Friday, September 12, 2008

You Can Plan

As part of the London Architectural Festival, I visited a group called You Can Plan, who is attempting a new approach to self-building an affordable home, in a higher density, sustainable setting. They are employing a process call Enabled Self Procurement, which offers an interesting intersection between choice and control.

While the self-build or self procured market in England is decently sized (10-12%), most people cannot achieve the beneficial savings that they originally hope such a process would bring. Because the scale of such projects are usually so small, the larger developers and volume home builders are often able to often the most affordable options, although devoid of identity or character. This is clearly the case in the US.

Their approach is to bring the design and delivery of the home to the individual, and taking care of the many components that most people don’t have the knowledge, patience, or care to deal with. These include building codes, planning permission, ordering materials, and even doing the building themselves. One way they have envisioned bringing higher quality design to such communities is by following the principle of the pattern book, which is firmly established in US housing culture. Such books that you often find at the check-out aisles of different stores allow people to purchase already designed house plans to build on their own. However, most architects shun these possibilities, as devoid of any character, ingenuity, and creativity. Yet, they remain widely popular. The You Can Plan team decided to learn from this approach and employed a competition to make a new pattern book for a new to be developed community. After voting online, ten distinct designs were chosen with a focus on individualization, flexibility, and adaptability.

These ten pattern book designs are then incorporated into a 3-D planning software that allows users to not only pick their plot, but also their home, and its variations. Since all the pattern book designs have already met planning and building code approval, it is almost like you just plug in your home. The software is very easy to use (download it here) and offering numerous ways to explore your future community in process. The beauty about it is that you could actually be planning your home while your neighbors are as well, thereby being able to see design decisions made in real time. The actual urban design and master plan of the community will have already been established. While not everyone would want to engage in such a process, it seems like such a process could be extended to the overall design of the whole community.

Since there is so little on which to build in Britain, most of it is hoarded by large developers and the state, offering minimal opportunities in home design. The ESP approach, offers a way to tap into the existing players and tweak the system a bit to bring more control to future homeowners. It has the potential to bring good design to much greater numbers of people. I am very excited about this approach and am anxious to watch it unfold. They are in a testing phase right now to see how it would work and are trying to pitch the idea to willing participants, authorities and developers.

Would such a process work in the US? Could such simple technologies be employed to address housing crises in the developing world?

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