When you’re out and about this weekend soaking up all Open House 2015 has to offer, it will definitely be worth your while to pop by the pop-up WikiHouse 4.0 that is currently enjoying prime frontage on Store Street for the London Design Festival.
For those unfamiliar with the notion of “open-source design”, this WikiHouse prototype provides an embodiment of the Wikihouse platform’s open-source self-build dream – a prototype flat-pack house, compiled of details and junctions available online under creative commons, consolidated by a collaborative design team (Zero Zero Architecture, Arup) and constructed in eight days.
Sounds like a happy marriage between high and low tech.
Well yes, the development of the WikiHouse platform is described by co-founder Alistair Parvin as being down to technological shifts: the rise of global connectivity, parametric automation and digital local manufacturing. I won’t pretend to understand the how the smart electrical engineering of Wikihouse 4.0 works (I did gather that the MVHR unit composed of 3D printed mechanism with upcycled beer can casing), but it’s fully wired and online without a switch in sight, using an app to remote control the whole building. So the house is like a system in itself, sounds a bit like a machine made for living in…
And yet it’s also as low tech as they come, the prototype was built by a rolling rota of eight untrained volunteers at a time and all in rough and ready OSB, using self-made tools: the Wiki mallets.
But what about the harder issues of open source design, like preserving the notions of authorship and intellectual property, so hammered into us during architectural education. Parvin is at pains to stress that the downloadable details are rarely pure innovations, some of the Wikihouse joints are ripped straight off centuries old Japanese jointing.
So in the context of the UK housing crisis, how could this become tangible? The panel of the accompanying talk, made up of Parvin, Stuart Smith of Arup, Carl Turner and Paloma Strelitz of Assemble, agreed several points:
- Web infrastructure is vital and diffusion of affordable good design, even more so in a changing global landscape of a burgeoning middle class in Asia demanding higher quality homes
- There’s a global demand, a market of 20 million self-builders
- We need legislative change in our highly regulated homeland, normalising land availability in particular
- Perhaps we need a different approach to the market geared towards to values of the end user. A house built for an end user is wildly different to that built by developer expecting returns, should we be economising "attention/sqm".
- Reconnecting thinking and making, ensuring the latter is more accessible (an aside – visit Assemble’s £290/sqm Barn in Bow if not for its attempt to stall the nomadic creative community then to see some gorgeous handmade ceramic tiles)
- Convincing local authorities to see this as part of social investment in a neighbourhood (another aside - see Carl Turner’s Grow Brixton project)
- Challenging current procurement norms: Collective custom build, procurement issue is major step for self builders, architect as agent, contractors shell. (see Paper houses – higher end WikiHouse brethren)
One cannot help but wonder, where does the designer sit alongside these downloadable, replicable modular homes?
Parvin quotes Cedric Price in response: "technology is the answer but what is the question". Perhaps, the questions are context, need and realisation, and with this the designer can reclaim the role of agent and actuator.
And what about an answer to our housing crisis?
Well, stay tuned for Cullinan Studio’s own contribution to the debate in the coming months.