We’re talking to WikiHouse pioneer ALASTAIR PARVIN

3 Jul

Interview by Jeff Campagna


Alastair Parvin and WikiHouse: a brilliant man and his beast.

WikiHouse is essentially an open source construction set. Taking its conceptual cues from Wikipedia, WikiHouse functions as a digital community. allowing anyone to design, download and ‘print’ houses and components with CNC machines and 3D printers. A small team with no formal construction training can then assemble the house in a matter of days.

Spend some time reading Alastair Parvin’s provocative architecture articles on Makeshift and you’ll be introduced to the bigger picture: “Architecture is an intrinsically conservative discipline,” he writes. “For architecture to stick exclusively to the design of buildings is like art refusing to do anything other than paint oil canvases.”

So far, so avant-garde. But then there are his lectures on Youtube, dripping with well-informed contempt for soaring housing prices, architecture schools, and an unsympathetic, old-world, profit-based industry. You’ll also hear him discuss Right To Build, an initiative he captained to ensure rural villages in England can develop sustainable, family oriented communities without having to surrender their interests to development tycoons.

By now it is clear that WikiHouse is just one, relatively small component in a much larger, constantly evolving master plan. I talked to Alastair about how the right disruptions to civil planning and building design may yet transform our world.


What comes after WikiHouse, if not specifically, then philosophically?

One ambition is that WikiHouse should become more than a platform for physical construction. It should be the vehicle through which less tangible processes are designed and shared. New kinds of neighbourhood economic development. New forms of planning based on agreed permitted development rights. Civic platforms and institutions that make it much easier for people to share skills and do things for themselves, and much easier for companies and government to help them do it.

There’s also another aspect of open hardware which I’m very interested in personally, which is to connect with all the other open hardware projects going on right now. Imagine an emerging ‘Wikipedia of stuff’, then one of the most interesting corners will actually be farming and food production. It sounds a bit crazy, but open-source, low-cost, high-yield organic farming tools, heuristics, data and robotics are going to become hugely important as the global rural population starts shrinking, the total population keeps growing, resource crises hit, and the Monsantos are unable to provide.

When you think about WikiHouse being implemented by the community in the wild, do you imagine that the designs will resemble the current prototypes?

No. If a WikiHouse in Ghana looks anything like a WikiHouse in Glasgow, then something has probably gone wrong. That’s sort of the point. One question we get asked a lot is “Why plywood?” and of course plywood is far from being an open material. The immediate next step would be to look at other sheet materials, possibly involving recycled plastics. The ultimate open material is earth, of course, so a big project for the future is to improve earth construction methods. The important thing is to create closed-loop manufacturing cycles, where there is no waste.

In the short term, it would be great if ten teams in ten countries develop ten house types in ten different climates, economies, legal and cultural contexts, and then share them. But the broader aim is to develop construction systems supported by open, parametric tools, so no two houses need ever be alike, and the designs can be continuously evolving. Open-source architecture is really just vernacular design with a web connection. We’re moving – excuse the jargon – towards a weird kind of globalized ‘hyper-local’ design vernacular. We’re essentially allowing physical products to behave like Darwin’s finches.

With the exception of an old-world economy, what is the single greatest obstacle facing WikiHouse, and whatever comes after it?

The immediate, perhaps not very exciting answers to this question would be legal liability and funding. We need to create an economic and legal ecology where our designs can flourish. As for funding, WikiHouse itself is a non-profit project (even though of course it can be used by for-profit companies) and it’s predicated on putting its solutions into the commons, where they belong to everyone. That’s a practical decision as much as an ideological one, but it means that we can’t just go to an angel investor to get seed funding.

We also want to become more transparent and democratic in the way we own and govern the platform. So we’ve designed a WikiHouse constitution and charter that deliberately prevents us from monopolizing it as founders in the long-run. A good goal for WikiHouse might be that in a couple of years, the founders can be hit by a bus or something, and it won’t matter.

Also on the blog: Jeff Campagna explores Frank Gehry’s BioMuseo.

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