Open architecture

Imagine a homebuilding system that can be used by anyone, without the need for specialist knowledge; where a kit of parts can be ordered and built on site. In the WikiHouse, architect Alastair Parvin may just have the answer – and it’s one that has the potential to not only democratise architecture but also help fight the housing crisis. Parvin’s idea is an open source home, built for everyone

The digital revolution has solved many problems. Keeping in touch with friends; finding cheap insurance quotes; booking trips abroad and at home; dating; hell, even ordering a pizza. Start-up culture has bravely taken on many of the day-to-day grinds that we took for granted, turned them upside down and democratised them. We, the people, are in control of pretty much everything.

Yet the very age group that controls every aspect of its life using powers that were unthinkable 15 years ago is also the one that suffers most from the problem that, until now, has remained untouched by the digital revolution. ‘The housing crisis’ as it has offically become known just rumbles on, year after year, with politicians making all the right noises but, as yet, very little happening to change the situation that most young people even on average wages cannot afford to own their own space. Couple that with the fact that those that are lucky enough to be able to scramble around for finance end up with something so given-to-them, so top-down, decided for them – the antithesis of the demand, self-driven culture in which we now live – and you have a major issue.

BELOW: The Scottish WikiHouse under construction. Each of the plywood elements is numbered and can be put together without screws or nails.

Enter Alastair Parvin – the closest thing to a start-up pioneer there is in housing. Parvin’s WikiHouse concept can best be described as open source architecture – trying to bring architecture into greater use by the sharing, rather than the hoarding behind copyright laws, of building design solutions. In tangible terms WikiHouse is a series of pre-drawn details that can be used by anyone to design their own home. The ‘building pieces’ can then be manufactured by a CNC machine – effectively a form of 3D printing – and built on site by the owner. Not only does it open up the world of architecture, but it makes the scary prospect of building houses potentially as possible as putting together a fairly complicated Ikea kit.

“What throws most people about the WikiHouse model, both in theory and reality, is how simple it is,” says Parvin. “They have been brought up to think of architecture as something that only people who have been taught it can do. We called it ‘Wiki’ for two very clear reasons – firstly to show that it is an open source system but also, just as importantly, to get across the message that it is quick and simple.”

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Inside the Store Street structure in London

Parvin initially followed a conventional architect’s career path, getting experience at some pretty impressive names (including Feilden Clegg Bradley) before breaking out. “What struck me almost instantly was that architecture is at its best when it copies – the problem is that it copies very badly. Almost every architectural practice has interns producing small details that are identical to those produced by the intern at the practice down the road. Why are we all trying to solve the same problems individually? Why not share?”

While undoubtedly exciting, Parvin’s concept has met with some criticism. The problems of land cost and planning permission are arguably as great a contributor to the housing crisis as the ability to build, plus there is a risk that the liberation of housing design may undermine the value of architecture and architects. Parvin has a good response. “Design has always ultimately been democratised. We’re just trying to confirm the
concept. Think about the sash window – no-one person invented it, but it has been designed and built thousands and perhaps millions of times, improved, pushed and pulled, but it remains the most perfect bit of design. People, and most of all designers, copy all the time. So why not make it easier? Only one person has to solve each problem, once. I want WikiHouse to become a marketplace where architects can sell their work. The problem is that so few people ever contemplate architecture for their own buildings … because it has been closed to them for all this time.”

WikiHouse has been around as a concept since 2011 and in its early days many within the industry dismissed it as conceptual, theoretical. There were a few prototypes, including a notable project outside The Building Centre in London in 2014, but its fondness for plywood and the relatively high cost of the cutting machines made it seem a distant future. Not any more. Houses are being built as Parvin talks to me – he’s just returned from a WikiHouse farmhouse in Warwickshire which is nearing completion and was off to France in a few days to oversee a project there. “It’s now a commercial system. We’re able to demonstrate that it is a real thing, with costings and proven performance.” And it is the performance (not to mention build costs of around £800 per square metre, about half the industry average) that Parvin is so excited about. Taking building out of the hands of people and putting the key elements in the charge of a digital machine mean that precision – critical on a building where everything is measured and gaps are bad – leakage, fills, and so on – is exceptional. “The beauty of it is we are able to see how easy they are to build. The self-builder in Warwickshire used his mates to help him build the frame manufactured by the CNC machine. It doesn’t require specialist labour.”

BELOW: WikiHouse design elements are stored digitally and manufactured using CNC machines (shown top left). As an open source design and construction system, WikiHouse ‘chapters’ are springing up across the globe – a recent construction in the Netherlands, shown bottom right

In this way, Parvin’s concept ties in with the concept of the ‘third industrial revolution’ which, according to economist Jeremy Rifkin, will look totally unlike the last (Victorian one), full of mass-produced, one-size-fits-all, top-down solutions (including to housing). This will look much more like pre-industrial times, where individuals are thinking locally, in response to site and surroundings and community. Using the templates that WikiHouse gives them, individuals will be free to create individualised approaches, so that the house of tomorrow will end up looking and feeling more artisanal, more like the Weaver’s cottage of yesteryear than the modernist white-box solution favoured until recently.

In New Zealand, another country enthusiastically embracing the WikiHouse concept, Space Craft Systems organised 12 people with no construction skills, armed only with rubber mallets, to build a WikiHouse prototype. Photo: Space Craft Systems
In New Zealand, another country enthusiastically embracing the WikiHouse concept, Space Craft Systems organised 12 people with no construction skills, armed only with rubber mallets, to build a WikiHouse prototype. Photo: Space Craft Systems

And when it comes to solutions to the overall ‘housing crisis’, Parvin and his concept fit in nicely. He’s a leading exponent of citizen power, which in essence means bypassing the middle-men, the developers, and giving housing back to the people who will actually use it. “One of the problems at the moment is that architects aren’t really working for the people who actually end up using the buildings in the long run. With housing, the developer will want a solution that works for them, not the owners. That’s why I love self-build and custom build so much – because it creates housing by and for the people, directly. But people have been trained to think a different way – if you asked them how they would achieve better homes, most people would say ‘better developers’. That’s the exact opposite of what is needed…. We need tools for citizens to help them shape their own housing – and we as a society need to stop seeing homes and the people in them as a problem but rather a resource which needs to be unlocked.”

A WikiHouse built outside the Building Centre in Store Street, central London, in 2014. It cost less than £50,000 to build. Photo: WikiHouse Foundation
A WikiHouse built outside the Building Centre in Store Street, central London, in 2014. It cost less than £50,000 to build. Photo: WikiHouse Foundation

In centuries gone by we all used to create our own spaces – we still do it as children today. It was only in the post-war period that the major developers began to change the housing industry into the one we see, with all its problems, today. The housing industry isn’t hotels. It’s not taxis and it certainly isn’t dating. Or pizza. But it could be, and Parvin might be a leading light in helping bring about that revolution.

 Halfway through the week-long construction of a new WikiHouse on the west coast of Scotland. The simple barn-like structure was cut out of 170 sheets of plywood using a CNC machine. Photo: WikiHouse Foundation
Halfway through the week-long construction of a new WikiHouse on the west coast of Scotland. The simple barn-like structure was cut out of 170 sheets of plywood using a CNC machine. Photo: WikiHouse Foundation

Jason Orme is the editor of Homebuilding & Renovating magazine. For more information on the WikiHouse system, see wikihouse.cc

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