The great Fallout 4 sustainable housing experiment

Adventures in post-apocalyptic modular living


Just south of what was once called the Charles River, a few minutes away from the bustling (by post-apocalyptic standards) metropolis of Diamond City, there’s a unique piece of Fallout 4 real estate known as Hangman’s Alley. It’s one of the first places you’re asked to build a settlement using the game’s new crafting tools, but it breaks Fallout's standard mold of wide-open farms and ruined commercial spaces. As its name suggests, it’s a short stretch of road sandwiched between two blocks of pre-war buildings, a shantytown that still feels almost urban. In Fallout's sparsely populated, largely suburban Boston, it’s more Jacob Riis than Mad Max.

If you’re interested in giant, ambitious construction projects, Hangman’s Alley is a bad place to start. Its vertical space is limited by awnings and fire escapes, and the ground can support roughly three one-room houses before becoming difficult to walk through. But these same features make it oddly compelling. Its size pushes settlers to cluster together in an unusually human way, and it incentivizes thoughtfully working around its existing architecture. In a construction system where gravity is optional and entire structures can be uprooted instantly, it calls for something that feels almost like real (if small-scale) urban planning.

Shortly after Fallout 4’s release, I described its settlement tools to Jenny Xie, associate editor at our sister site Curbed. Despite their unrealistic elements, she quickly pointed out that the game’s snap-together buildings are a lot like real prefab homes — the cheap, modular, customizable, and compact dwellings that are popping up everywhere from the middle of nowhere to downtown Manhattan.

Tiny, efficient, and even stackable, prefabs seemed like the perfect thing to try in the Commonwealth wasteland. At that point, I’d nearly forgotten about Hangman’s Alley, and she suggested a cluster of micro-homes on a large plot of land, or a stacked tower in an open but smaller one. But while passing through on another errand, I discovered that the settlement’s population had boomed and everyone inside was miserable — lacking beds, food, water, and adequate defenses.

I quickly placated them by throwing down a dozen sleeping bags and planting some corn, but the result was a chaotic refugee camp, complete with a brahmin ambling around its low huts and congested throughways. So after asking Jenny for some basic lessons in real-world design, I looked up the finer points of Fallout 4 construction and kicked off the Hangman’s Alley Urban Renewal Plan.

Fallout 4 Architecture

I’d initially planned to stick with stackable towers, but I quickly realized that a single high-rise in an alley felt a little too dystopian. These poor people were already living in a nuclear wasteland; they didn’t need to live in a J.G. Ballard novel, too. Besides, their pathfinding abilities were sketchy enough that multiple flights of stairs probably constituted some kind of safety hazard.

Instead, I decided to combine a handful of indoor dormitories with public outdoor areas, following Jenny’s suggestion of boxy buildings with attached porches, a popular prefab trend. Fallout’s construction tools aren’t quite sophisticated enough to build the lofts that many small homes use to maximize living space, but the settlement’s sole built-in house had essentially extended that principle to an entire building, using stilts to create the illusion of more outdoor space.

When I copied this design for a modular box-and-porch combination, I realized I’d also found a way to brahmin-proof the settlers’ living spaces — although I still caught our mutant cattle trying to climb up, stopping halfway, and falling straight through the stairs. The first phase of the Renewal Plan was complete: I’d built something that made at least a little sense in both the weird world of Fallout and the real world of modular design.

Fallout 4 Architecture

Unfortunately, the next phase didn’t turn out exactly how I expected. I’d raised the building partly so I would have access to the bare ground underneath, which I’d assumed would make good space for crops. In fact, I did fit a few stalks of corn under there, but only at the cost of watching settlers awkwardly wedge between the poles to tend them. I relented and transplanted the whole garden to an unfortified vacant lot, alongside a dumpster that insisted on hovering two feet above the ground.

This seemed risky, but I reasoned that since evil characters in Fallout mostly subsist on drugs and human flesh, that patch of corn and mutant future wheat was probably the safest thing in the entire settlement. I know that’s not how things work in the real world, but most real designers also don’t have to include guard towers and mechanized gun turrets in their floor plans.

Fallout 4 Architecture

Eco-friendliness is a big part of prefab development, and Fallout 4 actually lets you build an electrical grid that runs on renewable wind power instead of the standard gas generators. Jenny pointed me to a prototype house with a roof-mounted wind turbine, which seemed theoretically possible, except that Fallout’s turbines are roughly the size of jet engines.

Fallout 4's crafting system is arbitrarily picky about where things fit, and it decided that the only available spots for a turbine were one specific rooftop, a tiny sliver of a metal overhang, and the side of a building — not on the side, mind you, but inside it. After a lot of pixel-hunting, I managed to make Hangman’s Alley 100 percent self-sustainable, but only because one of its homes now runs on the harvested energy of a brick wall.

Fallout 4 Architecture

Thankfully, I had better luck with recycling. Structures made of reclaimed wood? Please. I built a bathtub out of vases, a television using paintbrushes, and a wind turbine with cafeteria trays and pocket watches. Want to sleep in a bed made of hammers and money? Come to Hangman’s Alley.

The further I got, though, the more I realized that the "tiny house" and micro-apartment ethos was totally incompatible with my settlement. I didn’t have the necessary resources for miniature, self-contained units — there was no running water to pipe to separate bathrooms, cooking stations were fires surrounded by cinder blocks, and the furniture was all built for rambling suburban bungalows.

Fallout 4 Architecture

Just as importantly, it didn’t fit the settlers’ communal culture — or at least the limits of their AI programming. While Fallout is set in a world where the stereotypical American 1950s lasted a century, it hasn’t exactly imported that era’s nuclear family arrangements. Fallout extras sleep wherever happens to be available, and their favorite activity is congregating around tables and burning oil barrels, drinking coffee and staring into the void.

Rather than packing a series of hyper-compact living areas together, I ultimately tried to efficiently organize a few large ones. Devoting whole rooms to sleeping and storage opened enough space for a TV and radio room, a tiny pickup basketball court, and even a rooftop bar, made by running a plank between one of my houses and the top of a pre-war garage. I cordoned off a spare corner of the alley — formerly a plot of razorgrain — for a spacious bathroom, and instead of a galley kitchen, there’s a covered pavilion with a large picnic table.

The residents of Hangman’s Alley apparently do need some truly private space once in a while. Conveniently, they manage this by somehow teleporting onto the settlement’s roofs, where I’ll occasionally see them casually strolling around. My settlers might not be the best micro-apartment dwellers, but I can at least applaud their commitment to an efficient, sustainable, and physics-defying life. The Hangman’s Alley Urban Renewal Plan is henceforth complete, and the Sole Survivor will soon return to her regular rounds of killing super mutants and having extremely polite conversations.

Fallout 4 Architecture