Architecture and Design

A home you can buy for US$15,000? It’s not a pipe dream in world's priciest real estate market, Hong Kong

Architectural firm James Law Cybertecture has come up with a novel idea to help with the city’s housing problems: concrete water pipes. They are mass produced, well insulated and durable, and can be converted at low cost

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 6:34pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 7:52pm

With all the debate on shrinking micro flats, and whether shipping container living is a good idea, one option for affordable housing – already in plentiful supply in Hong Kong – is being overlooked.

That is the opinion of architect James Law, founder of James Law Cybertecture, whose outside-the-box thinking has led to a possible solution. According to Law, the physical properties of the humble concrete water pipe – a network of which criss-crosses Hong Kong metres below the ground – make a perfect starting point for their conversion to low-cost, modular micro-housing.

Law will unveil the prototype of his O-Pod Pipe House in December, and put it on public display after that.

Law’s first experiment with compartmentalised concepts to ease Hong Kong’s housing crisis was the 2015 AlPod, a container-sized mobile pod house with flexible living/working space, bathroom and kitchen. Made of aluminium, it was lightweight and “designed to be a prototype for a new kind of modular, mid-rise residential tower, which could be built off-site in a factory and then plugged in to the structure of the building”.

It was comparatively spacious (at 450 sq ft), and quite luxurious. But it was expensive (US$64,000).

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For his second attempt, Law began from the premise of affordability.

“The O-Pod is an industrial design innovation where we go to the large infrastructure contractors in Hong Kong and buy extremely cheap, excess concrete water pipes and convert them into housing,” he said.

“These giant water pipes underground in the city are 2.5m to 3m in diameter – so you live inside a tube. Because these components are already being mass manufactured, they are extremely low cost, well-engineered and, being concrete, these pipes have good insulation properties. Designed to go underground, they are also extremely strong and can be stacked on top of each other to immediately become a building, without having to build additional ‘bookcase’ structures, columns and beams, etc [as is the case with shipping containers].”

Law sees these pods as temporary accommodation (from one to three years) for people on public housing waiting lists, or saving for a home deposit. In theory, they could be used for permanent living, but Law believes this isn’t ideal as “they are very, very small”.

“Everything is done for micro-living: the sofa doubles up as a bed; the flexible shelving system is customisable to the occupant’s needs,” he says. “We have a micro fridge and a tiny microwave oven – the smallest available on the market – and an integrated shower and toilet inside a space-saving tiled cubicle.”

Subtle lighting tricks can make a tiny space feel less cramped. For his pipe home, Law opted for an anglepoise-type lamp with a spring-loaded armature, so that by changing its reach and angle, it can function as a reading light in bed or lighting for the sofa.

“We use linear fluorescent lighting along the inside surface of the concrete tube to reflect light onto the ceiling, which further illuminates the space,” Law says.

A smart door lock is fitted so that, should its occupants be transient tenants, entry is gained, Airbnb-style, via an access code sent to their phone.

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Law’s O-Pod was created as a non-profit project, “a social contribution”, he says. “If any other organisations want to take this forward we’ll be happy to support them with the design. They could then build the pods en masse for sites around Hong Kong that are appropriate for their use.”

The prototype will be displayed from December 7 to 9 at Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, coinciding with Business of Design Week 2017 (December 4 to 9). Later (the date has not been confirmed), it will be moved to Kwun Tong and open for public viewing for six months.

A flat floor is installed to provide an internal size floor space of 100 sq ft, which feels more like 150 sq ft because the curved walls are used for the built-in furniture. So the O-Pod Pipe House is indeed a tiny home – smaller even than a shipping container, which Law estimates affords around 200 sq ft in a six metre container.

But he estimates the cost to buy and fit out a concrete water pipe to be just (US$15,300) – roughly half of that for a container. Considering that a flat not much bigger could set you back US$512,000 (the asking price for a 161 sq ft flat in Chun Wo Property’s Seven Victory Avenue project in Ho Man Tin) their merit becomes clearer.

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However, Law argues that the true value of creating quick-build, low-cost and flexible housing that enables people to afford living in the city is “only the tip of the iceberg” in terms of its contribution to urban society.

Given the changing nature of districts (such as Kwun Tong), we know that buildings will be used differently in the future, he says.

“A predetermined architecture tends to be quite restrictive,” he adds. “So having architecture that is software-driven will give us as a society much more scope to be adventurous, to be more colourful in our culture, than the current type of buildings that we’re building. So, adaptability is for me the true value of going modular in Hong Kong – affordability is just one aspect.”