(Above: the Wiki House. Image by Margaux Carron)

Ed Clark, of the Institution’s Structural Futures Committee, discusses prototype homes and their importance to the future of structural engineering and construction.

Over the past century there have been several prototype houses that have significantly influenced the evolution of the construction industry.

Le Corbusier’s Dom-ino House, from 1915, demonstrated for the first time the potential of reinforced concrete, flat slab construction. His design liberated the architectural plan from the structure, allowing a flexible layout and the possibility of adapting structures for other uses in the future. In many ways, this was the precursor to the residential and commercial office buildings we design today - concrete flat slab construction is very widely used in multi-storey apartments.

Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House from 1945 was another pioneering structure, this time in its use of off-site manufacture (the design was to be factory constructed and assembled on site), and for its championing the notion of an ‘off-grid’ building – with an emphasis on highly efficient use of resources: the house was designed to reduce water use by a greywater system, a “packaging commode”, and a "fogger" to replace showers. Again, Dymaxion’s design philosophy heavily influenced mainstream design and construction during the latter part of the 20th Century.

Dymaxion House
(Dymaxion House - Image: Wikimedia Commons, Alasdair McLellan)

More recently projects like the WikiHouse (built for the London Design Festival 2014 and shortlisted for the Institution’s 2015 Structural Awards) explored open source design and digital construction: WikiHouse’s construction system could be freely downloaded and customised, allowing for local manufacture and assembly with only minimal construction skills. The prototype was built in twelve days, its timber board panels slotting together like a jigsaw puzzle, secured solely by friction, without the need for mechanical fixing.

Wiki House parts(Wiki House Jigsaw parts - image: Marc Chatainger)

One thing all these houses have in common is that, apart from a few isolated examples, none are lived in. They have not (to date) played a major role solving the housing problem, as much as a solution is needed. So why are these designs so significant? 

Mainly it’s because they provide important clues to how emerging technology might play into the construction industry at a more general level. They also serve to bring building design innovation into the general consciousness. The domestic dwelling provides a convenient brief through which to research and test these issues in a typology that everyone can relate to, and at a scale that can be prototyped at a reasonable cost. 

These structures raise important questions for structural engineering research: most of our research is concerned with developing a more detailed understanding of the behaviour of existing structural systems, helping to refine existing design methodologies. This is a scientific, lab based approach, and hugely important work - but perhaps more research should be like the full-scale prototypes of Dom-ino, Dymaxion and Wiki House? 

They might not be classed as research in the traditional sense, but as individual studies they made a profound mark on architecture, engineering and construction - an influence far greater than their physical size. 

Structural engineers should ask themselves what more can be done to change the research balance, and how we can garner greater support for the prototype approach from academia and industry. One thing is for sure: full scale prototyping of new construction systems is a great way to learn about the challenges and opportunities that future technologies will provide.

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