North Charleston business helps Clemson students build DIY home


NORTH CHARLESTON — Think of it as a life-size LEGO house. Only this more-than-8,000 piece set isn’t available in stores. At least not yet. But if Clemson University and Fine and Small Homes in North Charleston have anything to do with it, DIY energy-efficient modular housing might actually become a thing of the future.

See a house you like? Hop online, download the instructions and then drive over to the home hardware store and pick up your pieces. You do the rest. No, seriously. No contractors, no skilled labor. It’s so easy a caveman could do it. As long as he has Internet access.

Clemson faculty and students envision homes like Indigo Pine — the university’s prototype energy-efficient modular home which is being showcased this week in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon in Irvine, California — being the future of housing in years to come.

Indigo Pine is a customizable home that can be cut from off-the-shelf plywood and assembled by hand using screws and stainless steel zip ties, but no nails. The resulting house is structurally stronger than a conventionally built home.

“It can be built faster, safer, easier and more energy-efficient than traditional construction with power tools,” said Kate Schwennsen, director of the School of Architecture. “This house is the beta version of what could be a market-rate, flat-packed house that could be ordered online, custom cut and then constructed by do-it-yourselfers or home builders over the course of a few days.”

The only place willing to make these parts with a quick turnaround for Clemson and its Solar Decathlon team was Nicholas Godfrey’s Fine and Small Homes in North Charleston.

“We would have dropped out of the competition if they hadn’t stepped up and been able to cut all these pieces for us. And they did it fast,” said David Pastre, a professor in the School of Architecture.

The method by which the pieces are cut — using a CNC (computer numerical control) router — isn’t exactly brand new technology, but it’s finally becoming more mainstream, as evidenced by Godfrey’s Lowcountry facility, which features five state-of-the-art routers.

The pieces used for Clemson’s Indigo Pine house ran the gamut from structural to siding to interior partitions, doors, cabinetry and even furniture. That said, it still only took the routers about a week to cut all the pieces for the “jigsaw puzzle” home.

“It truly was a collaborative effort,” explained Godfrey. “I can not say enough about the involvement of the students. I was and still am super impressed by the work ethic they showed. We gave them about two days of instruction on the software and operation of the CNC machines and they took to it like second nature.”

Clemson students and faculty are banking on this being the future of homebuilding, not just in the United States, but the rest of the world in the years to come.

“The design and construction of a zero-energy home — especially a livable, affordable, accessible, customizable, market-rate, family home — has more potential than any other project imaginable to make a positive difference in the world and for South Carolina families,” said Schwennsen.

Godfrey agrees. “With the Indigo Pine house, we are seeing the reemergence of the true craftsman mentality,” he said. “There was a time when the architect and builder were synonymous. Everything was designed and built by the same group for the dwelling. We are seeing this trend again and it’s a wonderful thing because it just makes for cooler homes.”

The competition, which features 14 of the preeminent collegiate programs in North America, challenges teams to design, build and operate the most attractive, effective and energy-efficient solar-powered houses. As for the design of those parts, students and faculty on the main campus designed the main structure while students at Clemson’s Architecture Center in Charleston created all the interior cabinetry as well as the kitchen.

The winner of the Solar Decathlon will be announced Oct. 18.

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