Playing House

Startup wants to automate the home design process

This animation is meant to show the way a rendering of a home adaptably and automatically changes with each design decision users make from a series of dropdown menus. (Courtesy Higharc)

Anyone who’s played The Sims (especially with cheat codes) knows the fun and ease of designing your own home with a few clicks of the mouse. Anyone who’s designed an actual, IRL home knows that the real process is completely different.

Homebuyers who want a custom home often encounter a frustratingly opaque and expensive process, or are stuck with pre-made plans that look like everyone else’s. They’re left, as Michael Bergin, cofounder and director of architecture at the startup Higharc put it, with “houses that are just left without design.” And even getting an architect to customize stock home plans, like those available online, Bergin said, can wind up costing at least in the low five figures, so instead, most go for pre-designed plans. “People spend their entire savings, everything that they have, on something that’s not fit for them.”

Higharc believes there could be a “middle ground” in home architecture. To that end, it’s developed a web-based home design app aimed at the everyday user and homebuyer. “We are trying to…address fundamental inefficiencies, structural challenges in the home building,” said Bergin. “The product that we are developing isn’t going to replace an experienced 20-year architect,” he admitted, but it will, Higharc hopes, make customization much more accessible to a wider swath of new home buyers.

3D rendering of a two-story, flat-roofed home.

Higharc wants to simplify the home design process for the average new home buyer. Currently, its software allows users to pick from three preset home aesthetics—like this “modern” design. (Courtesy Higharc)

Higharc is trying to embed “architectural intelligence” directly into its web-based software. The app uses, among other technologies, “procedural generation,” a computational technique borrowed from video games (one of Higharc’s founding members, Thomas Holt, has game industry experience), that generates graphics on the fly. “The difference between where this lands in gaming and our approach is that we’re building in these heuristic or structural rules, so that no house that’s produced in our system is structurally deficient,” explained Bergin. “[Higharc] looks at the international building code and prescriptive span tables and ensures that every house that we are producing is something that’s buildable.” (A recent Curbed article reported that many of these code data come from the International Code Council, which recently sued the startup UpCodes for republishing building codes.) Higharc said that as it expands into new markets (it’s currently beginning its first role out in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area), it is also incorporating regional building codes.

To help with siting, Higharc pulls in public GIS data. Users can pick a plot anywhere in their area from a Google Maps–like interface and try out building their home. They can then take their design and see how it fits on another plot, and Higharc will adjust the home accordingly to make sure it fits just right on the new site.

Right now, The Sims comparison might go a little too far—those 3D characters don’t have to worry too much about structural integrity, after all. Higharc allows users to choose from a series of options—preset aesthetics, number of bedrooms, guest suites, number of floors, the size of each room, etc.—and automatically generates a home optimized for the user selections and the chosen plot, immediately adjusting and restructuring the entire home as the homebuyer switches options. All the while, the software displays an estimated cost range that adapts with each change to help users stay on budget. “We’re making [home building] a fun process, making it an accessible process for everyone,” said Bergin. “Ultimately, we just want to make better neighborhoods and give home buyers and builders choice—and agency.”

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