Article and images by Richard Reep:
Housing will take a great leap forward when the house becomes married to the concept of solid-state. This revolution will begin 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. Tubes were large, coarse, and had to be replaced when they overheated. Transistors did not. Tubes required a lot of energy and current to move electrons around to do their jobs, rest and recharge, and activate devices. Transistors could do the same jobs with a fraction of the energy, thus reducing heat, cost, and time; they could also be spaced closer together. Radios, which were briefcase sized objects, collapsed from to thumb-sized objects. A radio today is a mere speck; a partition within a larger microchip measured in nanometers.
The solid-state house is not to be confused with the tiny house. Today, the tiny house movement is still in its nascent stages, and running into some important obstacles. For one thing, the entire economic system is blockading this movement, because the system is entirely designed for the supersized. During the permitting process, whether you permit 400 square feet or 4000 square feet, the same baseline cost applies, and the increase is only incremental. Municipalities, desperate for cash, have no incentive to reduce permitting costs. So the tiny house must pay the same tribute to the king as a McMansion. Builders have little interest in not-so-big houses, because they are built more quickly, and with fewer materials. Why would a builder want to sacrifice price? The management of a construction job is the same, whether managing a three month, 400 square foot project or a three month 4,000 square foot project.
Builders also are accustomed to a supply chain of vendors with whom they have developed relationships. Gypsum wallboard, for example, is, the bread-and-butter staple of interior construction. 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 the consumptive, wasteful supply chain, and unwittingly adopts it into the movement, rewarding the same people, taking the same resources from the earth, and injecting the same waste. The notion that the movement is doing less harm only means that a tiny house is less bad than a large house.
And finally, a tiny house, once it is finished, has hundreds, if not thousands, of individual separate parts, and all of them move. During the daily temperature cycle things warm up, expanding during the day and shrinking at night. Rain wears down finishes and opens up joints between materials. Air conditioning creates a humidity imbalance that nature is constantly trying to correct. Even with today’s current construction methods, these issues are addressed no differently than they were fifty or a hundred years ago.
Machines within the house — air conditioners, ceiling fans, switches, faucets, water heaters, and on and on and on — all 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 broad ethos for the masses. The ‘system’ is embedded way too deeply into its bones. This system has evolved, Darwinian style, carrying its bad genes into the present. If the McMansion is doomed, so is the small house.
But a different type of evolution is possible: Lamarckian evolution, in which change can come in one generation. Just as transistors evolved out of tubes, so can a solid-state house evolve out of a current house. This is the pathway towards the future. The ideal solid-state house shall have no separate moving parts, and shall be endlessly customizable out of factory parts. And the solid-state house shall shrink.
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.
For example, water-carrying pipes currently are rigid PVC or copper because it is cheaper for long distance. In a small house, where water needs to be carried for shorter distances, more flexible hoses can be used, eliminating pipe joints. In the future small house these will be baked into the wall, much like holes in bread, eliminating a second material from the mix.
Air conditioning may be under the floor or in the walls, operating through microtubules that work like sweat glands in reverse, constantly removing moisture from the air and channeling it into a system that cools air, creating a transpiration cycle that will allow the small house’s microclimate to function in the same way as the space under a tree canopy. LEED, the green certification rating system, requires a hermetically sealed space to minimize energy. But 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 24 volt direct current, and 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. Eventually these will be solid-state, too. The solid-state house will be at first very small. Finishes — the ‘look’ of the house — can meet any preference. If the current preference is stucco, for example, that can be added. 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 most important part of the solid state house, though, 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 finally collapse, and bring architecture into our liquid, postmodern, nanosecond twenty-first century.
Richard Reep is an architect with VOA Associates, Inc. who has designed award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects. His work has been featured domestically and internationally for the last thirty years. An Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, he teaches urban design and sustainable development; he is also president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. Reep resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.
The Solid State House was recently published in The New Geography . Builder Magazine has also featured the design in its Future Home Design Trends .
Here is a link to “the New Geography” with Richard Reep’s article: http://www.newgeography.com/content/004877-the-house-future-will-be-solid-state