Housing will take a great leap forward when the house becomes married to the concept of “solid state.” The Qwave will be the beginning of this revolution, when solid state – i.e., no moving parts – becomes meshed into notion of shelter. Ergo, the Solid State House. This will be the housing of the future.
With the introduction of “solid state” circuitry in the 1940s, the transistor replaced the vacuum tube to shrink circuits, improve precision, and eliminate maintenance and wear. This concept revolutionized electronics. While William Shockley and John Pierce created the transistor, they had to describe the new physical form, or state, they were working in.
Tubes were large, coarse, and had to be replaced when they overheated or malfunctioned. Transistors did not. Tubes required a lot of energy and current to move electrons around so they could do their jobs, rest and recharge, and activate devices. Transistors could do the same job with a fraction of the energy – thus reducing heat, cost, and time because they could also be spaced closer together. Radios collapsed from briefcase sized objects down to thumb-sized objects. A radio today is a mere speck, a partition within a larger microchip measured in nanometers.
The tinyhouse movement is still in its nascent stages, and running into some important battles. For one thing, the entire economic system is blockading this movement, because it is entirely designed for supersize. From the permitting process (you pay the same order of magnitude cost whether you permit 400 SF or 4000 SF – the same “baseline” cost applies, and the increase is only incremental). Municipalities have no incentive to reduce permitting costs, desperate as they are for cash. So the tinyhouse must pay the same tribute to the king as a mcmansion.
Builders have little interest in not-so-big houses, because they are built quicker with fewer materials. Why would a builder want to sacrifice price? The management of a construction job is the same, whether managing a 3-month, 400 SF project or a 3-month 4,000 SF project.
Builders also are accustomed to a certain supply chain of vendors, with whom they have developed relationships. Gypsum wallboard, for example, isn’t really cheaper; it is, however, the bread-and-butter staple of interior construction and has become a commodity that can be manipulated, either by material cost or labor rates, to always come out at the bottom of the options for interiors. If you are seeking an interior finish that has less impact on the environment, you will always pay more. The small house movement has not yet figured out how to work around this consumptive, wasteful supply chain, and unwittingly adopts it into the movement, rewarding the same people at the top of the chain, taking the same resources from the earth, and injecting the same waste. The notion that they are doing less of it only means that a tiny house is less bad than a larger house.
And finally, a tiny house, once it is finally finished, has hundreds, if not thousands, of individual separate parts and all of them move. The daily temperature cycle warms up and expands things during the day, shrinks them at night. Rain wears down finishes, opens up joints between materials. Air conditioning creates a humidity imbalance that nature is constantly trying to correct. Current construction methods, with all the different trades and specialties, has not addressed these in any different way than they were addressed fifty or a hundred years ago. Everything moves, subtly, if not grossly.
We haven’t even considered all the machines within the house. Air conditioners, ceiling fans, switches, faucets, water heaters, and on and on and on. All of these have moving parts. They break down, require maintenance, and have their own supply stream. Whether a house is small or large, it has all the same baggage in terms of motors, lights, machines, and pipe joints. The lengths of straight pipe between joints may be shorter, but the connections, where the leaks occur, are still the same.
The not-so-big-house will not, in its current form, succeed and converge into a broadly cast ethos for the masses. The “system” is embedded way too deeply into its bones. This system has evolved, Darwinian style, carrying all these bad genes into the present generation. If the mcmansion is doomed, so is the small house.
Another type of evolution is possible, however: Lamarckian evolution, that which can be changed in ONE generation. Like transistors evolved out of tubes, so can a solid state house evolve out of the current situation. This is the only possible pathway towards the future.
The ideal Solid State House shall have no separate moving parts. The Solid State House shall be endlessly customizable out of factory parts. The Solid State House shall shrink.
These are the reasons why the not-so-big house movement will be the testing ground for the Solid State House. Innovation is easy when you are dealing with large scale projects, and looking for ways to save money. Invention, however, is not possible. Large projects have too much riding on the scale to look at new ideas.
Small, projects, however, are the province of INVENTION. A new way of doing things is easier to test when failure is small scale. Edison tested thousands of filaments in his light bulb before he found tungsten. A filament is small. Shockley tested thousands of alloys in a transistor before he found gallium-arsenide, and even that needed to be replaced with something a little less poisonous. Finding that gallium-arsenide combination was invention. Perfecting it with silicon was innovation.
The Solid State House shall have:
Single components that service multiple uses. A roof panel, for example, shall be both structural and waterproof. Manufacturing shall be perfected so as to reduce waste in the roof panel process and eliminate the 3-4 large dumpsters that have to be hauled off no matter what size – room addition or mcmansion.
Circuitry above the head shall be all low-voltage direct current. LED lighting only requires 12 or 24 volts DC. Right now, we bring 120V AC to the LED light and it has a built-in transformer. A solid-state house will eliminate the transformer, reduce the quantity of expensive copper needed to get power to the light, and embed the wires into the construction.
Water-carrying pipes are in rigid PVC or copper because it is cheaper for long distance. A small house, carrying water shorter distances, will be able to use more flexible hoses, eliminating pipe joints. The future small house will bake these into the wall, much like holes in bread, eliminating a second material from the mix.
Air conditioning will be underfloor or in-wall through microtubules that work like sweat glands in reverse: constantly removing moisture from the air, channeling it into a system that cools air, and creating a transpirational cycle that will make the small house microclimate function in the same way as the space under a tree canopy. Unlike LEED, which requires a hermetically sealed space to minimize energy, this new system will work best when the windows are open. Reconnecting with nature will be a pleasant byproduct of the solid state house.
As many appliances as possible will be 24V direct current.
As many appliances as possible will function without motors, gears, or bearings. A “gear room” or utility room will be where the shameful old appliances, like washing machines, will be placed, those poor servants that still must labor in the old way. Eventually these will be solid-state, too.
The solid-state house will be at first very small. Finishes, which is the “look” of the house, can be anything. If the current preference is wattle-and daub, that can be added to the building. But the solid-state nature of the house, with prefabricated wall and roof panels cut to size and fitted together seamlessly, will have its own integrity regardless of the clothing it wears.
The last and most important part of the solid state house will be its transportability. A foundation system will allow it to anchor firmly to the ground and be connected to local utilities (if required). As a not-so-big house, however, it will also be easily transportable.
This exciting revolution will allow time and space to collapse finally, and bring architecture into our liquid, postmodern, nanosecond twenty-first century.
The Solid State House was recently published in The New Geography. Trendy Builder Magazine recently published this commentary:
New Geography contributor and architect Richard Reep envisions home design and engineering solution akin to “solid state” technology, involving complete houses with no “moving parts.”
Reep’s riff takes off from the premise of the “not-so-big house” movement, which, although it represents promise directionally, doesn’t have a practical or operational likelihood of widespread traction. Here’s how Reep sees a tie between the non-starter small house initiative and the solid state house of the future:
The not-so-big house movement will be the testing ground for the solid-state house. Small projects are the province of invention. A new way of doing things is easier to test when failure is small scale.