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October 7, 2008

A patent on a house design: this is the heart of the controversy surrounding Hans Zwimpfer's Pile-Up Housing. The Swiss architect claims to have invented a new solution to sprawl by stacking single-family homes; an idea that–a skeptic could say–might be a little familiar in the post-Louis Sullivan world. Nevertheless the idea earned the gentleman US Patent 7,237,361.

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There is indeed a twist on Zwimpfer's concept of building up, not out: each apartment is composed of a two-story and a single-story part to a specific scale, in such a way that the two-story part allows light in through a terrace. Also, only the outer walls are load-bearing, meaning that residents have the flexibility–and physical capability–to alter their interior floor plans. The buildings can be built on a luxury or efficiency model. Construction and design cost little more than the average cost of an apartment building.

Since earning the patent, Pile-Up Housing projects have sprouted up in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Libya, and South Africa. And controversy has mounted: what does this patent precedent mean for the architect and the client in the future? Certainly a patent rewards creative thinking, on one hand; yet what is the ultimate collective effect of patents on the implementation of individual creativity?

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