Is This Housing Solution Just a Pipe Dream?

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Exterior of O-Tube housing prototype, Hong Kong
Tube, sweet tube: Modular micro-flats outfitted inside of concrete water pipes would serve as temporary housing as Hong Kong residents wait for larger, more permanent digs. . (Photo: James Law Cybertecture)

As Hong Kong continues to grapple with an affordable housing crisis of epic proportions, no potential solution, no matter how unconventional or quixotic, is overlooked. And this includes single-occupancy dwellings fashioned out of concrete water pipes.

While we’ve seen concrete pipes transformed into cozy little overnight digs before, this is the first time that repurposed water/sewage infrastructure has been proposed as a creative response to Hong Kong’s dearth of available land to build new, low-cost housing. Previous outside-the-box housing ideas for the ultra-densely populated city have included tucking shipping container villages under highway overpasses and establishing subterranean cavern homes.

While schemes like these — and there have been many — don’t necessarily scream homey, they're usually a step up from the notoriously claustrophobic “coffin cubicles” and partitioned cages that upwards of 200,000 Hong Kong residents call home. Per government figures shared by Reuters, the number of Hong Kong households forced into “inadequate housing” such as abandoned industrial buildings and impossibly small single rooms (some measuring just 62 square feet), surged by 9 percent in 2017.

The left-field appeal of the O-Pod Pipe House, an experimental concept from award-winning Hong Kong firm James Law Cybertecture, isn’t necessarily the fact that each housing unit is situated within a concrete tube measuring just over 8 feet in diameter. Rather, it’s how and where these pipe-dwellings would be deployed: stacked in narrow and otherwise un-developable land between buildings where conventional construction would likely be deemed a no-go.

Rendering of multiple O-Tube units stacked in a narrow space
Rendering of multiple O-Tube units stacked in a narrow space. (Photo: James Law Cybertecture)

Given that vacant parcels of land are a scarcity in Hong Kong, a cluster of O-Pods would take full advantage of the city’s 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. The units, large enough to accommodate one or two people, would be accessible via a simple external staircase.

“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,” Law told the South China Morning Post of his design, which he first unveiled as a prototype at a Hong Kong design conference held in December. “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.”

As Law explains, because each O-Pod is so modestly sized (just 100 square feet of floor space), he envisions them serving primarily as temporary accommodations while tube-dwellers save up for more spacious, permanent apartments or wait for low-cost public housing to become available.

Interior of O-Tube prototype, Hong Kong
While they make the most of a limited amount of space, O-Tube units are still incredibly small at just 100 square feet. And yes, they include teeny-tiny bathrooms. (Photo: James Law Cybertecture)

(Almost) all the comforts of home

While oppressively petite by most standards, Law has employed a variety of design tricks to maximize available space and squeeze in many of the standard comforts of domestic life. “Everything is done for micro-living: the sofa doubles up as a bed; the flexible shelving system is customisable to the occupant’s needs,” he tells the Post. “We have a micro fridge and a tiny microwave oven — the smallest available on the market — and an integrated shower and toilet inside a space-saving tiled cubicle.”

Rendering of O-Tube units at street level, Hong Kong
Rendering of O-Tube units at street level, Hong Kong. (Photo: James Law Cybertecture)

As for cost, Law estimates that it would cost in the ballpark of $15,000 to acquire a concrete water pipe and convert it into a fully appointed micro-apartment. The Post notes that this is about half the cost of transforming a shipping container into a comfortable, functional home. (Granted, shipping container homes are generally twice as large as an O-Pod.)

For now, there are no plans to make O-Pods a reality, although Law hopes that his prototype will pique the interest of developers interested in taking urban pipe-tecture one step further.

“If any other organisations want to take this forward we’ll be happy to support them with the design,” says Law. “They could then build the pods en masse for sites around Hong Kong that are appropriate for their use.”

It's easy to dismiss Law’s vision as, well, a pipe dream. But in a cramped and housing-starved city like Hong Kong, even the most starry-eyed ideas have a glimmer of possibility.

Inset renderings: James Law Cybertecture