Is open source architecture set to change the way we live?

A few weeks ago I was browsing the web – an intrinsic part of my job – when I stumbled upon Alastair Parvin’s Ted Talk: Architecture for the people by the people. I love Ted Talks. There’s something about being able to listen to someone three times as smart as you talking about something three sizes too big for your brain. Pretending for a moment like you’re even remotely following along is one of life’s little joys – and since I knew nothing about architecture, I thought I’d give it a go.Parvin, an architect, spent the first part of his talk discussing the dwindling practicality of his trade. He felt professionals like himself should be doing more than just designing skyscrapers in Dubai and exotic mansions for the obscenely wealthy. With a growing population, more and more homes lost to natural disasters and a widening gap between the rich and the poor, he wanted to use his skills to find a way to make owning your own home something mostly anyone could do. Architecture for the 99%.Like myself, he didn’t believe throwing money at the problem was the solution. Nor did he believe that the cramming more sardines into the tin and charging them twice as much rent for the opportunity was as wise an idea as whoever is in charge of London thought it was. Instead, he wanted to make building your own home so affordable and easy anyone could do it themselves. He wanted to create a creative commons for great architecture that was free for all to use.He wanted to open source housing.So how the hell do you do that, then?

CNC machining, open source architecture designs and the third industrial revolution

Thanks to Henry Ford, the 20th century is known for democratizing consumption. His innovative production line and high wages for workers meant that previously expensive products like cars were no longer exclusively for the wealthy.The production line is still our favorite way of mass-producing affordable products - but new technologies are heralding a new age. An age Jeremy Refkin dubbed The third industrial revolution. We no longer need designated factories to spit out a billion identical, injection-molded McHappy Meal toys. Thanks to 3D printing and CNC machining, we can build our own products at home. In the wisdom of John Maynard Keynes “it is easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits”, and that’s precisely the future we’re aiming for.Parvin, however, has taken this idea to a whole new level. While most are beside themselves with excitement over 3D printing some twee plastic squiggles, Parvin has co-founded an open source movement that quite literally allows you to print out a house.Sure, it’s already possible to ‘print’ a house out of concrete with the help of a very clever, and even more expensive machine. Concrete printing could potentially lessen the time and cost of building homes in bulk (public housing, for example), but it’s not an end-to-end solution. We need to make it possible for anyone to build their own house without the help of a third party. If democratizing consumption made cars available to the masses, democratizing production might be able to do the same for housing.And that’s the goal of Parvin’s group; WikiHouse.Rather than using traditional 3D printing methods, they use something called CNC machining (Computer Numerical Control). It’s a pretty common concept – rather than using the tool by hand, a computer controls your lathe, mill or router, following the designs you give it. The beauty of using CNC over 3D printed concrete is that it doesn’t require a 3D printer bigger than your house. Instead, it cuts the house out piece by piece and you assemble it later. Plus, rather than concrete, you use locally sourced, cheap materials like plywood or medium density fiberboard.Basically, you download the designs from WikiHouse’s website and hand them over to your CNC computer. It guides the saw to cut out the right shapes ten times faster than you could and without any human error, and you’re left with something like this:

open source architecture

Sweet Mother Mary - It’s a DIY, Ikea-esk house kit. A small team of untrained, run-of-the-mills can assemble this in around a day. And before you know it, you have something like this:

open source architecture

Now obviously you can’t make a whole house out of plywood alone. You still need windows, roofing tin, plumbing, electricity – the works. WikiHouse isn’t an end-to-end solution – but it’s a damn good start and it’s going to save you a hell of a lot of money and time.

Who needs a WikiHouse?

By now you might be thinking; ‘Cool, it’s slightly cheaper housing that you build yourself - how does this change anything?’ Well, you have to look a little further than suburban Australia to see the real impact this could have.This year’s World Cities Report predicted that by 2030, two-thirds of the population will be living in cities.When we think of cities, we often think of first world cities such as Sydney, London or New York. Vibrant, high-rise capitals that shine brightly all hours of the night and seem to be teeming with cash and opportunity. But these aren’t the cities referred to in the report. In reality, the fastest growing cities are more often than not favelas and slums – and soon to be home to two-thirds of humanity.Compound this issue with other modern problems like climate change, inequality and debt. We can see an even greater need for a cheaper and easier way of building real estate. Over the last six years earthquakes and tsunamis in Haiti, Nepal and Japan have destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings leaving millions without a home.Natural disasters, increasingly overpopulated cities and a growing divide between the rich and the poor are all pushing us to change the way housing is provided and constructed.And that’s why the implications of this kind of technology are so huge. Entire neighborhoods can be constructed in half the time with just a CNC router (open source plans for which can themselves be found online) and sheet wood. WikiHouse isn’t just about making cheaper houses for the first world. It’s not an attempt to pop the housing bubble. Parvin doesn’t expect the world to all be living under ply before the end of the decade. Rather, WikiHouse provides an open platform for anyone to help build a constantly improving and evolving library of stuff; a ‘Wikipedia of Things’. A database of absolutely free, low-cost, high-performance design solutions.Think smaller: imagine needing an outdoor dining area and downloading it off the internet.We’re already seeing some amazing proof-of-concept work. For example, after the recent Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand, an enterprising group of Kiwis came together to form Space Craft Systems: a social enterprise to develop the WikiHouse system in NZ and rebuild some of the lost residential areas with earthquake-proof homes.

open source architecture

Then there’s WikiHouse Rio. Rather than rebuilding – this group is simply building. And instead of using WikiHouse home designs, they’re making use out of the suite of tools WikiHouse have put at their disposal and designing their own CNC cut-outs for a ton of different products.As WikiHouse co-founder, Alastair Parvin, said in an interview with TED; “Kids and teenagers can start experimenting, maybe creating furniture. Maybe that will lead to building, but it’s not about us defining what happens from the outset. It’s about being open. We’re giving people amazing tools and saying this could be a serious form of community development, but it’s led by them.”This is the kind of innovation we need if we truly want to help put a roof over humanity’s head: democratized production, collaboration, local materials and open source designs. The project is still very much in its early stages we can be sure that we’ll be seeing it grow better still as more designers and thinkers get involved.WikiHouse isn’t just a cheap, Lego house. It’s a worldwide design commons for sustainable homes and technologies that can be customized, locally manufactured and self-assembled.This truly is the beginning of the third Industrial Revolution.

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