This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On Feb. 29, Future Tense will host an event on the Make movement and do-it-yourself innovation in Washington, D.C. For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the NAF website.)
In the early half of the 20th century, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold tens of thousands of self-assembly homes to customers across the United States by mail order. A “Sears Modern Home” came in a railroad-delivered kit complete with more than 30,000 component parts, along with nails, paints, and fittings, and a weighty leather-bound instruction manual to help you put together the designs yourself. The plans were designed to be simple enough to be assembled without help from architects, carpenters, or any specialist contractors—in most cases, Sears homes were assembled solely by the buyer, with the help of friends, family, and neighbors, in communal, barn-raising fashion.
As it was the advent of mass-manufacturing and the birth of American DIY spirit that gave way to the then-popularity of the Sears precut home (Sears wasn’t the first, nor the only company in the business), so it is that an Internet reaching maturity, with open-source spirit, brings us the Sears home of our own age: the WikiHouse.
WikiHouse is an “open-source construction set” that allows you to build your own house from slot-together pieces that you mill yourself, from crowd-sourced, open-source designs that you download free from the Web. The idea is to make it easy for anyone to build a house from scratch, without power tools or specialized knowledge, and for the price of raw materials alone. Choose your design, print and cut the parts, grab some friends, and get barn-raising. Et voilà, you have yourself a WikiHouse.
Houses are assembled from plywood components, cut from internationally standard 8-by-4-foot, 18mm-deep sheets. Of the handful of prototypes built so far, WikiHouses have been square, single-story structures with sloped roofs and small—approximately 175 square feet—foundations. Building takes hours rather than weeks, and the end product is a bare, untreated wooden structure, ready for wiring, insulating, plumbing, and cladding.
The WikiHouse project is still in its infancy. These early, pitched-roof designs are more like sheds than houses (WikiHouse’s creators have and use one as a meeting room), and an actual, full-scale house, of Sears complexity, is some time away—if that’s even the ambition. It remains an optimistic, experimental side-project, as much proof-of-concept as statement of intent: As a collaborative platform for low-cost, resource-light, sustainable housing, it just may have the potential to turn the principles of traditional architectural economics on their head.
Behind the project is London-based design agency 00:/, a self-consciously experimental group of architects and creatives, experimenting about the social implications of design and design choices, proudly de-emphasizing bricks and mortar, and rejecting any notion that a designer’s job is to ship a product. WikiHouse is one such experiment: exploring what lowering the threshold to building houses, and opening up architectural design to global collaboration, might enable.
This is open-hardware on a building scale. “It is, effectively, taking the same principle of the design standards that make code sharable in the software sense—and literally applying it around hardware and CNC-cut timber,” explains Alastair Parvin, a 00:/ architect working on the project. The result: The knowledge of how to design and build your own house—including, eventually, its inner workings, its heat exchange design, and so on—becomes public knowledge. The ambition, says Parvin, is “to put those capabilities into the public domain, where anyone can use them—and collectively, we can improve on them.”
WikiHouse’s framework consists of a plug-in for Google Sketchup—a popular, free program for 3-D design—that takes the design you download from WikiHouse’s website library and lays the component parts onto sheets for milling. Granted, you’ll need a computer numerical-control milling machine to cut your timber—but your local town or school probably has one that you can borrow or rent. (And if you’re really kicking the DIY spirit, why not build one yourself?)
However cheeky, experimental, or small-scale WikiHouse appears to be, its open-hardware underpinnings are serious, its principles interesting and potentially important. In the context of a revolution in tools enabling decentralized DIY living, its ideas offer a route to low-economy sustainable development in a new industrial revolution, overturning architectural convention along the way.