For years, architects have been trying to design the perfect $100,000 house. Beguiled by that price tag, the urbanist Karrie Jacobs wrote an entire book on her cross-country search for such a home. Now MIT has lowered that target—by a lot, to a mere $1,000. That’s the cost equivalent of a square foot in some cities such as Tokyo or Moscow. This week, the school announced that it had built its first Pinwheel House prototype in Mianyang, in China’s Sichuan Province.
The idea to attempt building $1K homes was conceived by Tony Ciochetti, the Thomas G. Eastman Chair at MIT’s Center for Real Estate and modeled on Nicolas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child, the foundation that delivers low-cost computers to children. And like OLPC, Pinwheel greatly exceeded its price target, with a final cost of $5,925. (The cost of Negroponte’s laptops still hovers around $200, double the initial $100 goal.)
The house was designed in 2009 by Ying Chee Chui, a recent master’s grad, in the first 1K House studio, which focused on providing affordable housing solutions for areas struck by natural disasters such as the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. The structure is composed of hollow brick walls, with steel bars for reinforcement, and wooden box beams. Modular rectangular rooms surround a central courtyard. MIT’s press release quotes Chui: "The construction is easy enough, because if you know how to build a single module, you can build the whole house." Unlike makeshift, temporary structures, Pinwheel is intended to withstand a magnitude 8.0 earthquake.
The extra cost stems, in part, from an upgrade in size, from 500 to 800 square feet. According to Chui, a smaller version could be built for around $4,000, and that figure could be slashed further if multiple houses were built at once.
A related $10K design studio will launch this fall with a focus on building homes for the middle class. It, too, will look at ways to streamline the rebuilding process after natural disasters, like Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami, by developing templates for simple, permanent structures.
As for the $1K house, it lingers as an unmet challenge. (See the results of a design competition for a $300 home here.) "If it were easy, somebody would have done it," Ciochetti says.