In a customization-obsessed era, consumers have more access than ever to products that can be tailored to their specific needs. But when it comes to creating a dream house, customization still carries a prohibitively high price tag.
New home design software called Higharc aims to change that, by offering consumers a new, cost-effective way to avoid a cookie-cutter house. According to founder and CEO Marc Minor, even custom homebuilders often work from a standard set of blueprints, simply making small tweaks.
What sets this still-under-development home design program apart is its ease of use for consumers—the web app allows users to simply drag and drop rooms and select options from a drop-down menu—and its usefulness to builders and contractors.
Using an algorithm trained by architects, Higharc makes sure any alteration conforms not only to the rules of physics and good architecture, but local building codes. Higharc even spits out construction-ready blueprints.
For consumers, the ability to create real, workable designs before even talking with an architect will lower design costs and make it easier for buyers to afford custom work, says Minor.
“You’re always going to get something that’s well-designed, and it will always be buildable,” he adds.
Bringing the complexities of home design to a web browser
Home design software isn’t new. What’s potentially game-changing about Higharc is how it combines actual terrain-and-lot data, customized home layouts, and artificial intelligence and algorithms to make sure that any home designed with the program is up to code. Users can enter an address and visualize a custom home in 3D.
Higharc uses public data sources and a program called Mapbox to fetch terrain data, and gathers building code data from the International Code Council (which previously sued another startup, UpCodes, for allegedly using its codes without paying a licensing fee).
After registering, users can then choose the size and style of their home—currently, there are options for modern contemporary and modern farmhouse—and then add and subtract different types of rooms, or alter different features.
Minor showed me demo of the program, using the case of a home on a lot with a large oak tree, and demonstrated how the placement and size of different windows could be used to wrap the home around the landscape. With every change to the plan, a running tally of the cost of construction was updated in the lower left corner of the screen. The custom algorithm for pricing takes into account numerous details, from ceiling height and finishes to the average cost of labor in a particular market.
“We’re trying to make good design accessible to more people,” says Minor. “And the web is synonymous with accessibility.”
The idea behind Higharc came from Marc Minor and his wife’s experience moving to North Carolina. They sought to buy land near Minor’s brother and build their own custom home, but the process left Minor frustrated. He and his wife tried a semi-custom solution, making small changes to a stock house plan, in hopes that such a scheme was within their price range. An architect they were working with came back and said simply changing the plans would cost $25,000.
“There’s really no good solution for a buyer who wants to build a custom home that’s not budget constrained,” says Minor. “It’s a very opaque process, with no customer-friendly product, and its extremely expensive to do anything that’s not extremely generic.”
How does the architect fit into a more customized future?
As Higharc iterates on its program and works on its business model, the startup is working with 25 homebuyers to build test homes in markets like Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In late summer, a house in Chapel Hill will be the first constructed using the program’s plans. Another round of beta testing will take place in November and, eventually, they’ll add new home styles, including craftsman bungalows.
The startup has also been slowly assembling a national network of builders who will use the program. The demo Minor showed me used an actual lot in Durham, North Carolina, being developed by one of these testers. Ideally, custom builders will one day provide spec plans to consumers through the app, and these plans can then be tweaked as they see fit.
Will algorithms replace architects? Minor sees this as not pushing architects out, but expanding the marketplace, and offering designers a chance to sell their ideas in a semi-customizable format.
“If you’re an architect and being honest, you should see that what we’re doing is bringing the power of architecture to more people who aren’t getting access to it right now,” says Minor. “As it pertains to the field of architecture, I hope, in the near future, that we’ll have the ability to work directly with architects, so they have a lower-cost option to offer their services to customers.”