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An experimental crowd-sourced home

Catarina Mota
Helping people build affordable housing with open source designs that anyone can replicate and adapt

The pool of accumulated human knowledge continues to grow at an accelerated pace, but this knowledge is still for the most part proprietary and, for this reason, unavailable to most of the world’s population. Despite the rapid increase in overall production, efficiency, and the growing sophistication of machinery and life-saving solutions, millions still lack the means to sustain themselves and prosper.

The open source model – the practice of sharing software, designs and techniques under licenses that allow anyone to replicate, modify and redistribute the goods – could go a long way towards solving their most pressing needs.

Publicly available hardware designs and recipes for materials provides solutions to those who need them most. It’s a collaborative approach that hinges on the power of contributions from all over the world, making solutions diverse by adapting them to different contexts.

Material changes

I believe that access to practical knowledge and the ability to manufacture one’s own solutions can have a massive impact on the world. It’s why in 2009, with the help of Kirsty Boyle, I founded Open Materials: an open research group and online platform dedicated to applying open source principles to the use and production of materials.

At first, I focussed on smart materials: inks and fabrics that conduct electricity, alloys and plastics with shape memory, and paints that change colour depending on ambient temperature. But I’ve since become increasingly interested in open sourcing more common and fundamental materials, specifically those that can be used for building inexpensive and accessible housing.

The open source house

It was in this context that I joined Open Source Ecology in 2014, a project which set about designing and building an open source, low cost house. Its walls were built from compressed-earth-blocks made from our own soil and pressed with an open source brick press. The basic structure of the building was built barn raising style by teams of volunteers in three four-day sessions led by Christopher Reinhart, Marcin Jakubowski and Jonathan Kocurek. We then worked with smaller teams to install the plumbing, electric systems and the firewood-powered hydronic in-ground heating, and finish the interiors. Overall, close to 100 people – architects, builders and amateurs – from around the world contributed to the design and build of this house.

The cost keeps decreasing as we refine the design. The house is made up of seven 12 x 12 ft modules, with the first module costing $13k and the most recent modules costing around $3,750 each. Our goal is to arrive at $33 per square foot for super green homes (those with their own food and energy production), which is about a third of the cost of industry standards for traditional frame construction. We’re now working on an aquaponics greenhouse module to add to the house, which will provide enough fish, chickens and vegetables to feed a family of four.

We’re proud of what we’ve achieved, and we hope it’ll help set a new standard for collaborative and affordable DIY housing.

Catarina Mota is co-founder of Open Materials (do-it-yourself smart materials), Everywhere Tech (open source technology transfer), and AltLab (Lisbon’s hackerspace). She’s also a member of the Libertine100: read her profile here. The Open Source Ecology project finished 4 months ago; low-cost derivatives and replications from the project are currently in the works. Photography by Catarina Mota.

We're working on an aquaponics greenhouse module to add to the house, which will provide enough fish, chickens and vegetables to feed a family of four