Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Innovations: Open Source WikiHouse Disrupts Traditional Design

Aug 2, 2012

Alastair Parvin is an architectural and strategic designer with the London-based firm 00:/ (pronounced "zero zero"). He and his colleagues have been working on a radical idea to disrupt the traditional practice of housing design and production: the WikiHouse open-source construction set. Users can download, modify, and share designs for small structures, which can then be cut quickly on CNC machines and assembled socially, barn-raising style, in about a day. We corresponded about some of the concepts and applications of the project.

EVAN O'NEIL: Alastair, what was the inspiration for WikiHouse and how did you become involved? What's your role?

ALASTAIR PARVIN: Well, quite a few of us at 00:/ have been almost obsessively interested in open-source design for a while: the questions of how we can open up designs tools for everyone, and realize the epic potential of social production to radically improve our lot, which becomes more and more pertinent as the consumer market and the welfare state seem to be so conspicuously failing to do so. Many of the dilemmas we face as a society (such as climate change) are framed without any real engagement with the social design processes that create them.

So we're very obsessive thinkers about the politics of this stuff, but we're also habitual doers, too—or at least experimenters. We had been playing around with these sorts of ideas for a while, but the real revelation came for us when Joni [Steiner] and Nick [Ierodiaconou] began to experiment with CNC cutting. We realized that it gave us an extraordinary degree of directness in controlling cost and ease of assembly, and a new ability to share and iterate complex solutions. In summer 2011, the curator Beatrice Galilee asked us to do an installation on open-source design communities at the Gwangju Design Biennale, so we bit the bullet and got the thing moving.

Although Nick and I have sort of led the development, there's an amazing and increasing team of other people around the project. We enjoy finding answers, but are fired by the knowledge that others are going to be much better at finding them than we are. So in some ways our role is not to provide every answer, but to ask the right question in the right way; one that people think is worth answering.

EVAN O'NEIL: Tell me about the decision to publish everything under Creative Commons.

The interesting question of the open-design movement is How much can we put in the commons? Can we put industry itself in the commons?

ALASTAIR PARVIN: Well, it wasn't really a decision. It was the whole point for us, to put a set of knowledge and tools for construction into the commons, into the public domain, for all to use for free, collectively owned by everyone. Generally everyone is quite aware of the idea of certain things being held in common—parks, knowledge, oxygen or whatever. The interesting question being pursued by the open-design movement is How much else can be put into the commons? Can we put industry itself into the commons? What would happen if we did?

The only thing we did have to think about was which CC license to use, specifically should it be non-commercial. It didn't take us long to decide this wasn't about commercial versus non-commercial. When you're talking about the social economy the line is fuzzy anyway. We're very excited about the idea of people (including us) using WikiHouse commercially, the only rule is it can't be the intellectual property that you're selling.

Again, going to back to the commons, this is something we're all familiar with. All companies need oxygen to do business, and they use it, but they don't pay for it.

EVAN O'NEIL: The world is experiencing various housing challenges—natural and humanitarian disasters, slums, sprawl. Where does WikiHouse fit in that picture? What are some of the applications you envision?

ALASTAIR PARVIN: When they see WikiHouse a lot of people immediately say, "This is about emergency response architecture for disasters," but if you think about it that doesn't make a huge amount of sense. If you've just lost your family and your home in a disaster, the last thing you want to be doing is making a new one, you just want to get your head down and survive.

The really interesting thing comes a few months later, when people are still living in the emergency tents, long after the disaster. The cranes, concrete, and big finance are too slow, too bureaucratic, or simply don't add up economically, so either they come too slowly, or they don't come at all. That's exactly what the team working on WikiHouse/NZ in Christchurch is confronting. It's something that speaks very directly to dependence on the conventional development model of financial capital.

What you have in the wake of disasters is people with the will to make a better life for themselves and each other, but not necessarily the skills or cash to do so. So what you need are systems that allow them to turn their time and energy into capital for themselves, which is what WikiHouse, we hope, is on its way to becoming. So yes, for us, it's not so much about no economy as low economy: which constitutively is a far greater global need, even if it doesn't win so many headlines.

One of the ideas hanging over the WikiHouse/RIO project is that since informal cities ("favelas") are the fastest growing form of urban settlement, that's where the attention should be—not in clearing slums, but building tools for them to be better. The elephant in the room is that the conventional urban development model—usually speculative real estate by the 1 percent—is often unsociable, unsustainable, and often not even that desirable—since they're focused on real estate value rather than actual use value.

If we are serious about making architecture sustainable, sociable, secure, and healthy, then informal cities may be where the new urbanism will emerge.

It's not that speculative real estate developers are bad people, it's just that, certainly in the West, there is very little profit incentive to build homes and neighborhoods with good energy performance and so on. They're not designed as good places to live—primarily they're designed to be good financial assets. It may well prove that if we are serious about making architecture and cities sustainable, sociable, secure, and healthy, then it is in the informal cities where the new twenty-first century urbanism will emerge. I hope we'll look back at one-size-fits-all consumerism as a weird, adolescent mistake.

I should be clear, though, that WikiHouse is only one small, experimental part of the picture. For one, so far we've only looked at the problem of structural assembly (excluding other house systems such as sanitation, servicing, ventilation, etc.). For another, if we're talking about how we can empower the social or "citizen" economy to make cities, there are other systems we need to massively democratize—access to land, access to finance, planning systems, and so on, and all the civic institutions that must come with these things. This, of course, is different in every country. (I wrote a research project called "A Right to Build," exploring some of these ideas in a UK context.)

EVAN O'NEIL: What are the start-up costs to get a CNC machine producing WikiHouses? How long does it take to construct one?

ALASTAIR PARVIN: In a way that's an impossible question, because it depends on where you are, what material you use, and how much work you do for yourself. But you can, for example, get a Blackfoot CNC machine for under $3,000, then it's the cost of materials—4' x 8' structural ply at $20 a sheet or whatever. That's one area where we want to innovate further, in terms of using recycled materials.

The cutting time, again, varies with the machine you use, but we have cut the parts for small houses (3.6 m x 5 m) in a day. Constructing the main frame takes a day or less, depending on how many friends you invite! One of the interesting side effects of building in the social economy is that people always want to join in and lend a hand. It makes construction a very sociable event. That gives you the bare structure, which you can then clad accordingly. Different forms of cladding and insulation are some things we want to explore. Generally you can use generic methods for this; whatever techniques and materials are local to you, but we also hope to also develop some faster, adaptable, shareable methods.

EVAN O'NEIL: What are the most innovative aspects of the WikiHouse?

ALASTAIR PARVIN: We're always keen to point out that very little of it is innovative in the "new" sense, in that these kind of parametric software tools have been around for ages within industry, they just haven't been put into the public domain, and some of the timber joints actually borrow knowledge from vernacular fourteenth century architecture! It's a classic case of, "Technology is the answer but what was the question?" It's not the technology itself; it's finding the use for it which will cause the most positive disruption.

The most powerful thing technology can do is lower the threshold—make a given process easier and less demanding of time, skill, and money. Arguably that's what made the printing press and the steam engine so hugely disruptive. So, specifically the Sketchup plug-in for WikiHouse is probably the most disruptive element. It's an amazing piece of work because it gives you the ability to download a model and, at a single click of a mouse, generate cutting files. The current plug-in only does that in a very basic way—we're always on the lookout for collaborators and volunteers who can help realize that promise. There's potential to take it much, much further.

So the software is where the disruption is, but that's too simplistic an answer. In truth it's not about any one innovation, it's the whole ecosystem: It's the hardware standards that shape the plug-in, and so on—how everything choreographs into everything else.

EVAN O'NEIL: With an open-source project, there must have been surprises along the way. What was the biggest fork in the road or spanner in the works?

ALASTAIR PARVIN: The biggest problem was not any "event" as such but rather that because it is open source, the project is very much dependent on our own personal investment, and whatever opportunities come along. There is some irony in professionals working on a system that is fundamentally about empowered amateurism. So it's very slow. But we were warned it would be even slower than it has turned out to be, so that doesn't get us down. In fact, it's quite liberating. It does mean, however, that we're permanently looking for funders, supporters, and collaborators who can take the project further.

EVAN O'NEIL: I love the fractal house logo. What does it signify for the WikiHouse team?

ALASTAIR PARVIN: In a way it does what it says on the tin! One thing I will say is that there's a key difference between making a fixed product for which blueprints are then shared publicly, and making an open construction system. The problem with the first kind is it slips again into this "one size fits all" industrial age model, and defeats one of the core objectives of peer-to-peer production, which is to make products that are suited to who you are, where you are, and what you need. What works in one place isn't going to work somewhere else, so one of the fundamental aims of the project is to make it iterative and utterly open, so people can take it, adapt it, and modify the system for their place, their needs, their climate, their materials.

Both Nick and I are aficionados of open-source software, and if you're familiar with an open-source code development platform like GitHub, the evolutionary version map "forking" diagram of a project will be nothing new to you. The logo is really just a graphic representation of that process.

EVAN O'NEIL: So how can people get involved?

ALASTAIR PARVIN: There's a poster [PDF] we made recently showing the WikiHouse prototypes so far, and the key goals that could be achieved. Of course, we badly need people to help fund the WikiHouse project, to sponsor it, such as by commissioning experimental structures to be made using it.

But of course this is really about the social economy more than the monetary one, so the real call is not just for funding but also for collaboration. There are thousands of designers, engineers, and programmers who share our view that housing is a problem worth solving, and that building a universal construction set is a really worthwhile experiment, and we want to work with all of them, even indirectly.

The ambition should be to make a universal construction system that anyone can use with incredible ease and at low cost.

So people can get involved by tinkering with the system, experimenting, building one, improving it, sharing SketchUp models. But also a huge impact can be made by initiating projects (for example, taking the plunge and building yourself a house), taking the plug-in and working with it, and exploring your own particular interest-branch of the WikiHouse project, which might be cladding solutions, low-tech open solutions for off-grid energy and water, sanitation, and so forth. A fairly small amount of work from enough individuals can make a huge impact.

Sometimes it's hard for us to cope with all the traffic, especially because WikiHouse isn't even our full-time job (yet). But we're always enthusiastic to hear what people are doing with it, and we want to support teams in every way we can.

EVAN O'NEIL: Is anybody living in one yet?

ALASTAIR PARVIN: Not yet! But that's one of the big next goals. So far they're being used as shelters, meeting rooms, etc. There are lots of exciting things people have in the offing.

EVAN O'NEIL: What's the WikiHouse plan for the future?

ALASTAIR PARVIN: Again, the poster is a good place to look. Currently we've got WikiHouse Rio happening, which is a chance to engage with a very real community of need and potential in the favelas in Rio. So check that out and support it.

We have, following that, a series of milestones and goals. One of our ambitions, of course, is to get the project to a stage where it is sufficiently funded and resourced that we can really push it much faster through development, and build some open business models around the system. The ultimate goal is both very clear and also generously undefined—it reveals itself as we go.

The ambition should be to make a universal construction system that anyone can use with incredible ease and at incredibly low cost—to put a collective project, a powerful tool in the commons, so anyone can go about making a house for themselves if they want to. That, we think, will change the game.

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