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Open Building Institute Nears Launch

via Open Source Ecology

how it works

Introducing the Open Building Institute: a Q&A with Marcin Jakubowski

by Cat Johnson

The Open Building Institute is an open source effort to make affordable housing widely available while fostering collaborative and ecological practices. The project is focused on low cost and rapidly-built structures that are modular, ecological, and energy efficient. At the heart of OBI is a library of building modules, including walls, windows, doors, roof, utility and functional modules and more that can be combined to create a variety of structures, including studios, homes, multi-family houses, greenhouses, barns, workshops, schools, and offices.

I spoke with founding partner Marcin Jakubowski about the importance of open source design to address pressing global issues, why modular building is an exciting alternative to traditional building methods, and how an empowered community of people that draw from, and contribute to, the library can help provide low-cost housing solutions anywhere.

Cat Johnson: How did the Open Building Institute (OBI) come about? What need does it fill that is not available elsewhere?

Marcin Jakubowski: Catarina Mota and I got married in 2013 and she moved from Brooklyn, New York to the middle of nowhere, Missouri. She realized that the house we had was simply too small. We called some contractors, but found out that what we wanted didn’t exist yet. Catarina needed a comfortable house that didn’t cost a million dollars, that could be built quickly from local materials, and that could be expanded as we grow.

There was only one option: we had to build it ourselves. So we did just that. We examined the best practices then took our open source high power brick press and, through much trial and error, developed a formula for rapid builds. With rapid builds, a big group of people builds a large number of modules in parallel and then assembles them rapidly into a building. We realized that, using these techniques, we could build an 800 square foot structure from scratch in just five days. So we decided to take it to the next level.

For a few years now we’ve been developing an open source toolkit that can make building a house easier, faster, and cheaper. We started a library of modules that can be put together like building blocks. We’re developing instructionals, including software and many other tools to enable anyone to design and build using this open source system. Moreover, we’re creating a training program for our system so, if you want, you can hire an OBI builder anywhere in the world.

We have decided to build a solar-powered, replicable Materials Production Facility so you can use local materials wherever you are. Focusing on integrated, regenerative design, we are pursuing Living Building Challenge certification, which is the highest standard for regenerative construction. We are also developing a social model of production, where apprentices-in-training build the houses during immersion training workshops. Our combination of rapid build time, low cost, regenerative features, user-generated design, and feasibility of both social production or commercial build models are not found in any other house offering. Our value proposition revolves around democratizing construction.

The Institute offers a library of building modules, including walls, windows, doors, roof, and utilities, that can be combined to create homes, barns, greenhouses, studios and more. Why does open, low-cost, modular building make sense?

Modular, open source housing makes sense because you can design and modify it yourself for your specific needs—or you can use existing designs. Open design means that you have full access to use, distribute, modify, or sell the product, free of charge. Low cost makes sense for access, such as when modular housing can be built in an incremental fashion. Our standard model costs under $25k for materials for a 700 square foot, expandable Starter Home. But you can build a structure of any size, larger or smaller.

Rather than getting in debt with the average $360,000 dollar new house, you can start with a smaller home for 1/10 of the cost and then expand it as needed. You have the ability to choose standard or innovative features, as your budget allows. Because we are developing design guides and we provide the module libraries, you can become your own house designer. The point of modular design is that you have access to design assets that have already been worked out or engineered in detail by others so you are able to create house designs that are not only fanciful, but also buildable in real life. If you contribute your designs or improvements back to the common pool under a share-alike license, which is a requirement of using the OBI library, then access to quality designs increases with time. The whole ecosystem grows in value and service to humanity.

Designs and build instructions are contributed by designers around the world. What type of designs are found in the library and why is the collaborative and distributed approach important?

We have seeded a library, which has sufficient modules to design a house. But our scope of usage in many contexts and locations is so broad that only a collaborative and distributed approach can achieve it. Many designers, many perspective and experiences are needed to pull it off. This could not be done with a centralized approach.

The library, at this point, contains around 20 structure and utility modules that we have built and tested over the last three years. The scope of the library includes materials, build processes, structural and utility modules, and entire house designs. June 14 marks the official launch of OBI, when we start accepting contributions to the library from the general public. As people contribute and the library grows the more valuable the system becomes.

The modules and procedures are open source—forever and with no exceptions, so that everyone is free to use, modify and redistribute them. How do you see the open source movement intersecting with the affordable, ecological housing movement?

Open source also means that you can learn more about building and get actively involved, as opposed to leaving it to others and accepting their choices without fully understanding them. This is important, since involved, knowledgeable, proactive citizens are the only thing that can change the world.

Open source means that the competitive waste is zero and innovation is unleashed. We are pursuing the extreme limit of both ecology and cost, as exemplified in our goal of attaining Living Building Challenge compliance while remaining affordable. We believe that only if the design is open source can it become affordable as otherwise you are paying for expensive expertise.

There’s a focus on empowering non-professional builders with modules that can be easily and quickly built. Why is this important? Who do you see utilizing the library and Institute?

Empowering non-professionals to build increases access to housing significantly as more people will have the ability to build and to do so at lower cost. In the global context, this is especially relevant with the tide of urbanization. According to world-renowned architect Alejandro Aravena, “by 2030, out of the five billion people that will be living in cities, two billion are going to be under the line of poverty. That means that we will have to build a one million-person city per week with 10,000 dollars per family during the next 15 years.”

Arevena believes that this equation can be solved by incremental housing…only if we “channel people’s own building capacity.” We envision that DIY builders and startup entrepreneurs will be our early adopters and we believe that some of our designs will be adopted by mainstream builders once the open source cost-to-performance advantage becomes clear.

Who contributed designs and are the designs tested or approved?

The current designs have been produced by Catarina Mota, project founder, and our product launch marks the opening of public contributions. Our goal is to have both the modules, materials, and house designs fully certified, with calculations and engineering approval as needed.

We will provide test data for building materials that we release from third party testing labs. We will provide support in navigating building codes, and we will crowdsource location-based information on standards and requirements for locations around the world. We will encourage voluntary contributions of not only on module designs, but also on materials testing, product certification, code compliance, and engineering calculations. We will document testing protocols, and use open source design/calculation software throughout, so that our products have an extra layer of transparency.

The mission for the Open Building Institute is to make affordable, ecological housing accessible to everyone. What is the big picture vision for it? If everything goes really well, what would you most like to see?

The average American pays $1.2M over their lifetime just to secure their home. And 1.6 billion people on earth live without adequate housing. Housing is not a privilege, it’s a basic need. We envision a world where everyone has access to housing—and without getting into debt. We envision a future where regenerative housing helps to heal the environment by providing surplus food, energy, and fuel to its its inhabitants. We envision a world where housing contributes to, rather than detracts from, the natural ecology of a place.

Astro Pi: Goodnight, Mr Tim

via Raspberry Pi

On Saturday, British ESA astronaut Tim Peake returned to Earth after six months on the International Space Station. During his time in orbit, he did a huge amount of work to share the excitement of his trip with young people and support education across the curriculum: as part of this, he used our two Astro Pi computers, Izzy and Ed, to run UK school students’ code and play their music in space. But what lies ahead for the pair now Tim’s mission, Principia, is complete?

Watch Part 4 of the Story of Astro Pi!

The Story of Astro Pi – Part 4: Goodnight, Mr Tim

As British ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s mission comes to an end, what will become of Ed and Izzy, our courageous Astro Pis? Find out more at astro-pi.org/about/mission/ Narration by Fran Scott: franscott.co.uk

Ed and Izzy will remain on the International Space Station until 2022, and they have exciting work ahead of them. Keep an eye on this blog and on our official magazine, The MagPi, for news!

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Internet of Voice Challenge with Amazon and hackster.io

via Raspberry Pi

Many of you have been using the Raspberry Pi as a platform for internet of things (IoT) hacking. With wired and wireless communication on board, Raspberry Pi 3 is a great platform for connecting the network, and network-accessible services, to the real world.

Where we're going, we don't need roads

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

Voice recognition can add a whole new dimension to IoT projects. We recently showed you how to connect your Raspberry Pi to Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service to build your very own homebrew clone of the Echo voice appliance. Now, in partnership with Amazon and hackster.io, we’re giving you a chance to win Echo kit and Amazon gift vouchers by developing your own “internet of voice” projects with the Raspberry Pi.

I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission

I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission

Prizes will be awarded in two categories: best use of the Alexa Skills Kit as an integral part of the project, and best use of the Alexa Voice Service. The top prizes in each category are worth $1900, and the contest runs until the start of August. Head to hackster.io for more information, and good luck!

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CoderDojo Coolest Projects 2016

via Raspberry Pi

This weekend Philip and I went to Dublin to attend CoderDojo Coolest Projects. We got to meet hundreds of brilliant young digital makers and amazing volunteers.


CoderDojo Coolest Projects: a free tech event for the world’s youngest innovators, creators and entrepreneurs

As the event kicked off the news broke that Tim Peake had landed safely back on Earth, which meant Philip had to make some last minute changes to his presentation…

Ben Nuttall on Twitter

“Who knows who this is?” “It’s Tim Peake” “Where is he?” “In space” “No – he’s back on Earth!”pic.twitter.com/elfNXcAwsX

As we walked around the venue we grew more and more impressed by the projects on show. We asked each exhibiting group to talk us through their project, and were genuinely impressed by both the projects and their presentation. The first area we perused was the Scratch projects – games, animations, quizzes and more. I’m not the most accomplished Scratch programmer so I was very impressed with what we were shown.

When we moved on to a room of physical computing projects, we met Iseult Mangan, Ireland’s first Raspberry Pi Certified Educator:

Philip Colligan on Twitter

I met Ireland’s first ever @Raspberry_Pi certified educator @IseultManganpic.twitter.com/9RbLANKZdX

One of Iseult’s students, Aoibheann, showed us a website she’d made all about Raspberry Pi:

Philip Colligan on Twitter

This 9 year old Coder wrote her own @Raspberry_Pi website: http://dontpasstheraspberryjam.weebly.com/ – check it out!pic.twitter.com/TagshFWt2k

I even bumped into Tim Peake a few times…

Ben Nuttall on Twitter

@astro_timpeake sure gets aboutpic.twitter.com/4oS1tFgvQu

The Coolest of Projects

Here are some of my favourite projects.

First up, a home-made 3D holographic display. The picture does it no justice, but look close (or click to embiggen) and you’ll see the Scratch cat, which was spinning around as part of a longer animation. The girl who made it said she put it together out of an old CD case. Very cool indeed!

Scratch cat hologram

Scratch cat hologram

Plenty of great robots…

IMG_3999 IMG_4000 IMG_3997 IMG_3985 IMG_3995 IMG_3970

We arrived at a beautiful Pi-powered retro gaming console, and spoke to the maker’s Dad. He was excited for his son to be able to show his project to people from the Raspberry Pi Foundation and asked if we could stick around to wait for him to return. Here he is:


When I mentioned one of my favourite Mega Drive games, he loaded it up for me to play:


It took me about 15 years to complete this game – I was playing it before he was born!

This was really impressive: these two girls had made a Wii remote-pcontrolled hovercraft with a Raspberry Pi:


Ben Nuttall’s post on Vine

Watch Ben Nuttall’s Vine taken on 18 June 2016. It has 0 likes. The entertainment network where videos and personalities get really big, really fast. Download Vine to watch videos, remixes and trends before they blow up.

I met DJ Dhruv, who demonstrated his livecoding skills in Sonic Pi, and gave a very professional presentation involving a number of handshakes:

Ben Nuttall on Twitter

DJ Dhruv is livecoding in @sonic_pi and teaching us about the history of the amen break. @samaaron you’d love thispic.twitter.com/tSrn0CTQzP

Pi-vision: a way to help blind people find their way around…


Probably my favourite of all, this group created a 3D Minecraft Pi booth using mirrors. They showed me their Python code which ran simultaneously on two Pis, while one played music in Sonic Pi, with cross-application communication between Python and Sonic Pi to coordinate timings. A Herculean effort achieving a wonderful effect.



How can you get involved?

If you want to join us in giving more young people the opportunity to learn programming skills, learn to make things with computers, and generally hack things that didn’t need hacking, there are plenty of ways you can get involved. You can:

  • Set up a Raspberry Jam in your area, or volunteer to help out at one near you
  • Start a Code Club at a local primary school, or another venue like a library or community centre
  • Set up a CoderDojo, or offer to help at one near you

Also, I should point out we have an job opening for a senior programme manager. We’re looking for someone with experience running large programmes for young people. If that’s you, be sure to check it out!

Job opening: Senior Programme Manager at Raspberry Pi Foundation

As part of the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s mission to put the power of computing and digital making into the hands of people all over the world, we want to make these skills more relevant and accessible.

It’s kind of a thing to end blog posts with a GIF, so here’s mine:

SecuriTay on Twitter

Machine learningpic.twitter.com/c3sIJPd3PS

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Photocatalysis with a Raspberry Pi

via Raspberry Pi

Access to clean, safe drinking water is a global problem: as water.org notes, 663 million people lack access to water that’s safe to drink. That’s twice the population of the United States, or one person in every ten. Additionally, a recent review of rural water system sustainability in eight countries in Africa, South Asia, and Central America found an average water project failure rate of 20-40 percent. It’s no surprise that the search for a solution to this crisis preoccupies scientists the world over, but what you may not have expected is that, in a lab in Cardiff University, researchers are using Raspberry Pi to help in their efforts to bring safe drinking water to some of the poorest areas of the world.

A tap set into a wall, with sign above reading "SAFE DRINKING WATER"

There are three processes involved in water purification, two of which are reasonably straightforward: filtration can remove particulate matter, while heating water to near 100°C kills bacteria. However, the third process — the removal of highly toxic hydrocarbons, typically from fertiliser and pesticide runoff — is very difficult and, currently, very expensive. The Cardiff group is working on a project to find a cheap, effective method of removing these hydrocarbons from water by means of photocatalysis. Essentially, this means they are finding a way to produce clean water using little more than sunlight, which is really pretty mind-blowing.

Here’s a picture of their experimental setup; you can see the Raspberry Pi in its case on the right-hand side.


Raspberry Pi in the lab

A cheap, readily available chemical, titanium dioxide, is spin-coated onto a glass wafer which sits in the bottom of the beaker with a UV LED above it. This wafer coating acts as a semiconductor; when UV photons from the LED strike it, its electrons become mobile, creating locations with positive charge and others with negative charge. As a result, both oxidation reactions and reduction reactions are set off. These reactions break down the hydrocarbons, leaving you with pure water, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen. The solution is pumped through a flow cell (you can see this in the centre of the picture), where an LED light source is shone through the stream and the amount of light passing through is registered by a photodiode. The photodiode turns this output into a voltage, which can be read by the Raspberry Pi with the help of an ADC.

The team are currently using two organic dyes, methyl orange and methylene blue, to simulate pollutants for the purposes of the experiment: it is possible to see the reaction take place with the naked eye, as the colour of the dye becomes progressively less saturated. A colourless solution means the “pollutants” have been entirely broken down. You can see both dyes in situ here:


Experimental setup with methyl orange and methylene blue.

In previous versions of the setup, it was necessary to use some very large, expensive pieces of equipment to drive the experiment and assess the rate and efficacy of the reaction (two power sources and a voltmeter, each of which cost several hundred pounds); the Raspberry Pi performs the same function for a fraction of the price, enabling multiple experiments to be run in the lab, and offering the possibility of building a neat, cost-effective unit for use in the real world in the future.

Several of the team have very personal reasons for being involved in the project: Eman Alghamdi is from Saudi Arabia, a country which, despite its wealth, struggles to supply water to its people. Her colleague Jess Mabin was inspired by spending time in Africa working with an anti-poverty charity. They hope to produce a device which will be both cheap to manufacture and rugged enough to be used in rural areas throughout the world.

Jess photocatalysis setup

Jess demonstrates the experiment: methylene blue going in!

As well as thoroughly testing the reaction rate and the lifespan of the wafer coating, the team are hoping to streamline their equipment by building their own version of a HAT to incorporate the ADC, the photodiode, and other components. Ultimately the Pi and its peripherals could form a small, rugged, cost-effective, essentially self-sustaining device which could be used all over the world to help produce clean, safe drinking water. We are really pleased to see the Raspberry Pi being used in this way, and we wish Jess, Eman, and their colleagues every success!

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Emoji Ticker

via Raspberry Pi

What was my reaction when I first saw this scrolling emoji ticker project? 😍🙌👏


Up until recently I’ve been a bit reluctant to adopt emoji characters in my everyday communication. But ever since they’ve been elevated to greater prominence on phones and on services such as Slack, I’ve given in completely. If I had the creative energy and patience, I’d write this whole post with emoji (though it mightn’t make it past Liz’s editorial discretion)!

This is where Dean comes in. Dean is a community member who helped us out at Maker Faire Bay Area in 2015. Normally a web developer, he rolled up his sleeves and took on the responsibility for a fun physical project for his company’s office. He works at Yeti; they built the app Chelsea Handler: Gotta Go!, which they describe as “a way to generate excuses and set them as alarms. It’s the perfect solution for bad dates, awkward convos with your in-laws, boring meetings and whatever else you might want to hit the eject button on.”


Each hilarious excuse has its own emoji character, and Dean wanted the office’s Raspberry Pi-driven LED matrix ticker to show which emojis were being used by the users of the app. After some turbulence with wiring up the hardware and some clever web implementation, he was lighting up the office with 🐻 👮 and 📞, using a blend of Python for the network requests and C for driving the LED matrix.

Dean documented the experience on the Yeti blog, where he offers a few takeaways: collaborate, use documentation but stay flexible, and know when to ask for help. His most valuable lesson? He says it was “the value of code modularity, or the practice of breaking a project into function-specific components (i.e. functions for rendering on the LED matrix, classes for communicating with the Gotta Go server).”

Dean, 🙏 for sharing!

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