DIY Off the Grid: Open Building Institute to Change Face of Home Construction & Home Ownership


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blackDr. Marcin Jakubowski is a TED Fellow and an inspirational speaker, and what he is currently doing is nothing less than stunning in terms of teaching people how to go back to the basics of caring for themselves, and spending a lot less money in the process. But he is wrong about one thing. In his TED Talk about open-sourcing the blueprints for civilization, you’ll find that as he discusses the inception of his current project, he says that when he graduated from Princeton in his late 20s with a PhD in fusion energy, he was ‘useless.’ Perhaps without conventional skills, and while he may not have gone on to a singular career in his field, he is already on the verge of making a monumental contribution to the world of construction and homeownership. Perhaps he did learn a few useful things from that blackboard, after all, is what I’m thinking, watching footage of him build a tractor and turn around what could have been a disaster during his initial foray into farming.

Whether you are interested in becoming more self-sustained in your lifestyle or moving completely off the grid—or just dreaming about saying goodbye to the rat-race—the ideas espoused through Jakubowski and his Open Source Ecology (OSE) idea might just start turning you in a new direction as you explore his plans in developing a Global Village Construction Set. This focuses on allowing you to make your own hardware, offering open source plans for a total of 50 industrial machines that would feasibly allow you to build your own civilization ‘from scratch,’ and of course as one of the tools, the 3D printer fits in wholeheartedly, no doubt allowing for much of the speed and affordability discovered within their plan.


Dr. Catarina Mota (OBI founder) and Dr. Marcin Jakubowski (OSE founder) are living on their farm in Missouri as they work to bring accessible and affordable, ecologically sound living to everyone.

Now, teaming up, OSE will partner with Open Building Institute (OBI) team to further their cause and really make ecological housing both accessible and affordable. The OBI project originated with founder Dr. Catarina Mota (also a TED Fellow, who just happens to be married to Jakubowski!) and has been in the works through several years of experimentation at their farm in Missouri.

Much of the success of this project is built on their trial and error in constructing their own home once they got married and felt the need for more space. No one could build exactly what they wanted, so they began creating their own plan. Together, and with a team of helpers they were able to come up with a comprehensive formula for rapid building with modules that allow you to put together the house like building blocks.

They’ve just launched a campaign on Kickstarter with the hopes of raising $80K by August 3. Those interested in backing can pledge anywhere from $10-$9500, receiving rewards such as webinars and videos on home and greenhouse building, building workshops of all kinds, and even one instruction event where you learn to build a scalable 3D printer, pledging $400:

“We will be building a set of scalable 3D printers, where you choose the size of the machine that you build,” says the team on Kickstarter. “If you want to take the machine home with you, that will cost an estimated $300-700 more, depending on the size of the machine that you build.”


For just one-tenth of what you would pay for the average home, soon you will be able to build an expandable 700-square-foot home. The ecological features will blow your mind, with super-efficient lighting and plumbing, features like a rainwater catchment and underground cistern, in-floor hydronic heating, and a greywater garden. But here’s the most exciting part: the main structure of this house, built with compressed earth blocks, can be built in five days–as was their first prototype, which began as a 144-square-foot prototype with only the most basic amenities and a loft for sleeping.


Over the next few months Mota and Jakubowski and their team added the interior portions and several other modules to include another living area, a mudroom, a porch, and even a library and office area. The house is meant to be entirely ‘hackable’ so that a fluid lifestyle of constantly making desired changes to it can happen, from plumbing and electrical systems to the way they heat and cool, and far more.

“To make the house hackable, we focused on keeping all systems accessible,” stated Mota and Jakubowski. “Rather than pouring concrete over the hydronic heated floor water lines, we buried them in sand. If there is a leak in the system, we can lift the floorboards to repair it. The electric lines are not embedded in the walls, they run along the ceiling edge, inside an easily accessible channel. And the water lines run along the edge of the rooms, in a channel under the floor. If there is a leak or if we wish to add another valve, we can simply remove the boards to make the necessary repairs or changes.”


The venture will be offering open source designs and tools this year but with ambitions to offer an actual turnkey building service in 2017. The group will offer prospective builders the incredible experience of a complete ‘immersion’ training program, and they also have plans to expand their OBI building to other areas, all laid out in their two-year roadmap as part of their Extreme Manufacturing workflow, in development since 2006.

“The goal is to not only help train a growing number of open source, regenerative builders, but also to encourage entrepreneurship and seed the replication of many similar facilities worldwide,” states the team on Kickstarter. “Like everything else in this project, all training materials are open source. Everyone is free—in fact, encouraged—to use those materials to launch their own training program and enterprise.”

OBI has produced 12 builds so far at the Missouri headquarters, and their goal is now to achieve Living Building Challenge certification in 2017, stating that this is considered the highest standard for eco-construction. These homes are considered to be off-grid, and should you build one yourself, you can even look forward to your own supply of fish and vegetables thanks to the 832-square-foot Aquaponic Greenhouse option, featuring:Untitled

  • Two in-ground fish ponds
  • Chicken coop connected to an outside run
  • A rabbit pen
  • 44 6-foot-tall aquaponic towers
  • 216 feet of aquaponic troughs
  • Two compost beds

Along with being able to make all the vegetables, mushrooms, and fish that your heart desires, the team is also working to integrate items like worm towers, spirulina, sprouts, and black soldier fly production—promising it will all be part of a ‘practical, easy-to-manage’ system. Regarding their first workshop, Mota and Jakubowski said:

“On the first two days, a team of 35 participants built and installed all the wall and roof modules. We then spent the remaining four days building the fish ponds and other biological systems: 1 chicken coop, 85 aquaponic towers, 2 compost grow beds, 6 mushroom grow towers, 1 aquatic worm system, 1 BSF breeding system, and 3 hydronic radiators. By the end of the workshop we had tilapia swimming in the ponds, lettuce growing in the compost beds, and fresh eggs in the chicken coop.”

For next year, they will also be starting work on a 4,000 square foot Eco Materials Production Facility where all involved will be working hard to address the environmental concerns traditional construction processes are causing in the US, responsible for 39% of all carbon emissions. There, according to the team, the following processes will be in action at this enormous facility:Untitled

  • 20kW of solar electricity powering the brick press, sawmill, mixers, lime burner, hammermill, 3D printer, and pelletizer.
  • Stabilized CEB block production—with about 8 times less embodied energy than fired brick.
  • Lumber production, with byproducts of sawdust and wood pellets.
  • Production of pelletized biochar from pellets to produce soil amendment and machine fuel (with gasifier engines), while co-generating burned lime in the process.
  • Large format 3D printer for producing multi-wall polycarbonate greenhouse glazing from scrap plastic.
  • Burning of lime to make carbon-neutral concrete from local limestone.
  • Production of bio-fiber insulation from recycled newspaper and biomass feedstocks.
  • Production of heating and feed pellets from biomass feedstocks.

“The goal is to provide detailed open source documentation for all aspects of this facility (all the machines, building, layout and processes) so it can be replicated and adapted all over the world—make local building materials available everywhere,” states OBI on Kickstarter.

Hopefully people all around the world will, if not taking on this idea overall, become inspired to build and live a little differently—more simply and environmentally friendly—taking the ecological approach as far as possible. And while those at OBI know this is a monumental task they are taking on, as they say, it’s all in their secret sauce: open-sourcing.

Is this something you would be interested in? Let’s discuss further in the Open Source Homes & Hardware forum over at


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