WikiHouse Alastair Parvin Nick Ierodiaconou 20/11/11 0.01
Towards an open source construction system
WikiHouse is an open source construction set. Its aim is to allow anyone to design, download and ‘print’ CNC cut plywood houses and components, which can be assembled with minimal formal skill or training. In short, to put the capability of designing and building your own house into the public domain. It is being led by Architecture 00:/, Espians and Momentum Engineering.
It was John Maynard Keynes who once pointed out the simple fact that “it is easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits”. Yet, of course, the industrial economy of the 20th century was shaped by the opposite philosophy: carefully guarded intellectual property, factory mass-production, and the shipping of goods over vast distances, in search of artificially cheap labour.
Design now finds itself on the edge of a new industrial revolution.
It is a revolution which can trace its origins back over fifteen years ago, to the software industry, and the open source design movement. As the web grew, groups of programmers began to do something which, on the face of it, made no business sense: they started sharing their code – seemingly for free. Ostensibly, the principle was simply one of effectiveness: with more team members, development can progress more quickly and with more 'eyeballs', 'bugs' are quickly found and solved. But open source design became much more than that, it became a philosophy, a culture; whereby users can download software for free, adapt it and improve it. In return, they share their improvements with everyone else. Open source products are now a major part of the software landscape. For almost every proprietary piece of software, there is now an open source equivalent: for Windows, there is Linux; for Internet Explorer, there is Firefox, for Office, there is OpenOffice. What is perhaps even more fascinating is that many of the tools web developers use to collaborate, down to the very languages they work with, are themselves open.
Software is much easier to share than hardware. Only now, years later, are we beginning to see the full emergence of an open source movement for the design of physical, material objects; often referred to as the 'maker’ movement. The driver for this is not just the web making design-sharing more global, but also a string of manufacturing technologies which are making automated manufacturing more and more local. High-fidelity manufacturing processes such as laser cutting, CNC-machining and 3D printing are becoming ever more accessible and more affordable. We can guess where this might lead and how radically it might re-shape our idea of industry; beyond the mass-production lines and supply chains of the 20th century consumer economy. Where the politics of the last century were driven by the democratisation of consumption (Henry Ford, Coca cola, Tesco etc), the politics of this one, it might be hoped, will be shaped by something far more liberating and far more ecologically compatiable with the planet: the democratisation of production.
The factory of the 21st century might well be everywhere, and the design team, everyone.
It is not so much the technology of this revolution that should interest us, but the social forms of production that come with it. More and more, design will be something done not just by teams of professionals, but by open communities of user-makers, designing and making for themselves. Contrary to popular belief, these open communities are not working for 'free' – they are not altruistic amateurs. They are participants in a kind of social, peer-to-peer economy which produces work and exchanges value outside the traditional 'firm' or the monetary economy.
As professional designers, working within that economy has been as much an experiment for us as the project itself – a seeming contradiction, but an enjoyable one: WikiHouse has been the chance to scratch a long-held itch. It is an opportunity to apply open design thinking to one of the oldest problems there is. We are offering WikiHouse only as a window onto a wider movement, and the next logical step in a long line of architectural experiments aimed at lowering the social and economic threshold for making architecture; from Walter Segal to Hexayurt. What we find compelling about the WikiHouse system is its directness, the power to be able to turn design information into solid, buildable structures with such little effort. The first prototype, a 0.6m thick section of a house, went from CAD drawings to completion in less than 24 hours. It was erected in only 2 hours. Despite the complexity of the technology behind it, the assembly process itself feels oddly simple and traditional: 'barn-raising' each section by hand, and malleting pegs into the connections.
It is also wonderfully sociable. The project itself has begun to gather a growing circle of friends and collaborators from a wide spread of disciplines. Herein lies the lesson for us. Every line of code, every detail must be dedicated to one clear aim: not complexity of form, but simplicity of process. The goal is to establish design 'standards', rules which allow the work of one person to be useful to someone else. It's not easy, but if it can be achieved, that is how projects like this will move from straightforward collaboration to full, powerful, open mass-collaboration.
The inevitable question will be, as it always is, what does open source hardware design mean for professional designers and architects? Is it a threat? The answer is: probably not. After all, the home printer is effectively a desktop printing press, but it has not made the professional print shop obsolete. In fact, as strange as it might seem, open design might well represent a form of salvation for the struggling design professions.
Firstly, because open design represents a liberation from the persistent myth of solitary authorship. One of the maxims of the open source movement is 'be lazy like a fox' – don't reinvent anything from scratch, take what has already been done and tweak it slightly until it works better. Then share it and attribute the previous authors. It is a far cry from an architecture profession, where all too often unpaid interns will find themselves working into the night, solving construction details which have been solved thousands of times before, or that someone is also solving at the same moment. There is an economy of effort in mass-collaboration which architecture has never achieved.
Secondly, because the architectural profession represents only a tiny portion of architectural output. it is well known that most buildings have nothing to do with architects. Daniel Dendra estimates that architecture's market share is something like 2%. Embracing open source design confronts not architecture's dominance of the 2%, but architecture's inability to reach the 98% of buildings which have nothing to do with architects, and for which hiring an architect would, realistically, be uneconomic. Rather than consign this 'long tail' of building to the inadequacy and passivity of mass-consumer design, open design suggests an alternative role for architecture. Architecture can be concerned not just with the design of structures, but also the creation of tools and systems which allow others to design and make structures for themselves beyond architecture's traditional economy.
As experimental as they are, WikiHouse and open hardware experiments like it should be thought of as more than playful geekery. Whether these open source projects survive or are replaced by others, they represent early prototypes for something very powerful: a set of global, public domain design and manufacturing tools for the 99%: industrial infrastructure for a social economy. As one commentator put nicely; "when you break it down, this is just trying to do for buildings and products what YouTube did for broadcasting, or what Wikipedia did for knowledge, lower the threshold for production, share it widely and see what happens."
This article (edited) was first published in Architecture Today, November 2011.
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