As much as it is about crowdsourced, freely distributed designs, WikiHouse is also about the democratization of the build itself. Early designs have required metal bolts to join their jigsaw parts, but the aim is to make future designs entirely bolt-free—ensuring that the building requirements are as straightforward as possible. Even the mallet used to hammer in pieces is CNC-milled as part of each design—a “poem” to the way WikiHouse want to take things, Parvin says. More poetic than an IKEA hex key, certainly.
These are not the building blocks for complex, robust, modern homes. So what use is a WikiHouse?
With resources and necessary tools few and cheap, as well as being largely material-agnostic (so long as it’s wood, its parts can be local and to suit any budget), there could be many. One thing several commentators have picked up on is how the WikiHouse model could be used in natural disaster zones: cheap, sustainable housing that can be erected in days—if not hours. It’s not ideal for providing emergency shelter in the immediate aftermath of catastrophe, but in medium-term, post-disaster relief and recovery it could prove very valuable indeed. Deliver a CNC mill and a pile of timber panels to a power source anywhere in the world, and build yourself a WikiVillage. A cheap, sustainable solution that fills the gap before the concrete aid arrives.
The exciting thing is that what becomes of WikiHouse is up to us, and our collective imagination. We’re not limited to Sears catalog designs. Fix a structural defect, introduce an extension, improve the ease of the build, and you can share the design, collaborating on iterative improvements. Architecture—a closed, deeply individualistic field in which buildings are identified by their architects before anything else—is a field ripe for this kind of mass collaborative innovation.
This is less about customization and economies of scale than about what collaboration can bring to architecture, big and small, as we share, collaborate, and improve on the knowledge of making buildings. And putting WikiHouse’s philosophy in the context of low-cost, medium-term sustainable housing solutions: The result is much smarter design that could bring with it enormous social benefits, as much in the United States as in the developing world.
Eventually, sales of Sears homes began to slow as the complexity of the modern home increased, coming abruptly to a stop at the onset of the Great Depression. A DIY construction kit simply wasn’t practical for Sears or its customers any longer. For the same reasons, suburban cul de sacs are unlikely to be populated with full-scale, fully complex WikiHouses anytime soon. But neither, I expect, will the project be limited to hobbyist tree houses and garden sheds.