By Davina Richards
There’s a heavy current of hard truths which we can’t swim away from; an economic model dependent on ever increasing consumerism, rising population density, soaring house prices and detrimental environmental issues.
None of this means the end is nigh, but it does mean we need to figure out a couple of different ways to address the challenges of the day. One such solution might be sitting right on our doorstep – an exciting project which addresses global urban development challenges called WikiHouse.
Could this be the stroke of genius we’ve all been looking for?
As entrepreneurs Derek Handley and Sir Richard Branson step up to solve environmental and social issues with The B Team (a team of leaders on a mission to actively face world challenges by encouraging businesses to drive their values towards long term growth for the people and the planet), validation for the WikiHouse comes from providing similar empowerment to people.
You may be familiar with Dominic Stevens’ Irish Vernacular, a self-built home outside of Dublin, Ireland, which cost £21,000 and took 50 days to build, during a period of two years. Or Simon Dale, who built his own hobbit house with £3,000 in four months, in Wales, 2009. WikiHouse is another alternative model of living, but it’s firmly in the reach of everyday people.
London-based architect Alastair Parvin is one half of the WikiHouse co-founders who shares a common awareness of the housing problem around the world.
The concept of WikiHouse is to build sustainable and affordable housing by empowering people to lead development. Although Alastair admits WikiHouse is not an innovative approach, in which he acknowledges the traditional concept of barn raising, it has the potential to be a small revolution staring down a big issue.
“Almost everything that we call architecture today is actually the business of designing for about the richest one percent of the world’s population,” Alastair says in his Ted talk 2013.
Create, build, share
The term “wiki” is derived from the word wikiwiki, which is Hawaiian for “quick” or “fast”. WikiHouse is an open source construction set made from engineered plywood and allows anyone from anywhere to design (using freely available software), share, download and print designs using a CNC machine.
All the pieces, including the wooden pegs and mallet, are numbered, cut out and assembled, much like an Ikea flat-pack. A group of two to three people (enter you and a couple of good friends) can complete a basic frame of a WikiHouse in a single day.
WikiHouse allows you to build what you need when you need it and change it when you want it. And because the construction can be dissembled just as easily and as quickly as it can be put up, it’s easily transportable.
Imagine living in a house which you can at any point, adapt, expand and replace; unlike conventional buildings which are difficult to modify. Add to this massively reduced build and running costs and you’re looking at a building paradigm ideally suited to the specific challenges 21st century society faces.
You would no longer need to lend money to your grown children to put towards a house – you can simply ‘pass down’ a section of your own WikiHouse, which they can then build upon by cutting out more sections, attach it onto their existing WikiHouse and voila, they have an extension.
The information is available under a Creative Commons licence which means WikiHouse belongs to everyone, and anybody can take it in whatever direction they like to develop, design, modify and improve the system.
So, unsurprisingly, WikiHouse has exploded to a global reach. UK, US, Brazil, France, Germany, South Africa and Asia is where you’ll find teams coming together to collaborate, adapt, share and build prototypes. This collective design effort is then fed straight back into the project.
Because WikiHouse can be used on poor quality land, for example TC3/blue-rated land in Canterbury, it has the potential to offer relief to those who need it the most, especially in disaster-prone areas of the world.
The prototypes being built across the globe are meeting different requirements to meet the demands of different climates, cultures and environments, so that no two WikiHouses are the same.
In an article titled ‘We’re talking to WikiHouse pioneer Alastair Parvin’ on arcfinity.tumblr.com, Alastair says, “If a WikiHouse in Ghana looks anything like a WikiHouse in Glasgow, then something has probably gone wrong. That’s sort of the point.”
In its entirety, WikiHouse is the package: sustainable, affordable and has a social, cultural, environmental and economic advantage.
Finding solutions together
People in Christchurch tried to find temporary building solutions to get their businesses back up and running after the earthquakes, and it all began with shipping containers.
This is where Martin Luff and Danny Squires, co-founders and directors of Space Craft Systems Limited and WikiHouse NZ lab, started too.
Introduced initially through Twitter, their combined devotion to find solutions for the failures in our built environment led them to TEDx Christchurch and a tip-off to the WikiHouse project.
Martin and Danny agree that WikiHouse is a system that goes beyond what we have now and delivers far greater value at an affordable price. It is a concept which encourages individuals to whole communities to become involved, reclaiming traditional values of building together.
“How can we create a solution to all these problems that goes up as quickly as a temporary solution, but can last for five generations, while at the same time increasing building performance and lowering the barriers to entry for the ordinary person?” Danny says.
“There are lots of examples at the moment in New Zealand and around the world of affordable housing that’s affordable to build, but the people who live in it can’t afford to heat it, or run it on a low income, so it’s not really affordable.
“The affordability is about that total cost of ownership and we’re very much trying to enlarge the debate around those total costs.”
When asked how much it would cost to run, Martin explains that there are many variables to consider, but they are aiming to meet Passive House standards (building performance) for primary energy consumption – maximum of 120kWh/sqm per year for lighting, heating, hot water and electricity, “Which could be 75-85 percent less than a typical New Zealand home,” Martin says.
“It’s not so much about building houses, but building communities. And giving them the tools to create, manufacture, assemble and deliver their whole urban environment based on their wider needs, not the narrowly focussed needs of a third party developer.”
Space Craft Systems is a social enterprise that is developing WikiHouse under the WikiHouse NZ lab. This is the team you want to talk to if you require assistance in self-delivery, or if you want them to design, manufacture, or assemble your WikiHouse for you.
Danny and Martin, along with a team of volunteers, assembled the first WikiHouse prototype in the Southern Hemisphere at the Community and Public Health Centre in Christchurch on September 5, 2013. With a maximum of six people at any given time, it took four hours to complete a basic frame.
“We’re the people who guarantee a certain level of quality, so in relation to WikiHouse, Space Craft Systems are the people who will take a building through consent and guarantee that the quality is maintained.”
Rising to new levels
Although the project is still in its early stages, there’s no reason why WikiHouse can’t be taken to the next level, literally.
Two or three storey buildings are already on the cards, but residential housing is seen as the more critical and immediate need to get to market.
Danny and Martin explain that the goal is to accelerate development and complete the next stage; layer on applications, such as windows, doors, cladding, sealing, wiring, heating, weatherproofing and insulation.
“Our initial phase is to complete our project studio as a fully finished build of less than 10 sqm floor area, followed by a 23 sqm ‘back yarder’ infill add-on for existing buildings, then compact homes for young people (60 – 80 sqm), and then larger family homes,” Martin says.
But WikiHouse lacks one thing: funding.
“The sort of funding we’re really looking for is funding that recognises that this is a social enterprise. What we’re not looking for is traditional venture capital funding, which is focussed on getting short term, high yield economic return alone,” Danny says.
“We’re looking for funding which is interested in social and environmental objectives, as well as the economic outputs. However, having said that, we see it as a sustainable enterprise, so once it’s gone beyond that seed funding, we see no reason why it can’t be self-sustaining and continue to grow without ongoing grant or charitable input,” Martin says.
Although we can see how WikiHouse could dramatically shape our future, there’s a sense of unease among some builders and architects who say they can see the death of their careers. But Danny deals with the concerns saying WikiHouse is about building communities.
“We’re not getting rid of architects, we’re encouraging them to become involved in the 98 percent of the market that they’re currently not meeting,” he says in a matter of fact way.
“We’re not actually building, we’re manufacturing mass customisable kitsets that ordinary people can assemble. Having a building industry is only a recent development in the last couple of hundred years – before that people all built communally. We’re facilitating the return of traditional values.
“It’s all about creating wonderful environments for people to live in and giving them the power to actually do that
for themselves, to engage in that process and be part of the outcome, not just served up for them.”
I pose the question whether WikiHouse will reach building codes, a question which many people (online) dispute. Martin says that Space Craft is looking to work in partnership with key NZ councils to ensure the system not only complies with all the required building codes, but exceeds them.
As soon as you see a WikiHouse you’ll want to build one yourself and there’s no reason why you can’t. In fact, it would be rude not to.
To find out more about WikiHouse, visit www.spacecraft.co.nz. Or join the team for WikiHouse Breakfast meets every Tuesday from 8am at C1 Expresso in Christchurch.
WikiHouse fact box:
- Made from engineered plywood (but could use other suitable structural sheet materials)
- All parts are numbered accordingly for easy assembly by non skilled end users with minimal tools
- 200mm thick cavity in walls for superior sound and thermal insulation combined
- It has a 45 degree angle roof ideal for solar panels and a longer south facing for the wind to blow over easily, and for rainwater collection
- It’s currently shaped to reinforce structural strength but the profile can be modified and customised to suit.
- The whole system is designed with high seismic resistance in mind – alongside first class resilience in the face of extreme weather events
- WikiHouse is highly flexible and adaptable so that you can easily accommodate your changing needs over the lifetime of the building
- Intelligent use of thermal mass help to maintain comfortable temperatures year round by absorbing and releasing heat within your home (including natural heating from sunlight in cooler months)
- Passive and active controlled ventilation alongside superior construction design ensures a warm dry home all year round
- Durability is assisted by materials which are highly resistant to fire, damp and insect attack alongside very easy maintenance.