A small net zero off-grid house for cheap. Who could not want one? And so cheap. Such a disruptive take on construction. I am interested in these things, because this is what I do. So do these claims make sense? And what are the wider implications?
First, I should make a distinction between what happens if a few people follow this model vs. if society embraces this model as the authors advocate, and this becomes the new housing paridgm.
If some folks do this, it sounds great. Although the sticker price in the headline is misleading, because it does not include the land, some high quality green housing gets built, and some folks get trained as green builders. As well, some new tech gets a proof of concept test and each completed house can be used as promotion to grow the project.
I we scale this project up, some problems start to become apparent. First, the economics of the project seem to depend on free or cheap land, which is great in rural areas, but not so great for cities. Although it might be a way to repopulate central Detroit.
Then, there are the inherent limitations of single-family houses. I live in a single-family house, and I build single family houses. There will always be a place for them. But to house lots of people, the solution to sprawl is density. The way to make cities more livable is to build high quality green high-density buildings. And keep the space in between and around the city as green space and farmland.
More importantly, this business model depends on the workers PAYING to work. They are students who pay to take the course. I am familiar with this model with cob house builders, and permaculture design. A co-worker of mine will be doing something similar with an Earthship (rammed earth house) building course. All very well, but my question to him was: what happens when the trained workers come into the marketplace and find themselves competing against companies who are doing the same thing with free labour? Or will the cost advantage disappear when the workers need to be paid a reasonable wage? This is different from projects like Habitat for Humanity or HeroWork where construction workers take a certain amount of time off and volunteer to build housing for low income folks. The free labour seems to be baked into their business model.
Here is the thing: A housing market based on free labour is a society conspiring as consumers against workers. Construction is a working class job that actually pays pretty well. Is the solution to the housing crisis found in getting rid of Construction as a livable job? Will this model do for Construction what Uber has done for Taxi drivers, and Air B&B has done for hotel workers? We are currently looking at the number one employer in North America, Trucking, another working class job that pays fairly well, being completely replaced by self-driving rigs within our lifetime.
I guess I can only fully get behind this proposal if it is part of a social transformation that includes a guaranteed annual income, so that we don’t have to work for pay, and we can spend our time doing cool stuff like building houses for our friends and neighbors.