A few weeks ago I stumbled upon Alastair Parvin’s Ted Talk from 2013: 'Architecture for the people by the people'.
Parvin, an architect, spent the first part of his talk discussing the dwindling practicality of his trade. He felt professionals like himself should be designing more than just skyscrapers and exotic mansions for the obscenely wealthy. With a growing population, more and more homes being 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 a home something anyone could do. Architecture for the 99 per cent.
In fact, he wanted to open-source good architecture so everyone can access it – for free.
What’s more, to save people even more money, he wanted people to be able to build these houses themselves – with no prior building experience – from locally sourced, cheap materials.
You’d think this would be an impossible feat – but Parvin isn’t just a dreamer. In fact, with the help of some shiny new technology, he’s already making it happen.
Thanks to Henry Ford, the 20th century is known for democratising 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 favourite way of mass-producing affordable products, but new technologies are heralding a new age – an age that American theorist Jeremy Rifkin has dubbed ‘the Third Industrial Revolution’. We no longer need designated factories to spit out a billion identical, injection-moulded Happy Meal toys. Thanks to 3D printing and computer numeric control (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, and co-founded an open-source movement that quite literally allows you to print out a house – WikiHouse.
Rather than using traditional 3D printing methods, it uses CNC machining. 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 is that it cuts the house out piece by piece and you assemble it later. You don’t need to invest in a printer larger and more expensive than the house you’re trying to build in the first place.
Basically, you download the designs from WikiHouse’s website and hand them over to your CNC computer. Load it up with some cheap, local materials like plywood or medium-density fibreboard and it guides the saw to cut out the right shapes. You’re left with a DIY, Ikea-style house kit that a small team of untrained people can assemble in around a day.
Now, obviously you can’t make a whole house out of plywood alone. You’ll still need windows, roofing tin, plumbing, electricity – the works. WikiHouse isn’t an end-to-end solution, but it’s a good start that’ll save you a tonne of time and money.
By now you might be thinking, ‘Cool! It’s slightly cheaper housing that you build yourself, but 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 by the UN Human Settlements Programme predicted that by 2030, two thirds of the global population will be living in cities.
When we think of cities, we often think of vibrant, high-rise capitals that shine brightly at all hours of the night and seem to be teeming with cash and opportunity – Sydney, London, New York – but these aren’t the cities referred to in the report. In reality, the fastest-growing cities are those with favelas and slums.
Compound this issue with other modern problems like climate change, inequality and debt, and we can see an even greater need for a cheaper and easier way of building. Over the last six years, earthquakes and tsunamis in Haiti, Nepal and Japan alone have destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, leaving millions without housing.
And that’s why the implications of this kind of technology are so huge. Entire neighbourhoods can be constructed in half the time with just a CNC router (open-source plans for which can 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 whole world to be living under plywood before the end of the decade. Rather, WikiHouse provides a 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 New Zealand and rebuild some of the lost residential areas with earthquake-proof homes.
This is the kind of innovation we need if we truly want to help put a roof over humanity’s heads – democratised production, collaboration, local materials and open-source designs. The project is still very much in its early stages, but I’m sure we’ll see it grow 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 customised, locally manufactured and self-assembled.
This truly is the beginning of the Third Industrial Revolution.