Open Building Institute

The Open Building Institute is an open source effort to make affordable and ecological housing widely available. The OBI system is open source, collaborative and distributed. Our focus is on low cost and rapidly-built structures that are modular, ecological, and energy efficient.

Open Building Institute Agriculture February 1, 2017 at 6:23 pm
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Project Description

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What Is Open Building Institute?

Open Building Institute is an open source effort to make affordable and ecological housing widely available. The OBI system is open source, collaborative and distributed. Our focus is on low cost and rapidly-built structures that are modular, ecological, and energy efficient.

AT THE HEART OF THE PROJECT IS A LIBRARY OF BUILDING MODULES—walls, windows, doors, roof, utility and functional modules, etc.—that can be combined to create a variety of structures: studios, homes, multi-family houses, greenhouses, barns, workshops, schools, offices, etc.

Our approach focuses on state of the art and ecological housing. This means that the system pays special attention to water-catchment, passive heating and cooling, photovoltaics, thermal mass, insulation, off-grid sanitation, and hydronic heat.

Designs and build instructions are contributed by designers around the world and are reviewed by experienced builders. A shared pool of designs means that each one of us does not have to reinvent the wheel. A greater number of designers means faster development. And the larger the number of contributions, the greater the diversity of approaches and solutions we can choose from.

All modules and procedures are OPEN SOURCE—forever and with no exceptions. This means that everyone is free to use, modify and redistribute them. Our OSHWA-compatible license also ensures that you are free to profit from these designs—by using them, for example, in design and/or build contractor work.

The library is made available online in standard CAD formats compatible with open source software applications such as FreeCAD and Blender. The library can be directly imported into Sweet Home 3D—an open source interior design application. Once imported into the application, modules can be simply dragged and dropped to create a building design.

The modules on the library are designed specifically to be easily and quickly built by non-professional builders. A 4×8 ft insulated wall module, for example, takes a team of two people 1 hour to build.


In the 18th and 19th century, rural communities came together to build barns for each of their members. In our modern version of barn-raising, builds typically take place in 6-day workshops, during which participants collaborate to build a structure.

The modularity of the system enables extremely rapid builds, as modules are first built concurrently by teams and then quickly assembled on site to form the building.

Throughout several experiments, we learned that it is possible for a group of 35 people to build and install 20 wall modules in 1 day and 6 roof modules in another day. This means that it is possible to build the shell of a 24 x 16 ft structure in 2 days, Building a house may be a labor of love, but it doesn’t have to take a lifetime.

During workshops, participants acquire skills and hands-on experience with the system in order to organize their own builds. The barn-raising approach not only enables rapid builds, but also provides organizers with a stream of revenue that helps offset the cost of materials.

To further encourage adoption, replication and entrepreneurship, all workshop/build organization materials—from workflow and budget to publicity plan and logistics—are also open source. And for those who wish to build a business on top of this system, we are developing a training program geared specifically to entrepreneur-builders.


Eco-Seed Home Prototype Rendering

Our Recent Achievements

In the last few years we have developed a high quality, robust, eco-friendly, sustainable, extremely affordable home that can be built just about anywhere in the world using locally sourced materials. Our current prototype is a 700 sq ft starter seed home with greenhouse which is modular by design and could be increased in size as the homeowners need for space or budget grows.

The base cost of the home including materials and labor is around $35,000 (not including land). To put these figures in perspective, the national average cost for new construction is $125 per sq ft and our average construction cost comes in at well under half that at $50 per sq ft.

Because our validation process was so successful with open source home construction, we are inviting the world to continue to help us further develop this exciting concept. Our goal is to improve upon our designs through trial and error – organize the information – and then make it available to the world as a free resource for anyone to use.


Why Housing?

Housing is a basic human need and is something that everyone can relate to because we all need a roof over our head. Housing costs also tend to make up a persons largest fiduciary responsibility. We wanted to apply open source methods and protocols to change this dynamic. Housing costs are only one of the issues we are trying to address with our initiative because there are other challenges depending on what part of the world we look at.

For people in less developed countries, there is a lack of access to technology, knowledge and resources required to build an affordable eco-friendly quality home. In addition to that, global population growth is exploding in these same countries causing billions of people to need shelter in the coming years and it’s important that we approach this challenge in a smart sustainable way.

For people in developed countries, owning a home is expensive, and requires most homeowners to encumber a life-time of debt — debt that is rarely ever paid off while living in home because interest payments are front loaded through the banks amortization schedules. This perpetual debt is like a a ball and chain that follows us through life and only serves to keep homeowners away from their home, (and family) busy at work trying to satisfy one of their largest monthly obligations, which is their mortgage. It is our mission to offer a high quality alternative solution to this dilemma.

Food Production

Another issue we wanted to address with our initiative was self-sufficiency. Although we have addressed this in many ways with the homes numerous eco features, we felt that food production was such an important fundamental aspect of self-sustainability that we needed to integrate into into our modules. As with housing, food is a basic human need and makes up a significant portion of our yearly expenditures. Lack of access to healthy and nutritional food affects people in many different ways as well.

People in under-developed countries are frequently confronted with a daily battle of caloric intake, and in many cases, those are the lucky ones. There are over 700 million people in the world that suffer from undernourishment  and over 3 million children die every year due to poor nutrition.

There are also millions of people in developed countries who have no other option but to eat cheap, processed, low nutrition food because they are  unable to afford quality food sources. This is one of the reasons we conduct our aquaponics workshops and have added this life sustaining component to our library of modules. Our aquaponic system can provide enough vegetables and protein to feed a family of six year round.

A New Paradigm Is Within Reach

Imagine a life with little to no mortgage payments. utility costs or food bills. The average person spends almost 60% of their annual income on those three items alone. What if at the very least you could cut those numbers in half? What would you do with your time if you didn’t have to spend it all working to keep these exorbitant costs satisfied every month? Or what would you do with the savings? This is not some far off pipe dream but a real possibility – right now.

More people are coming to the realization that time is their most valuable asset and although we have an abundance of technology, is it really being properly utilized to create a better quality of life for us? One could argue that the introduction of more technology has only complicated our lives.

Our housing initiative was created to be directly applied towards creating a better quality of life no matter what country you reside in. We want to disrupt the old model and offer a way for people to have more time to do what they want to. Simply put, our model is designed to circumvent traditional housings constraining ways and provide a new housing paradigm (and lifestyle) for all who want it.

Get Involved

The goals and scope of the Open Building Institute are extremely ambitious and could not be achieved by our core team alone. That’s why we’re calling out to all interested designers, developers and supporters to help us make affordable, eco-housing accessible to everyone. Just like Linux is developed by thousands of programmers around the world, we believe we can all get together to fix housing.

Despite our fierce belief in the power of open source, we also learned from experience that managing contributions in a way that makes the best use of everyone’s talents and time is not easy. In fact, this has been one of the biggest challenges faced by open source hardware projects in general. In the past, we have managed contributions and collaborations on a case by case basis (i.e. email exchanges), but this process is too time consuming for everyone involved. And it doesn’t scale. We need a more efficient way to work together. To address that, we’re currently developing a system to accept and manage additions and improvements to the OBI library.

Full Immersion Workshops

In our 5-day workshop we will build a modular seed-home (the core of an expandable home) loaded with ecological features. If you are interested in natural home building or extreme efficiency of effort towards manufacturing, you will learn first-hand how to take your home or project to the next level of ownership. Workshop includes 5 days of hands-on immersive building, lectures by invited subject matter experts, discussions, and exploration of entrepreneurship opportunities.

This workshop is intended for everyone who is interested in exploring the rapid building of environmentally-friendly homes (no previous building experience required). Blending modular wood panels with Compressed Earth Block construction, our goal is to demonstrate that quality housing can be built with multi-purpose flexibility using module-based designs and parallel building for optimizing design evolution. Our goal is reducing the duration of construction by a factor of 20 compared to industry standards, at ⅓ the cost of conventional housing. This design process involves a rapid parallel swarm workflow with a large team using simple-to-follow documentation created with Agile and Waterfall methods prior to build.

OBI Aquaponic Greenhouse, Maysville, MO

The Aquaponic Greenhouse Workshop is a 5-day immersion experience during which we will build our second aquaponic greenhouse that incorporates everything we have learned during and since the first 2015 build. The overall workshop is broken up into two sessions and participants can choose to participate in either or both. In the first session, we will build the greenhouse structure using polycarbonate double-wall glazing, with ponds and hydronic heating, at a cost of $6000 – 3x lower than industry standards. In the second session, we will build the biological modules for an integrated greenhouse with ecological pest management.

In this workshop, we will continue to explore our Extreme Manufacturing approach – pushing the limits of rapid building together with diverse ecological integration. Participants will gain an appreciation for the level of productivity possible with modular design. The multiple components – both mechanical and biological – can be assembled rapidly, by multiple teams working together, from open source blueprints, like IKEA furniture.

We are aiming to produce the most integrated yet practical, replicable and affordable greenhouse in the world!

The greenhouse structure consists of roof, wall and door panels, with vent windows which can be opened. The glazing material is double-wall polycarbonate. The building also includes an in-ground fish pond, heated by hydronic tubes, so participants can learn about effective in-ground heating systems.


Your donations help us fund R&D, documentation and prototyping – and are greatly appreciated! All donations are made to Open Source Ecology – a non-profit organization with 501(c)3 status and OBI’s fiscal sponsor – via Stripe. These funds are then allocated to OBI sub-projects.

Founder – Catarina Mota Ph.D.

Catarina Mota is an open source advocate. She founded the Open Building Institute, co-founded Open Materials (do-it-yourself smart materials) and AltLab (Lisbon’s hackerspace). Previously, she co-chaired the Open Hardware Summit 2012, served on the board of directors of the Open Source Hardware Association, taught as an adjunct faculty member at ITP-NYU, and was a fellow of the National Science and Technology Foundation of Portugal. Catarina holds a Ph.D. in communication sciences and her research work focuses on the social impact of open and collaborative practices for the development of technologies. She is a founding member of the Open Source Hardware Association and a TED Fellow.

Co-Founder – Marcin Jakubowski Ph.D.

Marcin Jakubowski is a Polish-American who came to the U.S. from Poland as a child. He graduated with honors from Princeton and earned his Ph.D. in fusion physics from the University of Wisconsin. Frustrated with the lack of relevance to pressing world issues in his education, he founded Open Source Ecology in 2003 in order to make closed-loop manufacturing a reality. He began development of the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS)—an open source tool set of 50 industrial machines necessary to create a small civilization with modern comforts. His work has recently been recognized as a 2012 TED Senior Fellow, in Time Magazine’s Best Inventions of 2012, as a 2013 Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow, and a White House Champion of Change in 2013.

OBI Eco-Home, Maysville, MO

For more information about Open Building Institute, please visit our