The School Teacher’s Challenge

The sustainable house, isn’t sustainable, if it isn’t both affordable and widely available.

One of my brothers is a grade school reading teacher in Texas. Having read my post about sustainability, he issued the “school teacher’s challenge,” which would have us building him a custom designed, high-performance, sustainable home that he could afford on his modest salary.

I’d like nothing more than to do that, and not just for my brother. But to be able to build high-performance homes at a price range that would allow the average income family to buy one, nearly everything about the way homes are built will have to be changed. We can’t create high quality, affordable homes when each one is made one-at-at-time, on individual building sites, directly from raw materials. Architect Kent Larson, my colleague and partner in the OPEN Prototype Initiative, has pointed out, that current homebuilding methods are the equivalent of building cars, one-at-a-time, in the driveway of each consumer. If cars were made that way, it is easy to speculate that they would be 25-50 times more expensive and about half as reliable. To make really good homes available to Main Street America, we’ll need a new mindset and a new system.

We launched the OPEN Prototype Initiative specifically to work toward the development of a new approach to building. Through this effort, we’re trying to broadly connect with the homebuilding industry, to promote a set of standards and principles that would result in the development of components and systems that could be mass produced at a scale that would ensure both quality improvement and price reduction.

The Unity House project is a prototype of this idea. One of the core concepts is to change the building site from a place of inefficient manufacturing to a place of efficient assembly. The shift is simple in theory: bundles of raw commodity materials are replaced with preconstructed elements; unprocessed wire, pipe, connectors, elbows, and valves are replaced with manifolds, harnesses, and “plug-and-play” systems; linear on-site construction is replaced with parallel off-site preconstruction; pick-up-truck construction exposed to weather is replaced with state-of-the-art Lean manufacturing.

For Unity House, we distilled the many thousands of parts and pieces down to about fifty preconstructed elements. We are using modules for the mechanical-intensive areas, panels for walls, floors and roof sections for the living areas, and modular systems for interior partitions and finishes. It’s a multi-pronged approach, to give us many different ways to achieve the project requirements. The modules and panels are already in production. You can see progress photos on the OPEN Prototype Initiative web site.

The obstacles to the “school teacher’s challenge” are many, but if I squint real hard, it’s possible to visualize how it happens. If manufacturers and suppliers of building products could agree on some basic dimensioning standards, materials could be supplied with added value, and in a more complete form. Virtual libraries and catalogs would make everything available to designers, engineers, and homeowners, making it possible for truly custom homes to be quickly assembled in design, the same way they would ultimately be built. Based on Open Building concepts, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems would be accessible, allowing them to be complete systems and facilitating quick plug-in connections for assembly, change, and repair.

Basically, the high-performance affordable home is just a shift of consciousness away; no new technology or radical innovations are required. In addition, adopting a few general standards, interfaces, and principles would unify a fragmented industry and create vast new areas of innovation, creative competition, and whole new sectors of economic potential.

There will be losers when the “school teacher’s challenge” is won, but the winners—including homeowners, now and in the future—are long overdue and desperately in need of more sustainable places to live their lives.

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