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The Future of Flat Pack: You're the Designer; You're the Builder

One of the things we like best about flat pack is the low common denominator from which all of the designs start: a flat material. This simplifies just about everything, from the materials selection, to the manufacturing and transportation (shipping) process, to the construction and maintenance of the product. It’s better now, but, in the future, it stands to be even more so. Just over the horizon are implementations and ideas that’ll make it so easy and simple, you’ll be able to design and build your own furniture, and even your own house.

It all starts with downloadable designs — the idea that instead of going out to go find things, you can bring design into your home, by downloading and “printing” it — combined with the flat-pack philosophy. It’s a great way to localize product manufacturing and cut down the distance and time (and carbon footprint) of everything needs to get to you. Unfortunately, to this point, a lot of the downloadable designs have been pretty small and simple; because most of us are limited to printing on a flat piece of paper at home, it’s tough to make something like a (full-size) chair or table. Scale that up to a whole house, and it’s pretty well impossible. But the future is arriving, slowly, with a company called Ponoko [www.ponoko.com], who is helping turn citizens in to designers, and putting the power of manufacturing in the hands of the people.

New Zealand-based company helps you upload your own digital design, find a local manufacturer to create it and then send it back to you. Burgeoning designers can also submit and then sell their designs to other Ponoko users, who then in turn have it manufactured locally to them. The idea is that, after designing and submitting it, it’s manufactured at a studio down the street (rather than around the world), and you just go pick up the pieces, which you take home and slide piece A into the notch in piece B; anyone who’s ever bought anything from IKEA [www.ikea.com] knows how this goes. The Ponoko system is still in beta, so we aren’t sure how everything works, but it’s a terrifically intriguing idea and seems to be a great way to put design within reach of everyone and give product design a little open-source twist.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility to scale this idea up to the size of a house. You could go online, pick a design, consult with an architect, or come up with you own, and submit it. A few days (or more likely weeks) later, you’d get an email that said your new home was ready; you could have it delivered, and get to work bolting, nailing, and otherwise putting it together. A few days (or more likely weeks) after that, you’d be done and would have a new home to call your own. The design would be customized, the pieces would be modular (so you could replace them or change them easily), the manufacturing would be local and it would be cheaper and easier than any previous method would have been able to offer. We’ve seen this process at work, in examples like Gregg Fleishman’s flat pack house [www.treehugger.com] (pictured above); while the style may not fit with everyone’s aesthetic, the idea is solid: you can really design and build your own house. We think it’s the future of architecture and design.