facets of the processes. On the one hand this did give the project an aura of honesty but on the other it made me worry that all their ideas would come to nothing.

The component of the plan with the least probability for success and the most risk was that of dealing with the government to get land releases for cheaper prices than the government would get from developers. This problem of getting expensive land cheaply had the biggest effect on the final costings of completed dwellings and also had a massive impact on the availability of choice locations.   This wasn’t a deal breaker but the overall tone suggested that the website authors really, really wanted to wrest control away from Canberra so they could obtain fair prices for suitable housing plots.

As I read further on through the website I found that the project was based around the following 4 ideas

1, A design of housing made from a set of open source designed house components that would be prefabricated and would be the smallest set to allow a reasonable spread of different dwelling designs to be constructed.  These components would be 2 person lift able and would be complete to the second fit stage. Only the foundation and connection to utilities would be required for a finished house.

2. The existence of a group of house builders who would work together to create all the parts of all their houses in a collective manner. A standard set of jigs and tools would be specified to be built or bought and the group would work as a kind of distributed production line.

3. A web based tool would exist to allow 3D modelling of houses using the standard components along with project management to track and control the building of the components and the building of the houses with the prefabricated components

4. A collective land purchasing and development initiative with the possible (but not required) absence of government intervention. Of course it was noted that this would only be considered at the small scale of subdivision into individual land plots since it would be difficult to imagine purchasing with no government intervention at all.