We asked Eric Hunting to review the HIB Modular Building System:
“The notion of a ‘lego-like’ method of building has long been an ideal among the inventors of modular building systems -going back longer than there was even a lego toy to use as an analogy. Inventors have long sought the ‘superior brick’ which could eliminate the rather variable skills of the mason, link together strongly with higher precision, be cheap and well suited to industrial mass production, and be very easy to handle and quick to assemble so as to make the prospects of DIY building much easier and safer. Until recent times most attempts to accomplish this have been failures, the key problems being the elaborateness of mechanical interfaces relative to small block sizes and the weather-tightness of large numbers of joints. Generally, the concept of mechanical interfacing of building components tends to work more effectively when components of a structure are larger than bricks or blocks -at least on the scale of wall and floor panels where the complexity and cost of a mechanical interface method is spread over a larger unit area/volume of structural element. Many have, in recent years, held out hope of the ‘intelligent brick’ enabled by integral nanotechnology that can knit bricks and other building elements together as if by digitally controlled velcro at a molecular level, though that sort of thing may remain far in the future.
The German developed HIB system represents a much less fanciful contemporary approach to the notion of the superior brick that appears to take some of the aspects of Structural Insulated Panels and apply them to a block-size unit with a simple method of interface and made with some unique non-toxic and green materials. The result is a very flexible, easy-to-handle, mass-produced building element that is specifically intended for the DIY home builder. However, it is not without limitations and falls somewhat short of the ideal of lego-like construction.
The HIB building unit is a wood composite block composed of conventional lumber and engineered lumber plates linked together internally by dovetail joints and some low-toxic adhesives. The standardized block units fit together with tongue-and-groove edge joints and are locked to each other by joint plates held by wood screws. Assembly is quick and simple but special care must be taken in precision with base plates for walls, at corners, and at portal and upper floor deck interfaces. Blocks come with a variety of ‘foundation’ panel materials pre-applied to their exterior sides along withe permeable membranes and in types/widths for interior and exterior walls. They feature some unique insulation materials made of clay-soaked wood chips mixed with ground mussel shell, hemp fiber, pea shingle, and blown cellulose. The blocks are, individually, sophisticated pieces of woodwork made-to-order and one hopes their production is totally automated, otherwise they would be impossibly expensive. And individual modest sized house might use many hundred of these blocks.
A key limitation of the system is that it’s labor-savings virtues are incomplete, which severely limits its intended potential as a DIY building system. The modularity begins and ends with the wall construction while everything else -foundation, floor decking, roofing- relies on conventional construction methods. In one construction photo they show the use of commercial steel floor joists in a relatively small demonstration home, which would certainly be beyond the means of the DIY builder. Though the system offers blocks with a plasterboard cladding, all finishing is otherwise conventional, the exterior of homes needing siding and interior needing plastering, paint, paneling, etc. A common mistake of alternative building systems developers is to focus exclusively on labor savings of primary construction. But most of the actual labor and skill overhead -and hence most of the cost- in home construction is in utilities system installation and interior finishing.
But the single greatest limitation of this building system is its lack of demountability, which makes the lego-like analogy very tenuous. Though its screwed-together interface between blocks makes for a strong structure, it cannot be disassembled and reused later. There is much better potential for ‘surgical demolition’ with screwed assembly than with nails, but removed parts cannot be reused. It remains only as adaptable as conventional wood frame or SIP construction. Renovation and adaptation will still produce much landfill waste, even if it’s more environmentally benign. So the system still perpetuates the old fallacy of permanent architecture, which makes steadily decreasing contemporary sense.
Despite these caveats, the HIP system is still an impressive attempt at the ideal of lego-like modular building. It may still have a long way to go in order to approach that ideal, but it’s one of the best attempts at it to date. It may not suit the majority of DIY builders in terms of construction ease, but it could aid many. And the developers’ recognition of the importance of reducing housing toxicity and recycling natural materials is a breakthrough for the generically primitive building industry in itself.”