Austin Huber ’15 does not simply think outside the box. He thinks in it, above it, and around it. That’s because Mr. Huber and his business partner are the brains behind Open House, a collaborative design and building system that employs digital fabrication technologies to produce building modules for creative and versatile structures. “It’s essentially like Legos, just made out of plywood,” he explains.
The affordable and flexible building-block system was born while Mr. Huber was completing his Bachelor’s degree in the Growth and Structure of Cities at Haverford College. Always fascinated by architecture and “the infinite ways spaces can be arranged,” Mr. Huber, along with his partner, were exploring methods of creating modular, digitally fabricated housing. The pair proposed Open House, which won them one of two summer fellowships at Haverford’s Innovation Incubator.
While participating in the Incubator, they used 3D modeling software and a CNC Router to develop Boxels (the Lego pieces), or standard, interconnectable building modules made of CNC-cut plywood components that are held together by a friction-fit tongue and groove design, eliminating the need for glue or nails.
“It was an exercise in how technology can influence architecture and how we build spaces,” says Mr. Huber.
It was also an exercise in entrepreneurship, as the pair pivoted when they realized their initial concept to create modular housing was beyond the scope of the Fellowship. “We reevaluated and switched to creating building blocks, which allow for more structural and programmatic flexibility,” Mr. Huber explains. Now, customers can visit their open-source website to download, customize, and fabricate different modules to create their own space or furniture out of Boxels. His own best customer, he used them to build the kitchen cabinets and a bed frame for his new apartment in Philadelphia.
Designing spaces has always sparked curiosity for Mr. Huber. While a student at Hun, he dove into design classes. “I begged Mr. Niederer to take Architecture Studio twice,” he laughs. He also credits Mr. Arp for introducing him to SketchUp, a software program he learned at Hun and used to create the Boxels for Open House.
He also spent hours crafting sets as part of the stage crew for the Janus Players. “I loved how stories could be told with sets; how whole worlds could be created.”
Fast-forward and creating worlds is exactly what Mr. Huber is doing once again. After winning the People’s Choice award at last fall’s PARK(ing) Day, a design competition in Philadelphia, the pair stepped up their game —heeding the Department of Education’s call for innovative classroom spaces for Philadelphia’s public schools in response to COVID-19. Open House’s Boxels are now being considered to create outdoor learning spaces and play areas for students, allowing them to return to in-person learning this fall. The final decision on whether their proposal will be selected is expected by the end of October.
As they await acceptance, Mr. Huber spends his days as an affordable housing planner at Clarke Caton Hintz, an architecture, planning, and design firm. It is further proof of just how small the world can be, as CCH was responsible for the redesign of The Hun Middle School and Mr. Huber happens to sit next to another Hun alumna at the office —Emily Goldman ’98.