Your House is Probably a Prototype

What does a new house in a subdivision, and a test car on a racetrack have in common?

They’re both prototypes

One of them goes through lots of iterations to discover imperfections and a whole team of designers and specialists work together to get it right before it’s finally made available to purchase.

…The other one is a house.

You’re a Crash Test Dummy

Design is a process. It’s a team sport and it requires experts from multiple fields working together through lots of prototype iterations, to get it right.

But in housing, our architects, engineers, interior designers and product suppliers don’t iterate on prototypes to come up with the best overall design, then optimise production to produce lots of them, cost effectively. Designers, builders and tradespeople put our houses together from a bunch of ideas and fix inevitable issues on the fly. Then you move in, and the designers and builders disperse, moving on to their their next respective projects.

When it comes to individual, custom designed buildings (which in New Zealand and Australia, is nearly all of them), owners and tenants are little more than the architects’ crash test dummies living in prototypes.

The Design Book Fallacy

Many volume builders have a book or catalogue of ‘set’ designs, but in reality, these are not very set. Building companies use these as a base and invite prospective buyers to add some more room here, push this wall there and turn this window into a sliding glass door…

So every house is unique. Every house becomes a prototype.

Who’s Designing Your Prototype?

Sales representatives often end up ‘designing’ houses. I’ve seen this process unfold. They start with a ‘standard’ plan, then make the ensuite larger, add a games room and upsize the garage. Sales reps upsizing their their commission doesn’t necessarily improve the performance or affordability of your future home.


Prefabrication is the natural solution to designing our homes better. Following manufacturing examples of every device, appliance and vehicle in our modern lives, housing prototypes should be iterated. The design stage is the best place to come up with kitchen layouts, wall constructions, building envelopes and control systems that work. We should then focus on optimising consenting and manufacturing of a finite range of house models.

Mass Customisation

People often argue, “but our houses will all look the same”. Is the fear of ‘samesness’ in our housing stock real? I don’t know.

Regardless, mass production is not the enemy of individual identity. Take a look at any shopping mall car park. You’d be hard pressed to find any two identical models in any given car park, despite the cars all being mass produced.

Or take mobile phones. You could probably correctly match a pile of your friends’ ‘identical’ phones to their owners based on their cases and accessories.

Designers and owners can use colours, furnishings, claddings and landscaping to personalise mass produced homes.

Building Better Homes

The pathway to a better way of building will require some leadership from the industry. A huge opportunity I think for someone to become a legitimate manufacturer of houses rather than producing a series of prototype houses.

For the consumer, I encourage you to consider some of the genuine ‘off the plan’ options currently out there. And if there are options for upgrades, invest in the best possible insulation and glazing before messing around with the floor plan. Don’t be a crash test dummy during your first winter inside your new home.

Check our my interview with Tim Jones where he described his experience trying to improve an ‘off the plan’ volume house in Christchurch.