The ‘Mass Custom Design’ Approach

to the Delivery of Quality Affordable Homes


Spanish / French / Chinese

Dr Masa Noguchi

ZEMCH Network

Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning

The University of Melbourne

Today’s Housing Design Approaches

Homebuilders are usually categorised into three types: production, semi-custom and custom (Smith 1998; Noguchi 2008). Production builders are organised for high volume construction. They develop several model homes, normally designed on a speculative basis, in response to market demand. The production design (or speculative design) approach allows homebuilders to produce a ready-built home, in which potential buyers can examine the quality and attributes of their new home in a way that blueprints alone cannot achieve—thus, helping to ensure the buyers’ satisfaction. The advantages of speculative design also extend to reducing the lapsed time and cost of construction. The total time to build a standardised house is much shorter than for a one-of-a-kind design since construction staff are familiar with the plans; communications are simplified and material delays less likely to occur as suppliers are able to stock regularly used items. Higher volume work, such as a subdivision housing development, also offers trade contractors advantages in scheduling that result in significant cost savings.

Builders, who apply the semi-custom design approach for their housing development, are often called semi-custom builders since they combine characteristics of ready-built and custom-built homes. Like production builders, they usually work with pre-existing plans or ready-designed model homes; however, they are flexible regarding design changes including those that require engineering and building department approval. As a result, even though customers begin with an existing floor plan, they have enhanced opportunity to modify and customise the interior and exterior finishes, and structure (or volume) of their new home. Starting with an existing plan often helps customers feel confident of ending up with something that will reflect what they need and want. Smith (1998) indicates that revising existing plans is faster, and less costly, than creating a new set of blueprints. However, economies of high-volume work are lost, resulting in higher prices and builders need more time as they are working from unfamiliar plans.

Custom builders start from a blank sheet of paper, or computer screen, to create a completely unique home. Some custom builders establish relationships with one or more independent architects for plan development, while, for others, the builder is also an architect, or has an architect or draftsman on staff—these builders are called "design-build firms." The custom design approach is the optimum way to customise a new home since it creates one-of-a-kind homes corresponding exactly to individual housing requirements (Table 1). However, custom-built homes typically take the longest to complete. Supervising scattered site work, the longer time required to build combined with lost economies of large-volume work leads to the higher prices typical for custom homes (Smith 1998).

Today’s homebuilders are encountering a production gap between the need for product standardisation (or mass production) that helps reduce construction costs and the need for product customisability that satisfies diverse demands of contemporary consumers (Noguchi 2004). 


Table 1: The levels of standardisation and customisation compared by housing type


The Mass Custom Design® Approach

"Mass Customisation" is a complex term, for how can one combine mass production and customisation? This revolutionary concept was anticipated in 1970 by Alvin Toffler in his book entitled "Future Shock" and the term itself was coined in 1987 by Stanley Davis in his book entitled "Future Perfect." Furthermore, in 1993, Joseph B. Pine II eventually systematised the general methods of mass customising products and services.

As well, to design, build and market a home requires consideration of both products and services. A house consists of many components, which can be considered as ‘products’, while design, construction and marketing are usually regarded as ‘services’. To generate a housing development, these two aspects are again involved with housing materials and systems as the products and the design and construction of these homes as the services (Noguchi 2004). When viewed as a ‘system’ for designing, producing and selling a product, "mass customisation" is impossible without customisable products or communication services (Noguchi and Hernández 2005). Thus, the ‘mass customisation system’ can be formulated conceptually as follows:

MC = f (PS)

Where "MC" denotes a mass customisation system itself; "P" is the ‘product‘ sub-system that help housing suppliers mass-produce housing components, while "S" is the ‘service’ sub-system that involve the interaction with users (or buyers) which help them customise an end product (Noguchi and Friedman 2002a). This model emphasises the interrelationship between products and services, indicating that these elements are not mutually exclusive (Noguchi and Hadjri 2009).

Furthermore, in customising products, ‘user participation’ is vital, and therefore housing suppliers need to offer design support communication services to their clients in locations with design-consulting staff and appropriate communication tools to facilitate user choice of standard components in customising an end product (Noguchi and Friedman 2002b). These fundamental ‘design-service’ factors can be also integrated into a comprehensive model:

S = f (l, p, t)

In this model, the ‘service’ sub-system is denoted by "S", and is supported by the existence of the location (l), personnel (p), and tool (t) factors. Even though these elements are necessarily interrelated, most homebuilders and housing manufacturers have already been applying these during the design stage.

An important part of mass customisation is that the user directly determines the configuration of their home from choices given as client input during the design stage. This could not be achieved without the standardisation of housing components for the structural, exterior and interior arrangements. These are arranged in a visually attractive way in a component selection catalogue to enable clients to easily choose from the many options. Housing components can be divided into three categories: volume, exterior and interior. These can be considered the main elements of the ‘product’ sub-system (P), which can be explained by the following conceptual model:

P = f (v, e, i, o)

The volume (v) components are used to construct the structure of housing that determines the number and size of each room, while the interior (i) and exterior (e) components serve to co-ordinate both the decorative and the functional elements that customize a home (Fig.1). In addition, "o" denotes other optional equipment such as air conditioning, home security system, emergency call buttons, handrails, dishwashers and other electrical appliances. 



Figure 1. Mass custom design communication tool


In practice, this design approach does not fit into the well-recognised design approaches of today—i.e. speculative, semi-custom, and custom design. Rather, with consideration of the concept of mass customisation, it should be termed ‘mass custom design’, which results from the combination of three basic design elements of housing: the volume, exterior and interior (Noguchi 2001, 2003b & 2004; Noguchi and Friedman 2002a; Noguchi and Hernández 2005). In addition, housing suppliers usually provide optional equipment, in order to improve the amenity of housing. In principle, these housing components are mass-produced (at least, the designs of these components can be reusable, but the home itself is customised by the user’s direct choices of such standard components. The exterior and interior designs include sub-categories such as the roof, walls, doors, windows, balconies, and front entrance arrangements for the exterior, as well as the kitchens, sanitary facilities, bathrooms, washrooms, toilets, storage, and finishing arrangements for the interior. In addition, the variety of sizes, materials, colours, and textures available for each component, as well as the variety of amenities offered, help expand the number of housing variations. Consequently, in order to meet clients’ individual requirements, the manufacturers are able to provide a myriad of housing variations for their clients without producing a number of standard model homes that are usually designed on a speculative basis (Noguchi 2003a).

The application of the mass custom design approach may have potential to reduce production costs by achieving the economies of scope (based on standardisation of housing components), while helping to totally customise homes in response to clients’ demands for their new home. As well, the standardisation of production processes may also help reduce construction time.

The existing elements (i.e. parts of a whole) can be standardised, while the myriad combinations of these standard parts still provide great scope for creativity (Fig.2). Thus, a homebuyer, for example, can directly choose the standard housing components, which can be mass-produced, while the combinations of the user ‘choices’ of these components make a house customised—viz. these homes should be termed ‘mass custom homes’ (Noguchi 2001 & 2004; Noguchi and Hernández 2005).



Figure 2. Mass custom home: Townhouse model


Because of the nature of a ready-built home, the entire house itself can be standardised; thus, the level of product customisation is extremely low (Table 1). The characteristics of a custom home are totally opposite to those of a ready-built home. A custom home is a one-of-a-kind house, completely customised; thus, the level of standardisation in both products and processes can be considered as very low. Semi-custom homes combine the positive features of ready-built and custom homes—the model house is usually prepared on a speculative basis like a ready-built home, while, in response to user demands for housing, the modification of the model house allows, in part, for product customisation. Mass custom homes may theoretically achieve, a high level of standardisation (or industrialisation) of all housing components that homebuyers can directly select in customising their new home, but user choices of mass-produced, standard components paradoxically increases the level of customisation in housing design (Fig.3). In much of the literature, the advantages of industrialisation of housing are said to be the lower and more predictable cost, better and more standardised quality, and faster and more punctual construction, when compared to those of site-built housing (Hutchings 1996; Hullibarger 2001).

Figure 3. Standardisation - customisation relationship compared by housing type


The MASS CUSTOM HOME® is a housing prototype developed based on the mass customisation system model, i.e. MC = f (PS), as described in the preceding section (Noguchi 2001, 2003b & 2004). This new mass custom design approach, in which housing products and services are well standardised and integrated into the system, may have the great potential to reform the current housing delivery system and contribute towards producing ‘Quality Affordable Homes‘ that corresponds with today’s market demands for housing—i.e. affordability and customisability.



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