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House buyers get real buy-in

Pamela Buxton

Housing joins the digital revolution with Architecture 00's open source WikiHouse

The world’s first two-storey, open source WikiHouse has been built outside the Building Centre as part of the London Design Festival 2014. It is remarkable – not for its form, which is unassuming, its low price (it can be downloaded, made and assembled in days for £50,000) or even for its digital manufacturing methods. Its significance lies in the revolutionary approach of open source construction to procuring architecture. 

According to Architecture 00, the practice behind WikiHouse 4.0, the project is driven by the wish to democratise the procurement process so that otherwise disempowered potential consumers become the co-producers. In this way, architects can be employed by a far greater potential market rather than the current 1% who could ever commission them.

  • The house taking shape.
    The house taking shape.
  • Think you don't have a mallet, now you do.
    Think you don't have a mallet, now you do.
  • Cut and ready to go.
    Cut and ready to go.
  • Close up of one of the labelled pieces.
    Close up of one of the labelled pieces.

So how would it work? Once the designs are downloaded, they can be used to print components from structural sheet material using a CNC machine. The 68m2 house, which has a maximum room span of 4.6m, will require 320 sheets of material weighing 9 tonnes, and Architecture 00 estimates it could be manufactured for assembly by two workshops over three weeks. Although the designs are freely available on open source, the expectation is that those interested in building in this way might need a customised version, or assistance in the whole process.  

‘The more knowledge you give away, the more people come back asking for more,’ says Alastair Parvin of Architecture 00. ‘It gives everyone the opportunity to hire an architect for a few hours or a few days.’

The house, which is very much a working prototype, is a collaboration between Arup, the Building Centre and Architecture 00, and is the most advanced of the WikiHouse series. The house is not complete – the roof frame will be tested while it is at the Building Centre. The house includes a 30mm service zone for the wall and ceiling, giving flexibility to install or alter any device. Arup has developed a way of 3D printing the mechanical ventilation heat recovery unit for use with a motor, and is using the house as test bed for open source electrics and electronic systems to give users more control over home technology. 

According to Arup director Stuart Smith, the process has been one of demystification towards a point of empowerment where the construction of house and services should be well within the reach of anyone competent with an Ikea flatpack.

The open-source approach means that any mistakes are shared to reduce the possibility of them happening again. The aim is to refine the system along the lines of the Japanese poka-yoke mistake-proofing approach of lean manufacturing, so that it becomes impossible to put it together wrongly, thus lowering the threshold for the level of expertise needed for construction.

Lewis Blackwell, Building Centre executive director of strategy and development, sees WikiHouse as part of the radical disruption that the digital revolution will inevitably bring to construction and architecture. In particular, he expects the WikiHouse approach to be an asset to early adopters and the self build market at a time when the housing shortage, and the conservatism of house builders, is prompting more people to take matters into their own hands. Land availability, however, remains a stumbling block.

Organisers are talking to potential buyers for the house after it finishes its stint at the Building Centre.

WikiHouse, until 26 September, Building Centre, Store Street, London.