Can a house that costs just $10,000 be comfortable, durable, spacious and safe? What if you go on to say that it’s so easy to build, it takes just 24 hours and a hex key, with no other tools required? At this point, most of us are envisioning something cheap and temporary that, at the very minimum, won’t be nice to look at. Bringing all these factors together into a modern, minimalist home featuring high ceilings and skylights and handily installing it on a crammed urban lot sounds like a pipe dream.

But People’s Architecture Office (PAO) proves it’s possible with a stunningly sharp-looking residence on a postage stamp plot in China. Like the firm’s previous ‘plugin houses’, which were designed to modernize dilapidated traditional Chinese courtyard houses without requiring extensive renovations, this residence slots into an alleyway to contrast with pre-existing structures.

plugin house alley

plugin house exterior

Real estate prices in Beijing are so high, young people who want to be financially independent from their parents face a steep uphill climb to home ownership. PAO’s client, Mrs. Fan, grew up in the historic Changchun Jie Hutong neighborhood and wasn’t crazy about the sprawling feel of the suburbs when her family moved there in her teen years. She preferred the close-knit community feeling of her urban home, even through the infrastructure was outdated.

Plugin House costs thirty times less than a typical apartment in Beijing, with energy efficiency and a standard of living that rivals or exceeds that of brand new apartment towers. Mrs. Fan used to commute four hours to work every day for her Beijing job, and now her journey is reduced to an hour.

When PAO says the infrastructure in this neighborhood is outdated, they aren’t kidding. There’s no sewage system, so neighborhood residents have long had to use public toilets. The firm integrated an off-grid composting system to make living in the Hutong more suitable for modern life.

plugin house laundry

Noting that she was claustrophobic, Mrs. Fan asked PAO for an interior design that feels spacious and airy. The result is a double-height living room ceiling filled with generous skylights to channel rays of sunlight into what could otherwise be a too-dark interior. There’s even a rooftop deck so she and her family can take in views of the city and enjoy a connection to the outdoors.

plugin house deck

How did PAO manage to make the house so cheap and easy to build? The firm developed a prefabricated “plugin panels” system incorporating insulation, exterior finishes and interior finishes into a single molded part that can be attached to other panels in various ways through an integrated locking mechanism. The panel are even pre-wired for electricity and plumbing. It’s simple enough to be assembled by people with no prior construction experience, and no more than a hex key in terms of tools.

plugin house interior

To make sure they’re not just coming in and blocking sunlight and views to other residents in the Hutong, PAO designed the structure according to neighbors’ requests, adapting and changing its form on-site until everyone was happy.

Though it’s rare for young people like Mrs. Fan to return to these old neighborhoods where they grew up, innovative new forms of architecture might just encourage a new wave of revitalization that emphasizes preservation of historic spaces. It would be cool to see systems like this put into use for low-income communities all over the world and become a standard for integrative urban expansion.