In 2013, Marcin Jakubowski and Catarina Mota, newly married, decided to build their own house where they were living in rural Missouri. What started out as a 144-square-foot micro house grew to include a bedroom, then a mud room, then a porch, a library, office, second bathroom, utility room, and, finally, an aquaponic greenhouse. A year and a half later, they had a 2,000-square-foot home, where they still live and work, that exists completely off-grid and is capable of generating its own energy and food.
It’s an impressive feat by any standards, albeit one that Jakubowski and Mota are more cut out for than most: Jakubowski runs the ecological housing initiative Open Source Ecology and Mota is an open-source advocate as well as a smart materials expert. But by time they put the finishing touches on the 800-square foot greenhouse, they had developed a formula for affordable build-it-yourself ecological housing that they felt anyone could follow. “We’re open-source advocates, so everything we did along the way was shared,” says Mota. “But we realized that this could actually help a lot of other people do the same thing.”
The biggest hurdle with build-it-yourself eco-housing is that people don’t even know where to start.
Last week, Jakubowski and Mota launched a Kickstarter campaign for an eco-building toolkit based on their own designs. The kit is an online platform that offers a library of modular home designs that that users can download and import into Sweet Home 3D, an open-source interior design software. The library of modules is also open source—think of it as Github for eco-house designs—so people can also contribute their own designs to the library as long as they meet the Open Building Institute requirements. OBI has also developed a model for acquiring materials and constructing houses quickly—they say most of the designs take around five days—with a group of builders that can be contracted through the OBI network.
“The design itself will dictate the way that you build, but the number of options you can build is infinite,” says Jakubowski. Every new design that meets the requirements and is uploaded to the site will be published, but a team of architects and ecological building experts will curate some of the best designs for a featured gallery.
If the Kickstarter campaign is a success, Jakubowski and Mota will use the money to crowdsource a stockpile of building designs to start out with. One of the first designs available, for example, will be a 700-square-foot expandable Starter Home with an attached aquaponic greenhouse for food and solar heating. It will comply with the rigorous Living Building Challenge design standards—and it will cost only $25,000 in materials.
The Living Building Challenge is an advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment—meeting its requirements for certification is not easy. In fact, there there are only 25 certified projects worldwide. Jakubowski and Mota believe the main reason the standards are so difficult to meet lies in the lack of dissemination of information. “All of the technology for building an autonomous house exists, it’s just a matter of harnessing them all in one roof,” Jakubowski says. “A large number of experts have that knowledge, but typically to pull that knowledge together means the design itself is expensive and the components are expensive.”
“All of the technology for building an autonomous house exists, it’s just a matter of harnessing them all in one roof.”
By making the designs open source, the Open Building Institute aims to bring both of those costs down significantly. The designs will be free and the components, because you are building them yourself, only cost as much as the materials. Meanwhile, an optional element of the OBI model involves hiring a OBI-certified guiding builder who can organize a workshop for people within the network who will help you complete the house in a matter of days.
Those who participate in the workshops are unpaid, but can put those hours toward their training to become an OBI-certified builder themselves. It costs the owner $10,000 on top of the materials, but owners can also opt out and build with friends. These workshops would also serve as the OBI’s main source of revenue.
The OBI gives an estimate of five days for constructing a 700-square-foot single-family unit, a duration that was drawn from Jakubowski and Mota’s construction of their greenhouse, which involved the help 35 other people. Right now, the OBI has around 50 trained builders, though it expects that number to increase now that it has officially launched. The idea is to grow into a large enough community to be able to supply at least 30 builders per workshop anywhere in the country.