A open source toolkit for building your own home

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Several houses


The evidence is overwhelming that large scale collaboration leads to superior technology. FOSS showed us the way and now free and open source hardware is rapidly gaining traction. There is a growing list of open source hardware projects, which are bringing millions (billion?) of dollars of value to the world. Now a new initiative from the Open Building Institute (OBI) is adding "house" to the list of killer open hardware apps.

The idea of an open source house is not a new. See for example Paperhouses, Enviu, or Earth Dwellings.

OBI is taking a new approach built on the successful marriage between Catarina Mota at openMaterials and Marcin Jakubowski of Open Source Ecology. OBI is designing affordable, ecological housing accessible to everyone in such a way that even individuals can act on the designs. They are creating a library of engineered modules and a series of rapid-build procedures to quite literally help anyone build an affordable home. The basic idea is if you can follow an instructable, you should be able to follow a few of them—and if the modules are well organized and complete you could finish off a whole house with a few friends.

OBI is sharing a toolkit that is open source and available free of charge, forever. Sticking with the open source ethos they are also using the FOSS-like Sweet Home 3D to do it. The toolkit includes a library of modular designs (think of them like building blocks), detailed instructions, and software. Other projects have this to a lesser extent. However, where OBI really "blows the roof off" prior initiatives is providing the open source machines for construction and production of building materials themselves. Users can design their own house using open source software, and can also contribute designs to the project.

OBI room

And they will be green

The preliminary designs are stacked with high-tech ecological features including an integrated solar photovoltaic roof (we are still working on open source solar PV—and there are some open source racking options, but we still have a long way to go), in floor hydronic heating, and a biodigester. They aim to achieve Living Building Challenge certification in 2017, which is the highest standard for eco-construction. The standard OBI house model is off-grid. This may sound a bit radical. However, we recently completed a study that indicates that many people throughout the U.S. will be tempted in the coming decade to abandon the grid for purely financial reasons. To top it off, the OBI design has an aquaponic greenhouse option, which produces all the fish and vegetables that a family can eat.

OBI eco infographic

Learning from the Amish

OBI follows a rapid-build approach where they can train non-specialists to put up the house in five days. Think Amish barn raising. Yes, the Amish are faster, but they also have more experience. OBI has already built a demonstration home, and anyone can copy the plans. However, that is not as easy as downloading and installing your favorite flavor of Linux. Not everyone wants to (or is able to) build their own house. So the OBI initiative plans to offer a turnkey build service to prospective homeowners next year using an immersion training program for builders. They are using the now somewhat standardized Open Source Ecology extreme manufacturing workflow, which they developed over twelve previous builds.

Are you interested in building your own green, open source home?

Joshua Pearce
Joshua M. Pearce is the John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation at the Thompson Centre for Engineering Leadership & Innovation.


Great article, I always enjoy reading how open source/hardware aids to a more green and sustainable life.

OBI sounds and looks like a great project. I really like the modular design and the emphasis on on sustainability. I'll have to keep this in mind when it comes time to build my house.

Great article. I had been looking at the project too and you've given us more links to follow.

This is really cool. I would build an open source house if I had the time, money, and a great lot.

Great news! We're 107% funded, and have a few days left. Support modular open source eco-housing and follow progress updates at http://kck.st/293ISTN.

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