• 7 minute Read

An Open Source House That Bucky Fuller Would Love

Go online and download a house plan, edit it with free software, and then send the components for printing. Is this the housing solution refugees and developing cities are waiting for?

The world’s most populous places are surrounded by shantytowns–especially those hard hit by disaster. How do we rebuild cities like Tacloban, destroyed when typhoon Haiyan swept through the Philippines? How do we provide affordable housing to repopulate the abandoned core of our own urban centers?

These aren’t new questions–there just never seems to be a satisfactory answer. For the last half of the 20th century, all kinds of modular designs were tried, but no one wanted to live in a leaky Bucky dome. Worse yet, the mass-produced modular homes of the 1950s were all exactly alike, leaving little room for adapting them to their environments. But what if you could 3-D print an entire house, and customize the open-source design to your liking?

This September, I joined Eric Schimelpfenig of SketchThis.NET at Maker Faire, New York to see the 3-D-printed house he helped design and build, and find out whether it really is viable.

Schimelpfenig knows more about 3-D modeling and kitchens than pretty much anyone on the planet. He’s worked with Google on Sketchup’s development, is a columnist for Kitchen & Bath Design News, and runs U.S. social media for high-end kitchen storage company, Kesseboehmer. He also founded and runs SketchThis.NET, which developed a premier kitchen design plug-in for SketchUp and provides SketchUp training for individuals and companies.

It’s probably more accurate to say that Schimelpfenig’s 3-D-printed houses, the Wikihouse, was assembled rather than built. The structure was engineered to be snapped together with fewer than 100 screws to hold it together. The modular wall sections snap into place and are movable, so rooms can be rearranged as easily as you might rearrange furniture. Even plumbing and electrical outlets can be rearranged within the open floor plan.

The entire project was designed in Sketchup, and this kind of flexibility is making Sketchup the de facto 3-D modeling software for architects, and in math and computer science programs at K-12 schools. A complete model of the house is free and open source, the Wikihouse Open Source Construction Kit. With a few thousand dollars for plywood, and a CNC milling system to cut out the structural forms, you’re good to go.

I interviewed Eric after the event, and here’s what he had to say about the project:

What possessed a bunch of computer nerds, none of whom had professional construction experience, to want to design and assemble a house in a couple of days?

The idea was to tell the story about how Sketchup can be used as an end-to-end design tool. This isn’t a new story. We’ve been able to do this with software for many years now. What’s unique about this project is that we utilized a totally new way to build a house. Typical wood-framed construction is easy to draw in Sketchup or other software, but it’s hard to engineer it to be safe. This is why people go to architecture and engineering school. Building this way only allows a small group of people to be in control of the design process. Sure, you can hire an architect to design a house for you, but for many this is out of reach. With Wikihouse and Sketchup, design is now available to people that aren’t formally trained in architecture or design.

Remember when you had Legos as a kid? You never had to think about the tolerances of each block to make sure they fit together, they just worked. Legos drastically lowered the barrier of entry for kids to make the most awesome spaceships ever. Wikihouse uses pre-engineered mini structures that can be snapped together like Legos to make one larger structure.

So why did we do it? Who doesn’t love Legos? As we get older, I think all of us miss Legos, but we need bigger puzzles to solve. We wanted to prove that using Sketchup and these pre-engineered pieces, that novices like us could build something of this magnitude. We pulled it off too, we did it in 16 hours. Now that we’ve done it once, I think we could have done it in half a day.

Is it safe? Did you have an architect involved?

It is safe. Since Wikihouse designed it, it’s designed to meet building code. I think it exceeds them, greatly. In building this house, I quickly became aware that it’s incredibly rigid. I’ve built a few traditional wood-framed walls in my day, and nothing I’ve ever worked with matched the strength of this thing. It’s pretty incredible how it’s built. The structure we built had almost no metal hardware in it, only a few screws to hold the floor, wall, and roof panels down.

All the plans are available free online. How much would it cost if I wanted to roll my own?

It’s not really plans that are online, but actual 3-D models. In Sketchup Make, which is the free version of Sketchup, you can download the Wikihouse plug-in. From there you can browse the pre-engineered modules and even whole house designs. You simply click on the ones you want, download them into Sketchup, and start snapping them together. Once you get your design the way you want it, there is a print button. This takes all of the pieces in your model and lays them out efficiently on a 4×8 sheet of plywood (or in most cases, many sheets) and saves it to a file that you take to a CNC machine to be cut out. All of the parts are numbered so it’s easy to put together. Cost depends on a lot of things, mainly how much you’re paying for plywood. It’s pretty easy to figure out, because you can use Sketchup to figure out how much wood you need. For things like roofing, siding, and drywall you can use traditional methods of estimating to determine costs.

Okay, to be clear, it’s not 3-D printed, although you guys obviously have experience with 3-D printing. Can you explain a little about how the process worked?

3-D printed is not exactly the right term for it, it’s more cutting. However, I think it’s okay to label it as 3-D printing because of the process. In a broad sense, 3-D printing is putting the power of manufacture and design in the hands of so many people. To use a Makerbot to 3-D print, you design a part with digital tools, and then a computer-guided printer melts and extrudes plastic out in the shape that you designed. With this house, you’re using almost the same design tools, sending the design to a computer guided saw that cuts out the parts. It’s basically the same process except for what’s attached to the end of the computer-guided tool. I think it’s okay to label this as 3-D printing.

I was pretty impressed that it was so tall. So did you print your own ladders or what?

Funny question, actually. We did use regular ladders for this one, but there is a possible design update that would integrate scaffolding into the Wikihouse design. Each “fin” that we put up was assembled on the ground and then stood up. No ladders needed there. For the roof panels though we needed ladders. In the future you may see temporary scaffolding that could be hung on the fins for workers to be able to reach the roof panels without needing a ladder.

Is there anything you’d change about it?

Every time one is built, something is learned. When we built this one, the Wikihouse folks made some tweaks to how the floor joists fit together.

You mentioned to me that the house itself was hackable. So if you wanted to move the bathroom to the other side of the house, you could. Can you talk a little more about that?

Sure, the designs are made so that in most cases all of the interior partitions are non-load-bearing. This means you can move interior walls around as you please. Where it get’s really interesting is the way you do it. In traditional construction, you have a wall full of insulation, and in that same space you run plumbing and electricity. After that, you cover it with drywall and paint. To move any of that stuff, you have to tear up your wall. In Wikihouse, it’s a bit different. Your wall cavities only have insulation in them. In front of those cavities is a space that is reserved for only the plumbing and electrical. In front of that your interior panel is hung. So let’s say you want to move the location of an outlet, you simply lift off that wall panel and unplug the outlet that is there, and move it to where you want it. It’s the same with plumbing. You can remove a pipe with a quick release and just run the pipe wherever you like.

This has amazing implications for remodeling, and aging in place. With almost no tools, one could completely revamp a space in the span of hours, instead of weeks or months, and at a very small cost. I could go on for hours about different examples on this, but you can imagine how this could be an amazing feature.

About the author

Co-founder of web and software development firm Gravity Switch, Jason consults with companies around the world and gives talks on topics such as web development, mobile development, usability, graphic design, and agile project management.In a past life he got to create the curriculum and teach in the first ever internet strategy degree program.



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