Habitat for Humanity understands the concept. So do weekend warriors and faithful DIY-ers: The value of a do-it-yourself construction project lies not only in its affordability, but also in its community focus and the pride that comes from creating something by hand, from scratch.

Clemson University is taking the concept of DIY construction to the next level with a newly patented 3D building technology, developed by faculty and students at this R1 Research University and land-grant institution. Called Sim[PLY], the building system blends technological advancements with DIY sensibilities. And by finding better ways to build, Clemson also is leading the way in everything from affordable housing to disaster relief shelters, pop-up health care facilities and more.

The first question Clemson professors and their students asked was simple – and just as important, scalable: How can technology be used to make the building process more affordable and more collaborative?

“The more automated we become as a society, the fewer connections we have with people, hard work and hands-on applications,” said associate architecture professor Dan Harding, a key member of the Sim[PLY] team. “Our work is going the other way. We are making sure our use of technology includes people, is designed around human conditions and how people can build better, while also embracing technology.”

Harding developed the Sim[PLY] technology alongside Clemson students and other faculty as part of a hands-on study in affordable, wood-based building design. Their goal, leveraging technology to find better ways to construct buildings with wood, fits the University’s land-grant mission. The prototyping, testing and construction that followed, as well as the resulting technology that was awarded a patent, all reflect the University’s status as an R1 Research Institution.

“The technology builds capacity in community,” Harding said. “It supports technical education, and it promotes entrepreneurship. It is inclusive.”

Off-the-shelf shelter solutions

The best way to describe Clemson’s Sim[PLY] building technology is a cross between a kit home and a 3D puzzle — sustainable, accessible, affordable and available with the click of a button. While spec houses have been constructed with the technology in Clemson’s home state of South Carolina, Sim[PLY] is set to debut commercially in British Columbia in the summer of 2019 as part of a grassroots effort to make affordable housing available to a workforce of teachers, nurses, police, firefighters and others who are vital to the Vancouver Island community.

A house under construction is seen in the foreground, while the run rises to the left.

Professors Dan Harding and Dustin Albright have been constructing a prototype house in Pendleton, South Carolina, using the new Sim[PLY] building system, a patented technology that allows a home to be built without the use of power tools or nails.

By leveraging Sim[PLY], the housing solution in British Columbia could be as simple as giving middle-income workers an option for homebuilding in the backyard of an existing homesite. An in-law suite could be built by a family and tucked into the landscape without needing a backhoe. Or, Sim[PLY] could be employed to create something as large and connected as a village of microhomes designed to serve a broader workforce.

“We’re building something that allows us to hear each other first, and then empowers us to go out and tell others the entire story about the critical housing demands facing our world,” said Harding, who developed Sim[PLY] by working with a team of faculty inventors and contributing student inventors.

“And the whole time we’re talking, we’re having to talk through walls,” Harding said. “First, through the structural walls we’re building, then through the cultural walls that create barriers to affordable housing.”

Eventually, those walls they’ve designed, engineered and are “talking through” have the potential to be home base for one of the most significant housing solutions ever developed — and one with global reach.

“It’s upending what it means to do carpentry. It’s upending high labor costs,” Harding said. “We’re not making the work obsolete; we’re transforming the work and the lives of the people who benefit from it.”

Sustainable home history

Sim[PLY] was conceived and born at Clemson University through a yearslong collaboration between architecture professors and students. Together, they developed a technology that allows a home to be built using a system of plywood pieces cut in advance by computer numerical control (CNC) machines.

A long strip of interlocking pieces are seen just before they are put together. Student workers are visible in the background.

The Sim[PLY] building technique was debuted in 2015 at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. With this technology method, off-the-shelf plywood is cut by CNC routers into interlocking tab-and-slot pieces that fit together to form a solid, tight frame. Digitally cut files can be emailed to a CNC fabricator and then shipped flat-packed to the construction site, ready to be assembled by hand.

The resulting structure is easily assembled and requires no power tools — not even so much as a hammer or nails. Because the digitally cut walls are made of plywood, they can be sourced locally and affordably.

The newly acquired patent, No. 10,156,067, is the first to originate from the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities at Clemson, and it details framing technology designed by professors and students. The patent explains that Sim[PLY] addresses a need “for an improved building framing system that may overcome one or more disadvantages of existing systems.”

Unlike traditional framing systems, which generally require onsite cutting and other operations that require expertise in the construction process, Sim[PLY] streamlines assembly to the point that no advanced construction knowledge is needed. The major innovations the system introduces are an interlocking system of plywood pieces and the use of steel zip ties in lieu of nails. “This makes the system just as easy to disassemble, modify and reuse as it is to assemble in the first place,” said assistant architecture professor Dustin Albright, another central member of the Sim[PLY] faculty team.

Once pieces are cut out by the CNC router, they can be slotted and locked into place and secured with the zip ties. Designs can be accessed anywhere in the world with an internet connection, and those designs can be customized to fit the need of the homeowner. The “ready-at-hand” nature of the system, its sustainability, safety, energy efficiency and other key factors that permit the building system to bebroadly applied” were all noted in the patent award.

Sim[PLY] has drawn interest from partners around the globe, ranging from Department of Defense contractors to small farmers markets in South Carolina. Like 3D printing, CNC relies on digital instructions from a Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) or Computer Aided Design (CAD) file. With its level of precision, CNC technology is most often used for designing automotive and aerospace components, which must be high-quality, highly engineered parts designed to work at altitudes of 36,000 feet or speeds of hundreds of miles per hour.

CNC machines are capable of making parts that are precise to .0001 degree. Because of this, the Sim[PLY] method is more than just easy to assemble and disassemble and more than just affordable. It results in extremely high quality.

The future of housing

A home underconstruction is see in the foreground, with beautiful blue California skies seen in the background.

While much larger than the home that will be built for Anomura, this home — built for the 2015 Solar Decathlon — was designed for a family of four.
Image Credit: Clemson University

One of the most interesting “broad applications” of Sim[PLY] technology – and the one which made an early debut on the world stage – is for affordable housing.

Thanks to its new patent, Sim[PLY] has partnered with a social housing group called Anomura based out of Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. The group is a British Columbia-registered society dedicated “to the creation of accessible housing solutions for all members of our community.”

As a nonprofit, Anomura is grappling with the high cost of land and construction in the area, particularly as those twin forces push developers to build an increasing volume of luxury housing. Meanwhile, many people in the workforce find it difficult to secure affordable, safe housing in the capital city of Victoria. Anomura works with various landholders that have access to underutilized land, whether those landholders are nonprofits, private owners or governments. Once Anomura has identified a landholding partner, the group works to bring movable, high-quality housing to those underutilized locations.

The Sim[PLY] technology opens up a whole realm of new possibilities for expanding that access, said Kristina Leach, vice president of Anomura. The Sim[PLY] system caught Anomura’s eye more than 18 months ago at an architecture event where Albright and Harding were presenting. The Clemson professors and the nonprofit’s leaders have been in contact ever since, and they are moving quickly toward Anomura using Sim[PLY] to fabricate components to their own specifications so that whatever structures they construct fit their needs.

Two wooden rocking chairs sit in the hallway of a concept home.

Sim[PLY]’s innovation doesn’t mean compromising on design. The interior of Sim[PLY] structures can be finished to meet an individual’s personal preference, whether it’s rustic wooden floors or classic ceramic tiles.
Image Credit: Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

As someone who understands the needs and requirements of the housing industry, Leach has nothing but praise for the Sim[PLY] concept. “It’s an interesting way to build, because the carpentry is already built into the prefabricated pieces,” she said. “All of that expertise is preloaded into the geometry of the pieces, so we all can experience the joy and sense of mastery you get from building, while simultaneously reducing labor costs. These transformations are good and are important.”

Anomura is also partnering with Camosun College, a public institution in British Columbia, to use its CNC equipment housed at Camosun Innovates, a research, manufacturing and innovation center.

This local relationship will further broaden the network of those interested in the Sim[PLY] project. Ultimately, the hope is that the next partnerships will transform access to housing in North America and far beyond.