Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.
These customizable hexagons from U.K.-based Hivehaus offer the promise of fast, cheap density.
Every county in the U.S. needs more affordable housing, and that calls for fast and cheap construction of living space. A new company promises just that, with help from the architectural principles of Bauhaus and the instincts of bees.
England-based Hivehaus sells hexagonal building units that customers can assemble in highly customizable fashion. They’re cheap (the largest cluster advertised sells for £39,643, about $61,500 as of today) and fast (with manufacturing in three months and installation in a matter of days). If they catch on, the houses could change the game in cost-effective urban and suburban densification through installation in backyards or on rooftops.
The six-sided, 100-square-foot base units can be combined to form larger rooms or walled off into different sections. They use energy-efficient LED lights, with the option to draw power from solar panels. Customers can select the window layout and plumbing options and can even throw in a green roof for good measure.
Creator Barry Jackson arrived at the concept out of a desire to re-envision housing altogether. The Lancashire-based general builder, who exhibits photography and drums in alternative rock bands on the side, got fed up with British attitudes that frame housing more as a commodity than a place to live.
“I think that’s morally wrong, personally,” he says. “Shelter is a necessity. It should be something we can all afford to own.”
A quicker path to residential density
To achieve that vision, Jackson started tinkering with off-the-shelf building materials and figuring out how to form them into efficient building blocks. Then he saw a documentary about bees, and drew a flash of inspiration from their hexagonal honeycomb cells. The hex shapes each have a specified use and fit together in a number of configurations (think: setting up a game of Settlers of Catan).
Hivehaus replicates that functionality on a human scale. If you want a sun-filled study tucked into your back garden, you can do that. If granny wants to move in with the family and there isn’t space in the main house, give her a living room hex with a bathroom and bedroom. Or maybe you want to rent space to someone who can’t afford a larger conventional home.
“If you view a module as a room for a set purpose, then you can have as many or as few as you need,” Jackson says. “You alter the structure to suit your lifestyle … rather than being dictated to by typical house builders.”
Sticking new modernist cottages on the grounds of American country estates won’t solve any pressing societal challenges, but these houses could do a lot of good in more settled regions. Densification via backyard cottages (also known as accessory dwelling units) has been gaining traction in the U.S. in recent years, in part because it’s faster and cheaper than infill through apartment-building construction. One backyard cottage construction specialist has estimated that, in the expensive Bay Area market, backyard cottage construction can take around six months after permitting and cost $80,000 to $250,000.
The faster and cheaper Hivehaus, then, could carve out a brave new world of easily erected suburban outbuildings. After compiling a home, the Hivehaus builders disassemble it into flat pallets for shipping via conventional truck. The structures don’t need a heavy concrete foundation—they sit on steel jack feet that adjust to uneven terrain. When Jackson and company bring a model unit to housing fairs in England, they truck it in and set it up over the course of four days (and can disassemble it in one day).
In urban centers, where open acreage is harder to spot than an agoraphobic Sasquatch, often the only flat and empty expanses to speak of are rooftops. Here the Hivehaus can play a role, too; the structures are lightweight enough to set up without weighing down a building too much. Landlords who want to add additional rental units could pitch it as the radical urbanist frontier—greater-density housing with minimal environmental footprint. Jackson has been in touch with a television post-production house in London looking for extra office space on top of its Soho building. It would be a lot cheaper than leasing a whole new space.
Regulation remains the biggest barrier
It will be some time, though, before anyone other than Jackson gets the keys to a Hivehaus. After the fledgling enterprise appeared on the TV show George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces in fall 2013, viewers swarmed with requests. Hivehaus now has a database of more than 14,000 people interested in purchasing the product. That’s too much for current capacity, so the company has been in talks to partner with a large multinational firm to scale up production and form manufacturing bases overseas. (It was too early for Jackson to provide any more details on that deal.)
Americans interested in modular housing have some other options in the meantime. A new crop of modernist prefab homes based on shipping containers has moved into the sales and construction phase, ranging from the rustic and unvarnished to posh custom models. They tend to be boxier and less customizable than the Hivehaus, though, as the core building blocks are 20- or 40-by-8-foot rectangular prisms.
Toronto-based firm Meka has dispensed with the shipping containers themselves, due to many complications involved in repurposing them, says CEO Michael de Jong. It turns out, for instance, that durable steel still bends from use, which can become a big deal when you’re trying to perfectly line up two different boxes to form a house. Instead, Meka’s factory makes prefabricated homes in steel boxes sized to fit on international shipping vehicles. Would-be occupants can customize the design to fit their plot of land, then Meka makes it, ships it, and sends a crane to drop it into place. Installation takes about a week.
This allows standardization of designs and quality, and removes the surprises and headaches that can accompany a traditional home construction project. But there’s still one source of headache: housing regulations.
“Like typical early adopters, the struggle is humongous and the future looks very promising, but the biggest obstacles are government regulations,” de Jong says. “What we really need is to get some sort of standardization, and I know that’s difficult to do.”
In other words, a house that meets permitting standards in Minnesota may need significant adjustment to meet the code in Texas, and this impedes efficient modular home production for the country as a whole. Jackson at Hivehaus pointed to this regulatory gap as “one of the biggest sticking points” in the U.K., where planning rules are dictated by local councils.
The U.S. government has a strong interest in making sure housing is safe and reliable, but with affordable housing supplies dropping dangerously low in most cities, now’s the time to revisit these laws. De Jong points out a possible precedent: regulations for trailer homes, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development oversees nationally. A system like that to regulate accessory dwelling units would streamline the process of popping them into yards and the occasional unused rooftop, and make cheap housing that much more accessible.