Prototype for $1K house has final price tag of $6K

Idea inspired by One Laptop per Child; designing the house is a ‘collaborative’ project

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Yung Ho Chang and Ying chee Chui designed a $1K house prototype based on a single module with branching rectangular rooms.
courtesy of Ying chee chui
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The $1K house prototype in Sichuan, China, actually ended up costing $6K, but the building was 30 percent bigger than originally planned.
courtesy of ying chee chui

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: This article includes the incorrect degree designation for architecture student Ying chee Chui. Chui received a Master's of Arts in Architecture, not a bachelor’s.

What can you build for $1,000? Last summer, Professor Yung Ho Chang in the Department of Architecture and Ying chee Chui ’11 — then a graduate student in the department — designed and built a house in Sichuan, China using local materials for that much.

The house, known as the “Pinwheel” prototype, is based on a single module that has a central courtyard space with rectangular rooms branching out on all sides. Once one unit is built, it can be duplicated and rotated to construct an entire house. The house also makes use of hollow brick walls with reinforcing steel bars, wooden box beams, and structural insulation panels to help it withstand earthquakes.

Chang said he was first inspired in 2009 when his colleague, Tony Ciochetti, chairman of the MIT Center for Real Estate, came to him with the idea to build a house for $1,000 after seeing the One Laptop per Child project, of the foundation of the same name headed by Media Lab co-founder Nicholas P. Negroponte ’66.

“The 1,000 number was completely arbitrary, but I got excited and wanted to know if it could be done, so we decided to do a project in studio that spring to work on the idea,” Chang said.

Chang and a group of graduate students created a set of designs, one of which, the “Pinwheel,” was selected to be built last summer in Mianyang, Sichuan Province, China.

Chang says that it took about a year to establish ties with an NGO in Beijing and secure funding for the construction of an actual prototype. In the summer of 2010, Chui headed to Sichuan to build the prototype on site.

“The final price tag was about 6K, but the house was 30 percent bigger than we had originally planned,” she said.

Unique design process

Chang emphasized that what makes the 1K house unique is not just its low cost, but the interactions between the architect, the engineers, and the end user that occurred during its construction.

Usually, according to Chang, the three parties don’t interact at all.

“Practically speaking, architects can’t build their own design, and inhabitants can’t either — they don’t have the equipment, crew of people. It was very unusual, in our case then, that we worked directly with all parties. Even the person who ended up living in the house was physically building it.”

Chui says that the process of working with structural engineers and being heavily involved in the construction was a rewarding experience.

“I learned a lot about the engineering perspective — we designed the house in studio, but we had to select the material at the time during construction. It was a challenge because we were building in a rural area and we had to look for materials that were close-by, and met the structural and cost requirements.”

Chang said designing the house within tight cost constraints was a valuable experience as well. “Architects have very strong design tendencies,” he said.

“For example, we don’t like some colors, maybe some of us don’t like colors at all, but in this project, we had to let go of a lot of these things. In Chee’s case, I knew she didn’t like the color of the roof panel, but it turned out that color was the cheapest one.”

“You don’t have to give up on design, but you realize what’s important is the most essential elements,” he added.

Chang hopes that the locals can take away design principles from their involvement in the construction of the house.

“Most houses in the area use solid brick which doesn’t stand well against lateral stress as well as the hollow bricks we used, so we hope that they can incorporate that design principle into their own building convention and future designs.”

Now that the prototype $1K house has been completed, Chang is working on a $10,000 house for Japan that could be built quickly after natural disasters.

“We wanted to get the $1,000 house out as a message. It’s not about building one house, but the first house,” Chang said.