The (Somewhat) Higher Cost of Good Intentions

The interior of the house designed by Ying chee Chui as part of MIT’s 1K House project. Photo: Ying chee Chui

Interesting news out of Cambridge last week: MIT announced that the first prototype from its 2009 “1K House Project” was recently completed in Sichuan  Province,  China.  Designed bya recent graduate of the architecture school, Ying chee Chui, the Pinwheel House is a steel-reinforced brick house (created to withstand an 8.0 earthquake) with a modular layout comprised of simple rectangular rooms surrounded by a traditional courtyard.

The goal of the studio project—conceived by Tony Ciochetti, chairman of MIT’s Center for Real Estateand clearly modeled after Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child—was a daunting one: design and build a $1,000 house. Like the one-hundred-dollar laptop, the one-thousand-dollar house has a nice, clean media-friendly ring to it. It’s certainly eye-catching as a concept. But what are we to make of the news, slightly buried in the MIT release, that construction costs for the Chui house totaled $5925, or six times the stated goal?

20110914154637-3The exterior of the 1K House. Photo: Ying chee Chui

This is not at all surprising. The first one hundred dollar laptops were about two hundred dollars. Many of the original Make It Right houses in New Orleans came in almost embarrassingly over budget. In both instances, subsequent efforts have centered on the altogether unsexy issue of cost containment. Or as Tom Darden, Make It Right’s executive director, said to me recently, “Asking the question: how do we make this wall unit twice as strong for a third of the price?”

Architects call it “value engineering.” It’s usually said with a sneer,  since it is really just a euphemism for cutting the budget in the middle of the design process. But the 1K House, or the $100 Laptop, or the $140 Per Square-Foot LEED Platinum Home (Make It Right’s goal),are different animals. Low cost here has to be so embedded into the design as to be undistinguishable from it. And then still be functional and beautiful. This is a devilishly difficult task that can only be achieved the hard way, through trail and error, the scientific slog.  As Tony Cioochetti said about the 1K objective, “If it were easy, somebody would have done it.” Indeed, here’s hoping he tries again with a new class this year.

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