Low-Cost Maze The prototype’s interior is a series of L-shaped earthen-block walls.
Courtesy Massachusetts Institute of Technology Low-Cost Maze The prototype’s interior is a series of L-shaped earthen-block walls.

Last summer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge created a media flurry when it revealed that an 800-square-foot house designed by one of its architecture students had been completed in China’s Sichuan Province for less than the equivalent of $6,000, excluding land.

The prototype is the first stage of MIT’s $1K House, a design studio whose goal is to develop a house that can be built for $1,000 and help large populations of rural poor in earthquake-ravaged areas.

The “Pinwheel House,” as the prototype is called, can withstand an 8.0-magnitude earthquake. But skeptics question whether the studio’s $1,000 bar is achievable, or even practical. “People need hot water for cleaning, plus an easier way to make cleaner water for personal use,” states one poster on MIT’s website. “It is okay to build a cheaper house, but don’t forget about their health while living in the house.”

Another poster on Metropolis magazine’s website believes a $1,000 house would be “a tall order,” even in areas of extreme need such as China, Nigeria, and Brazil. “Realistic appreciation of cost and labor is one of the disconnects in architecture that continues to plague the profession.”

Labor, though, was less of an issue in keeping Pinwheel House’s costs down than size, explains Ying chee Chui, a graduate student whose 2009 design was chosen for Pinwheel House. Her original design called for a 56.25-square-meter (605.5-square-foot) dwelling, but expanded to 90 square meters (968.8 square feet) “after discussion with the selected family and sponsor,” she tells Builder. (The finished product was scaled down a bit, according to MIT.)

Pinwheel House is made from hollow brick walls, reinforced steel bars, wood beams and bamboo, insulated roof panels, and interior translucent panels. Because the house is located in remote Mingyang, an hour from the nearest small town, local acquisition of building products that could withstand different conditions was more difficult and added to the project’s total cost.

Chui is convinced that extremely low-cost housing can help “a huge amount of people.” And the $1K House is looking for sponsors to move forward. But any application in North America is likely to require another design that incorporates the continent’s many external conditions. One option could be a $10,000 house for earthquake- and tsunami-prone Japan, which another design studio at MIT is developing. Chui suggests that prefabrication, rather than on-site construction with local materials, “may be a better solution for the Japan situation.”

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