Owning your own home is a major part of the American dream, but not everybody can afford to buy outright or take out a mortgage. And even if you've got the cash, there are some locations that make "packed in like sardines" look downright spacious (e.g., Guttenberg, New Jersey; North Bay Village, Miami; Cudahy, California). But thanks to the "Plug-in House", both those issues plus the need for skilled labor could be wiped off the table for potential homeowners looking to build.

Bringing a modern upgrade to centuries-old homes

As Leanna Garfield of Business Insider reports, the "Plug-in House" is the brain child of the People's Architecture Office (PAO), a Chinese architecture design firm. The company created the structure for a woman known as Mrs. Fan and her son, who reside in Changchun Jie, just outside Beijing. Previously, the pair had occupied a tiny, run-down home within the courtyard of her parents' property.

Fan's new home, which Garfield documents beautifully in photos, is actually very similar to PAO's renovation system designed in early 2016, the Courtyard House Plug-in. PAO brought that system to life to address the need China--particularly, Dashilar, Beijing--has for more efficient renovation processes. Currently, many of the homes in the region are so old that people tear them down and build from scratch, rather than trying to renovate. That way of operating is extremely costly and takes significant time. To complicate the issue, many of the homes are interconnected, meaning that people can't just tear down a wall without infringing on someone else.

As a solution, the Courtyard House Plug-in allows people to retrofit their properties with ready-made modules that can be assembled in and around existing homes with just a hex wrench. The modules are made from panels of steel and glass and update the homes with desperately needed wiring, insulation, doors, wiring and windows. Additionally, homeowners can adjust the configuration of the panels to meet their own needs and preferences, which sets it apart from other prefabricated options. A construction team can put a module together in 24 hours. James Shen, PAO's principal, compares the approach to Ikea furniture, which is designed to be easy enough for anyone to assemble. The project won the 2015 World Architecture Festival Award, with the government providing funding to complete a handful of homes on a trial basis.

Moving from experiment to the public

What makes Mrs. Fan's home different from the Courtyard House Plug-in is that Mrs. Fan funded her home on her own, rather than getting funding from the government. That moves the approach directly to the consumer. The price of $500 per panel is just a tenth of the Beijing average of $5,000, making it affordable for people who otherwise couldn't manage a home upgrade financially. Shen hopes that the low cost, combined with the ease, flexibility and anyone-can-do-it labor involved in putting the panels together, will make the modules attractive to people in all areas of the world.

While some individuals might use the design to save money or accommodate cramped quarters, there's also potential within the minimalist living market. Individuals within this niche often look for small homes of just a few hundred square feet because they prefer the simplicity and economy mini houses provide.

In the end, these homes give more than a place to live

Housing is one of the most basic needs people have, but the need for skilled labor, along with high cost and other difficulties (e.g, transporting supplies) can separate millions of people from comfortable, clean and safe homes. Companies like PAO stand out not only because they successfully tackle these challenges, but because they prove that innovation and simplicity can work together in a beautifully functional way, challenging the traditional concept of how a home needs to be constructed. And the benefits of the design go beyond just shelter.

"When I lived here [as a] child, it was always dark," Fan told CNN. "Now after the renovation, I'm bathed in sunlight throughout the day. I no longer feel caged in."