For simplicity’s sake, modular architecture is often a little boring. Modules have to be easy to assemble, transport, and stack, after all, so they generally consist of standard rectilinear shapes that end up looking pretty boxy once they’re set up on a building site. But Beijing and Boston-based firm People’s Architecture Office (PAO) does things a little differently, using prefabricated panels in a variety of shapes that allow for more creative assembly.

The results of each project made with the firm’s “Plugin House” parts are refreshingly creative, adapted for the individual needs and requirements of each particular occupant. The layout, shape, size, and color vary by project, with elements inspired by avant-garde European architects of the 1960s and 80s and the Japanese Metabolism architecture movement.

Introduced a few years ago, the Plugin concept is often used to revitalize dilapidated buildings, with the elements “plugging in” to the existing structures to provide living spaces with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a modern home without requiring the demolition of the historic structures beside them. They’ve already been used to augment several of Beijing’s historic Hutong houses, making them habitable again.

In 2018, PAO collaborated with the Shenzhen Institute of Building Research to create “Lakeside Plugin Tower,” a particularly visually pleasing structure offering two spacious levels of living areas while barely touching the land upon which it sits. That makes it an environmentally sensitive option for the landscape, allowing it to leave behind very few signs of its presence when it’s ultimately dismantled and moved.

The research facility wanted to experiment with modern sustainable architecture that could occupy unused spaces around the country without necessarily developing them, leaving their usage flexible for future recreation, agriculture, wildlife habitats, and more. That way, more housing can be created to accommodate burgeoning populations and decrease some of the congestion in cities.

As you can see, the results are pretty impressive — and not boring in the least. The diagonal supports that lift the buildings up off the ground give them an open, dynamic feeling, and make it possible to stack the volumes offset from each other for interesting configurations. On top of that, the individual crate-like boxes that make up rooms within each home can be angled to take advantage of prime views, and their roofs can even be used as terraces.

The architects add: “The Plugin House demonstrates the possibilities of smaller, more sustainable living for contemporary urban landscapes. Cities across the US and Canada are adopting new policies that encourage homeowners to build small houses in their backyards as a way of providing much needed low-cost housing. Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) can generate supplemental rental income for homeowners, helping to counter NIMBYism and resistance to the densification of neighborhoods.”

“ADUs provide an alternative to the suburban expansion of cities. Through infill, new residents take advantage of existing infrastructure, public services, and community networks. While these policies are gaining momentum, the cost of building ADUs remains beyond the reach of most people. The Plugin House can potentially cut costs in half, making ADUs an affordable housing option.”