The Big Easy

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By Michael Sylvester / Published by Dwell
Most prefab manufacturing facilities house loads of heavy machinery, but not every design must be constructed on the factory line.
The Big Easy - Photo 1 of 3 - A model of a one-room cabin.

A model of a one-room cabin.

The construction of most houses requires large-scale equipment, power tools, and thousands of screws, but Larry Sass, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, contends that all you really need in order to build a sound structure is a rubber mallet.

Sass is director of the Digital Design Fabrication Group in the Department of Architecture at MIT. His research, which focuses broadly on computer modeling and prototyping, recently yielded a design and fabrication system based on the extensive use of computer numerically controlled (CNC) milling machines. It sounds complex, but the product looks like an oversized doll house.

A built example of this system, called Digitally Fabricated Housing for New Orleans, was recently displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The house was made with plywood panels, precut with joints and notches. The precision-cut, friction-fit components come as a kit that completely eliminates the need for mechanical fasteners like screws and nails. In simple terms, the assembly instructions for the house are "Insert tab A into slot B. Hammer with a mallet."

This marriage of high-tech fabrication with low-tech assembly has potential applications for humanitarian projects such as low-income and disaster-relief housing. The system demonstrates the potential of digital technology to scale a simple idea into a viable shelter. At just $2,500 (with furniture built in), the one-room cabin could be a real solution where housing and resources are scarce.

The Big Easy - Photo 2 of 3 - The structure, by the Digital Design Fabrication Group in the Department of Architecture at MIT, was erected at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The structure, by the Digital Design Fabrication Group in the Department of Architecture at MIT, was erected at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


The Big Easy - Photo 3 of 3 - The friction-fit components are assembled without nails, screws or glue.

The friction-fit components are assembled without nails, screws or glue.

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