Does Sewer Pipe Architecture Make Sense?

©. James Law Cybertecture via Dezeen

A new proposal for Hong Kong tries to fit people into pipes.

All the design sites are showing James Law Cybertecture's proposal for the O-Pod, an apartment built into an 8-foot diameter concrete pipe. Matt Hickman asks, "Is this housing solution just a pipe dream?" and quotes the architect:

The O-Pod is an industrial design innovation where we go to the large infrastructure contractors in Hong Kong and buy extremely cheap, excess concrete water pipes and convert them into housing. Because these components are already being mass manufactured, they are extremely low cost, well-engineered and, being concrete, these pipes have good insulation properties. Designed to go underground, they are also extremely strong and can be stacked on top of each other to immediately become a building.
opods stacked

© James Law Cybertecture via Dezeen

Matt notes that these could be plunked into Hong Kong's many nooks, crannies and alleyways. "And because these concrete micro-homes are so heavy — the pipes weigh as much as 22 tons each — they needn’t be bolted together, just plopped atop one another in a neat stack without much additional work."

opod development

© James Law Cybertecture via Dezeen

So what's wrong with this picture? For one thing, there is a lot of wasted space between those pipes. There is also a lot of wasted space inside the tube; just like in a geodesic dome, it is hard to put stuff on the walls. For another thing, if you stacked them up between two buildings as shown, there would probably be enough outward thrust to collapse the buildings on either side. Imagine what might happen in an earthquake.

Then there is the question of insulation. The architect says "being concrete, these pipes have good insulation properties" which is really surprising for an architect who should know better, because concrete has no insulation properties. It has terrific thermal mass, which is a different thing altogether. But it can keep you comfortable. As they explain on Green Building Advisor,

Thermal Mass has the effect of storing heat while insulation reduces the movement of heat across its path. Thermal mass can store the sun's energy during the day and release it during the night. Enough thermal mass (especially in the envelope as opposed to interior floors) can cause the indoor temperature to be steady at the average of the daytime & nighttime temperatures. If you live in a moderate climate like New Mexico, where the average diurnal temperature is comfortable, then you'll be quite comfortable in an uninsulated thermally massive building. If you live in a cold climate, where the average 24hr temperature is still cold, then your uninsulated thermally massive building will be cold.
opod kitchen

© James Law Cybertecture via Dezeen

Here, you see a big air conditioning unit on the wall of the tube. Without any insulation in that pipe, it is going to be working day and night trying to cool down not just that interior but the whole pipe itself. Note also the silly excuse for the kitchen, a microwave sitting on top of a fridge.

living in pipes


Then there are all those other associations that come with living in pipes. This isn't something that people usually do out of choice.

street view

© James Law Cybertecture via Dezeen

Finally, there is the issue of whether the cost of construction in Hong Kong is the actual problem. In fact, it is the cost of land that is the issue. One might claim that these could be stacked temporarily on land, but surely shipping containers, which are lighter and are designed to be moved easily, would be a better solution for that, as we saw in London. Boxes stack more nicely, too.

So, to answer Matt's question, is this just a pipe dream? The answer is yes. It is just silly.

credit: xray delta one

xray delta one/CC BY 2.0

Although in these times, it might make sense if one buried it, which is where sewer pipes are supposed to be anyway.