The first Fablab house

Eric Hunting reports:

“I saw this in an article on the international Solar Decathlon of student-designed prefab sustainable housing. The Decathlon has been an annual event here among US universities for about a decade and now has gone international.

Yes, this is called a Fab Lab House because it’s made in a fab lab, or at least with the standard set of tools of the fab lab. Primarily, it’s made with digital CNC cutters using sheet materials like plywood to create a stressed skin structure. The first attempt at such use of CNCs for housing may be MIT’s yourHouse project.

A partnership with the Shopbot company (which has been active in the Maker and Open Manufacturing communities) , yourHouse used a puzzle-fit construction system to produce demonstration houses in the traditional style of New Orleans ‘shotgun’ housing, exploiting the CNC’s potential for producing intricate shapes to simulate the ornate traditional facades of the style. They were supposedly taking this to the next step of commercial design and production.

The demo house yourHouse made for MoMa’s Home Delivery exhibit on prefab housing in 2008 was intended to suggest a form of relief housing for the Katrina-struck region. The basic idea is that CNCs and other fab lab hardware are potentially very portable precision custom production systems -as demonstrated by this mobile fab lab developed by MIT’s fab community as a mobile educational facility.

So instead of pre-fabbing large amounts of relief housing transported as kits, you can transport just the small digital production facility for it and supply it with bulk sheet materials. This way you get more transportation efficiency -because a shipping container full of sheet materials equates to a whole lot more potential shelter area than the container -or similarly sized prefab building- itself. And you can customize the design of structures to suit the local environment and situation, based on a digital catalog of structure designs that can be adapted procedurally in software. MIT has even been developing software that deconstructs basic design forms entered as a 3D model into puzzle-fit component elements and then outputs them as procedurally generated CNC cutting patterns.

The problem, however, is that, so far, they are still treating housing as a ‘product’ instead of as an ‘application’ -the common mistake of all prefab housing across the 20th century and one which relates to the anachronistic assumption of architectural permanence common to professional design culture. So the sets of parts they procedurally generate for any particular structure are totally custom and specialized to that one whole building design, which is itself largely non-adaptable after its built. Once that fab trailer/container goes back to wherever it came from, you’re stuck. You cannot fine tune or evolve a structure made like this using common tools and local materials. You can only obsolesce it whole, trash it, and start over -which is probably OK for the very small emergency shelter or utility shed made out of really cheap and disposable materials, but not for the long term.

The puzzle-fit scheme of MIT’s at least has some demountability, which means as long as you can identify exactly what damaged/worn-out parts of a house you need to repair -and the design files are still available for- you can have them custom re-made and selectively disassemble the structure to replace them. Examples like the Solar Fab Lab House that use ‘destructive construction’ (ie. nails, screws, glues, and paints -the four sins of housing construction) are less suited to this and more prone to turn into trash with time like mobile homes. Unless the structural system is truly modular or the design overall functionally generic, you can’t readily adapt and repurpose to changing uses with time. You’re creating a disposable product with built-in obsolescence and a tendency to generate landfill waste. Architecture as ‘blobject’. May seem high-tech, but it’s expressing an Industrial Age anachronism.”

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