Houses that favour simplicity of construction
January 28, 2009 9:41 PM   Subscribe

Where can I find info on house construction that favours simplicity over clever extras? Think "LEGO".

I often think about the idea of a modern, long-lasting, reasonably-efficient and simple house. Something unlike anything I've seen here in the U.S. My hope is that somewhere out there is a school of thought that describes what I'm looking for, but I haven't found anything yet.

When I say I'm looking for a simple house, I mean that in a few ways. One way is in the sense of "modular", where the more LEGO-like the better. I'd love to see some system where one section of the structure -- such as a section of roof, wall or floor -- could be non-destructively decoupled from the rest, and possibly re-used later on.

Simple also means each element serving its purpose in a straightforward, non-overloaded fashion. So for example, the walls would be solid, without any of this crazy idea of hiding water-wires-pipes inside them. The walls should keep the roof up and the wind out, and that's pretty much it. Getting clever and tucking all this other stuff into the walls just makes things complicated down the line.

The house should also be "mend-able" by an average person. So if I damage the floor by dropping a toaster oven, or crash my moped into the front door, the damage shouldn't extend to other systems that then have to be opened up and also repaired. In a sense, the simplicity and modularity of the structure would isolate the pieces from each other.

I also mean "simple" in the sense of preferring to use no small/fragile/"band-aid"-type parts. For example, I'd like to find some way for the design of the house itself to almost entirely keep the rain and wind out (and the comfortable temperatures in). I'd gladly take a smaller house built with thick concrete walls and enormous eaves, if it meant that the house wasn't relying on goofy things like caulk and expanding foam and rubber-backed-siding to keep the elements out.

I understand that in some ways I'm almost describing primitive buildings like castles, tepees, igloos, etc., but I'm looking for something much more modern and efficient than those. I'd still like all the things you'd expect in a house (a nice kitchen, comfortable living room, etc.). I'd just prefer to trade many of the normal "extravagances" (like drywall or hidden water pipes) for something simpler, cleaner and more logical.

If you've ever seen or heard of any buildings or schools of thought like this, please contribute. Thank you very much.
posted by phoeniciansailor to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
This might interest you.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:44 PM on January 28, 2009

Fabprefab is a site designed to collect a bunch of different prefab home designs and information about prefab homes.

100Khouse is an attempt to build a home that is very simple and affordable.

Bensonwood is a company that makes timber frame homes, but uses a lot of modern modular and prefab techniques. They are the company building the home on this season of This Old House.
posted by bove at 10:11 PM on January 28, 2009

There was an article today on the BBC News site about houses in the UK built of straw.
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 10:16 PM on January 28, 2009

My dad is currently building the second of his two log houses. He designed our barn to be as simple as possible, but the log house kits that he ordered remain the most simple he has ever constructed. They come with pallets of logs labeled A1, A2, etc to ZZ15 or whatever. The letter is the row and the number is the order clockwise from the corner. He simply had to lay down some insulating foam strips, fit a log on, screw it in every foot or so, then move on to the next log. I imagine it would be possible to deconstruct the cabins and remake them somewhere else. The only part not included was the roof, which he had a few construction guys come over to help him build. No wires run through the walls since they are solid pine logs. Any wiring done was put up through the plywood floor. The walls keep wind/weather out, warmth in. Really tough and simple.

There are a whole bunch of companies that make these kits and sell them for a reasonable price. My dad is an experienced woodworker who has built several houses, but my brothers assisted him with construction with little training necessary. My dad has built the second (and hopefully last) one with little to no help and he's near sixty years old. Not to say it's easy, but definitely doable.
posted by nursegracer at 10:17 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy some of the ideas behind building with cob, which is a mixture of clay, coarse sand and straw.

It's fantastic building material & very strong. A lot of the cob buildings you'll see online have a hippy-dippy kind of feel to them, but there's no reason you can't make a modern looking dwelling with it.

If you want to do a renovation to a cob building, you can break down a section, re-wet the cob, add more straw, and build away. It's not snap together lego-simple, but you can reuse the materials.

You mentioned not hiding pipes/wires in the walls. You can easily sculpt recesses in the walls that pipes/wires could run along so that they are accessible, but don't intrude into your living space as much as they would if there were running along the surface of the wall.
posted by burntflowers at 10:21 PM on January 28, 2009

posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:42 PM on January 28, 2009

I have been a carpenter for the past 2 1/2 years. Homes are pretty modular now as it is. Most builders build a home with a ten year warranty. If something goes wrong, they have to fix it.

If someone runs into the front door with a moped, it's as simple as changing out the door frame and the door (not to be confused with the rough frame, which is the 2x4's... which also wouldn't compromise the integrity of the house). It's the same as if someone were to kick in a front door (which is very easy to do... even with a solid core or fire door... door frames are very weak). If the wall is damaged, then someone hit that door with a car or the house was built very, very cheaply.

If you were to drop something on a wood floor and it needed to be fixed then patches of wood would be cut out and replacements would be fitted. You would never even know it was done. It would be the same for tile or carpet.

That being said, if you want something truly modular, you're going to have to go with prefab. Expect to pay a whole lot more. The same goes for the greener building techniques.

I personally love the idea of cob walls and adobe floors, but you're going to pay a lot if you want someone else to do it for you. A whole lot more than you will with conventional building methods. If you do it yourself, well you're going to pay for it in time.
posted by robtf3 at 10:49 PM on January 28, 2009

Panabode. It's like building a house out of Lincoln Logs.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:56 PM on January 28, 2009

Structural Insulated Panels are a pretty simple and efficient building material. Electrical chases, window and door openings are built in from the factory.
posted by electroboy at 11:16 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

The wikipedia rammed earth article reads like it was written by the industry and hence highlights the benefits of this mode of construction well.
posted by troy at 12:12 AM on January 29, 2009

You aren't alone in your fantasy, but I don't think that there is anything like this out there, or at least at a real-world kind of price.

Some of it is just climate-driven. You need caulk and weather stripping if you are in the northern latitudes, because even small gaps let the heat out. You can't expect the pieces of the house to fit with precision, because human work is imperfect, and even a perfectly aligned house will settle and shift with age. We use caulk now, but in the past people used all sorts of combinations of mud, straw, manure, wool, tar, pitch, etc -- anything that would block winter drafts.

Whereas, if you moved to a place where it is warm all year around, then airflow is welcomed, not cursed. You could build your house with either concrete block or exposed wood (no need for drywall or other interior coverings), have your big eave overhangs, and treat the minor gaps around the edges as features, not bugs.

There was a recent issue of Dwell magazine that focused on prefabs, and their basic conclusion was that the concept is still great, but the execution remains problematic, relative to cost. Still, you might find it interesting to look through, to see where one version of modularity remains.

Lastly, Robtf3 is right -- most modern construction is already highly modular. Do you have the option of doing some house-building (like maybe with Habitat or similar)? Seeing how basic and simple most of what goes into a house really is, and how easy (conceptually if not always in practice) it is to add, remove, and exchange parts might shift your perspective on this. And then if you could compare/contrast with a look at vernacular construction in the tropics (with very different climatic, regulatory, and economic constraints), you'd be in a good position to think about what could work for you.
posted by Forktine at 3:22 AM on January 29, 2009

So for example, the walls would be solid, without any of this crazy idea of hiding water-wires-pipes inside them. The walls should keep the roof up and the wind out, and that's pretty much it. Getting clever and tucking all this other stuff into the walls just makes things complicated down the line.

Running your light switch wires etc over the surface of your walls might be simpler if you want to replace the wire, but makes it more complicated if you want to neatly wallpaper or tile the wall in question because there's a wire in the way.

I'd gladly take a smaller house built with thick concrete walls and enormous eaves, if it meant that the house wasn't relying on goofy things like caulk and expanding foam and rubber-backed-siding to keep the elements out.

In some cases complex designs are used because they are more effective. For example, where I am, there was a time when your basic wall was a single layer of bricks, held together with mortar. For walls that need to be strong, two layers of bricks. Then someone noticed air is a pretty good insulator, so the house would be a whole lot warmer if we put an inch or two's air gap between those two layers of bricks. Then someone noticed you could stop damp soaking up the walls from the ground, by putting a sealing layer near the bottom of the wall. Then someone noticed you could make the house even warmer if instead of free-flowing air in the gap between wall's brick layers, insulation was used instead.

So your basic wall these days has an outside layer of bricks, a layer of cavity wall insulation, then an inside layer of bricks; and also has a damp-proof course at the bottom to stop water soaking up the brick work.

You could go 'back to basics' with a simple single-layer-of-brick wall, but it's unlikely you'd want to do that as you'd be losing the benefits modern designs provide.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:57 AM on January 29, 2009

Like Mike says, latex caulking and foam replace older, usually less durable materials that keep out drafts. Newer construction codes require a layer of plastic on the inside (behind the drywall) to keep moisture from migrating into the insulation. It's all an evolution. If you don't put your pipes inside the walls or floors, you're still going to have to anchor them to these surfaces so that they don't get bent and cracked. Also, thick concrete walls don't have much insulation value.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:38 AM on January 29, 2009

The concept of modern and simple don't necessarily work together in the ways that you think. There can be modern houses that are simple to construct and modular like the Lustron. Some of your structural concepts of solid walls are uneconomical and inefficient. They may worked in a simpler time when quarried stone was the only reliable building material with the available tools.

I don't think houses should be dumbed down to "be "mend-able" by an average person", rather the average person should become smarter so they can fix average problems.
posted by JJ86 at 6:00 AM on January 29, 2009

The "pre-engineered metal building" industry may be worth investigating, since their construction is generally panelized, industrial, and aimed at minimal maintenance. Combine that with a raised floor, and you're pretty much there.

The exterior will likely be unappealing, and the interior will usually be one gigantic space that you'll need to subdivide yourself, but it'll also be reasonably-priced. The pre-engineered companies can get all fancy, but from the sound of it you'd be much more interested in their basic structures.
posted by aramaic at 6:16 AM on January 29, 2009


Maybe dome homes.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:14 AM on January 29, 2009

The Not So Big House is a book and a school of thought that applies more to the functionality of houses than the construction methods, but there might be some overlap.

Additionally, I don't know the correct term for this process, but I saw a house made of poured concrete in a magazine. The walls were poured on-site into horizontal forms that had holes for windows and doors. Once the concrete cured, the walls were raised into a vertical position, not unlike an Amish barn raising. This article describes a similar process.
posted by Andy's Gross Wart at 8:26 AM on January 29, 2009

It's my experience that a house is a system. It has to let excess moisture out, it has to accommodate the outside environment - humid, wet, dry, cold, hot - and maintain a livable interior environment. It has to balance the use of materials, not too expensive, locally available. There have to be people nearby who know how to use the materials.

In the US, you have to meet building codes. The codes are to keep idiots from building houses that aren't safe from fire and other hazards, and to ensure that houses can be re-sold (this protects banks and neighbors). In some cases, there are restrictions on how a house can look, up to and including the color. I have a house where the seller/renovator did some pretty dumb stuff, and I'm sorry the code enforcement folks let him get away with it. Fortunately, he did some smart stuff, as well.

Builders build houses that will sell, not necessarily houses that are the most cost-effective to operate. Green materials have to be sold to builders, who may not want to use them because they are new, require training workers, and they may raise the initial cost. Builders have to be educated on new materials; this strikes me as a major bottleneck in green construction.

There are lots of innovative builders, architects, and other people thinking along the same lines as you. Check out Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools, with sections on dwelling & homestead. The Whole Earth catalogs always had a lot of information on innovative building. Googling for Sustainable Building opens a rich vein. Talk to builders in your area and find out if there are any hippie builders around. Some of them will be knowledgeable about codes, climate, materials, and simple/sustainable building techniques.
posted by theora55 at 8:30 AM on January 29, 2009

Once the concrete cured, the walls were raised into a vertical position, not unlike an Amish barn raising.

That's called tilt-up construction. Usually used for warehouses, industrial parks, etc. I worked as a construction inspector for mostly tilt up construction for awhile in college. It's really impressive to watch them go up.
posted by electroboy at 8:41 AM on January 29, 2009

without any of this crazy idea of hiding water-wires-pipes inside them.

Not so crazy. Most homes will minimize the length of plumbing running through the walls—in my house, I'd estimate there's only about 8-10' of pipe (taking hot/cold/waste all together) inside my walls. The rest is in the crawlspace. An architect could get clever and make those pipes accessible on the backside from a gray room—as it is, houses will often have the wall opposite a plumbing fixture be a closet. Hiding wires in the wall is a lot cheaper and easier than bending and installing a bunch of EMT—the downside of occasionally needing to use fishtape probably doesn't justify not running wires in the walls. I hope you wouldn't propose to staple raw romex to the walls.

I'd love to see some system where one section of the structure -- such as a section of roof, wall or floor -- could be non-destructively decoupled from the rest, and possibly re-used later on.

SIPs (mentioned above) might make this possible, although I'm not aware of them being touted for their reusability. They're a pretty cool building material though. Bricks are also reusable.

hick concrete walls and enormous eaves, if it meant that the house wasn't relying on goofy things like caulk and expanding foam and rubber-backed-siding to keep the elements out.

If you've built your house on shifting soil (common where I live) then concrete walls and slab foundations will crack, and are hard to repair. Buildings with stick frames and pier-and-beam foundations will bend, and are comparatively easy to repair.

There's nothing wrong with caulk. It would be impractical to attempt to build an airtight seal between a window frame and the surrounding building just by relying on exacting tolerances.

normal "extravagances" (like drywall or hidden water pipes)

If you've got a stick-framed house, you'll have an outer layer, hopefully some insulation, and then you'll need an inner layer unless you enjoy breathing fiberglass particles. If you don't like drywall, use plywood. But you'll need some kind of hard interior wall surface. Drywall is cheap, reasonably durable, and easy to work with. Pipes hidden in walls may need replacing every 50 years, but that's doable.
posted by adamrice at 9:22 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

You may be interested in the work of the Rural Studio, a project from Auburn University that builds durable, inexpensive buildings for the poor. It's been discussed on the blue here and there.

I tend to agree with theora55's statement that a house is a system. There are reasons for what you view as complexity, and it isn't (always) unnecessary. Gaps in the walls hide ugly wiring and plumbing (and you don't have to use more-expensive conduit for the electrical as you would with a solid wall). Things like windows and doors are in fact generally replaced as prefab units nowadays. The expense of installing utilities is not generally tied to the construction but to fire and life safety. The industry has developed a "modular house" and it's called a mobile home.

Most houses are in fact "mendable by an average person". This is why Home Depot and other big box home centers have thrived (up until just now). People build their own decks, refit their own kitchens, and so forth all the time. The skills themselves aren't hard, it's doing them well that's the trick (I say this being in the middle of a nasty drywalling project).

I think you have some unrealistic ideals mixed with some interesting ideas. I would recommend that you just start working on remodeling where you are or learning various carpentry-plumbing-electrical skills one way or another so you get a better understanding of what they entail on a real physical level. The more you understand the less daunting modern construction methods will seem. The more you know about what is actually done the more you will be able to effectively incorporate some of your ideas into what you do. I feel almost like you don't want to learn this stuff so you reject it, rather than grokking it to the extent that you intuitively want to improve it. This isn't to say that it can't be improved, but it doesn't sound to me like you're going about it the right way.
posted by dhartung at 9:33 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I believe DeckHouse has most of what you want, although they may be guilty of hiding the occasional wire or pipe. Their homes are modular, simple, functional, and customizable.

Apparently this kind of building is not too profitable, however; it appears the parent company is in receivership.
posted by dinger at 10:10 AM on January 29, 2009

The Flatpak House... very cool... not very cheap.
posted by ecorrocio at 1:21 PM on January 29, 2009

This company is based in Germany, but I thought you'd be interested in them anyways, since they've got a strong Lego vibe going on: Huf Haus.

This blog post is written by someone who visited a showroom in South London; it has photos and describes the architecture, materials, and pros/cons of a Huf Haus.

Hope you find this useful; I think they're quite nifty myself.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:06 PM on January 29, 2009

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