(Note: A good long video explaining the system can be seen via this Treehugger article)
Judging from my decades of life experience there is an iron-clad rule about every room in every house ever built: The electric outlets are in the wrong place.
Outlets are always, and I do mean always, blocked by furniture or too far from the floor lamp or get overloaded because it’s the only one I can find. Invariably I end up shifting everything around or living with more extension cords than Medusa had snakes on her head.
Here’s an idea: Instead of moving lamps and furniture to suit the outlet, why can’t we move the outlet to suit the room?
That’s one aspect of a system called Open-Built that New Hampshire’s Bensonwood Homes has been developing for years and incorporating into homes, including some built with components made in its Keene factory. The idea is to creates houses that last longer and perform better by designing them to be functionally flexible so they can change as the needs of inhabitants change (kids are born, people get old, family moves out, etc.) and as technology alters.
It’s very much a niche idea in the U.S., although not in parts of Europe or Japan. Improvements in computer-aided design and CNC machinery are making it more feasible.
The Keene factory, company founder Tedd Benson says, can produce material for “300 buildings a year on an 8-hour day” although he adds, “we’re not up there yet.”
Benson got his start with timber-frame construction and with Bensonwood Homes and subsidiary Unity Homes is well versed in sustainable and passive-house construction and design. The Open-Built concept is an extension of those ideas.
Outlets, under this program, can be easily moved because they’re built into a small section of non-weight-bearing walls along the floor that is covered with panels, sort of a vertical version of a dropped ceiling in an office. Open the panels and the wiring is accessible without messing with wallboard or insulation.
If the system was built with plug-and-play circuits that Benson is also developing, moving the outlet won’t be much harder than setting up your new computer.
“Being able to move outlets is a cool feature, but bigger disentanglements are more important,” Benson said.
The inelegant term “disentanglement” refers to the idea that the structure of the house – the shell – shouldn’t be tangled up with the things that make it work – the infill – because they exist in different timelines. A house frame and foundation can last a century or two but the design and technology of the pipes and wires and insulation and other components change much more quickly.
If those pipes and wires and insulation are all tangled with each other and with the shell, stuck around studs and joists and behind wallboard or siding, upgrading them is so expensive and complicated that it rarely happens.
Case in point: My house. We’ve been there 30 years yet my wife and I have installed exactly one new set of switches and light sockets, resigning ourselves to all the others even when they’re not quite what we’d like. And that installation happened only because our bedroom adjoins the attic so it was easy to run wires without ripping up the ceiling.
Then there’s the Ethernet cable running down one hallway to a makeshift office because hiding it would be an enormous pain. As for changing the plumbing layout or increasing the insulation in the walls or running fiber-optic cables if that becomes the norm – forget it.
Benson’s approach is to avoid such locked-in layout from the start with computer-aided design and modular construction. He emphasizes that the idea is not original with him, pointing to well-known advocates like Stewart Brand and John Habraken, but it remains rare in the U.S.
“We’re rethinking the process and product of buildings so they can last longer and be more adaptable to people’s lives,” said Benson. He talked about making a simple wiring upgrade himself, without having to hire people in other building trades: “If they’re entangled, it would take five trades to accomplish the same thing.”
Along with flexibility, he says, comes better performance, more efficient use of energy and more comfort for people living inside.
“We know how to do it – it’s actually not that hard. Residential buildings are really simple; they sit on the earth, don’t go anywhere, don’t make anything … it’s actually pretty easy to build to a higher-performing standard,” he said.
A key part of Open-Built is the construction of walls and other components in a factory to be assembled on site. This idea has been touted for as long as I can remember as a way to make better and cheaper homes but is relegated to the much-scorned category of low-end “manufactured homes” for reasons I don’t quite understand.
Real houses, the thinking still goes, are “stick-built” meaning that almost everything, including all the framing, is cut and attached and constructed on location out in the rain and sun and wind, on workbenches or scaffolding or ladders, using portable power and staffing that can come from different places for different jobs.
Pushing against that inertia is part of the obstacles Benson faces.
Benson said Bensonwood and Unity together have about 115 employees, including the factory in Keene and two production departments in Walpole, one of which involves high-tech construction with manufactured timber, a topic I’ve written about before.
Another obstacle Benson faces is a shortage of standards. You can’t plug-and-play components if they don’t fit together.
Benson says his firm is in a partnership with Saint-Gobain, a global materials company, “to develop software to bring basis to standardization.”
“We’ve got 40 different companies making parts for quote-unquote electrical systems and we’re still twisting with thumb and forefinger, splicing wires” because they don’t coordinate design.
The hoped-for result, he said, includes “dimensional coordination … so that when we’re making things that are parts of buildings … there are some rules about where they go and how they fit.” Things like stairs, bathrooms, windows, showerheads – and, yes, outlets.
They’re testing what is essentially a 2-foot grid for the building shell and a 3-inch grid for infill components, he says. Myriad designs can be built around these but, important, not an infinite number.
“Instead of everything having to be cut and shaped on building sites by individuals with handheld tools, they can be assembled together,” he said.
At a time when the need for housing is greater than ever before, a big rethink of how we construct our homes might be in order. If it means I can get rid of some extension cords at the same time, I’m a fan.