Wikihouse NZ

WikiHouse is an ambitious global open hardware project that aims to “allow anyone to design, download and ‘print’ CNC-milled houses and components, which can be assembled with minimal formal skill or training.”

New Zealand’s WikiHouse Lab was formed by Martin Luff and Danny Squires, who discovered the idea after the second Canterbury earthquake in February 2011. As Martin puts it, “Danny and myself were trying to find a solution to a whole number of different issues in the built environment. We spent about six months researching different systems. During that process, a friend tipped us off to the WikiHouse project.”

After the Canterbury earthquakes, over 6100 businesses were displaced from the central city. “Only about ten of those have gone back to their original location,” Martin says. “The rest needed to relocate somewhere else. We were looking for a system whereby, in the worst case scenario, within a few weeks you could relocate your business and be back up in running.”

Martin and Danny were also keen to empower the local community. “A lot of people down here in Canterbury are stuck in limbo because they are dependent on a whole hierarchy of other agencies before they can get on with things like repairs and replacement housing.

“One particular thing we were looking for was a system that allowed people to be involved right from the get-go, through the whole design process, right the way to implementation. One of the really nice things about WikiHouse is that the people can really assemble the things on the ground themselves, as well being involved in the whole design process along the way. One of the main things we looking at was empowerment.”

As Martin explains, WikiHouse could also make housing more affordable. With WikiHouse, young people looking to enter the housing market would be able to start small, and be able to expand when they need to. Parents with large houses would also be able to break off sections of their house, to pass on to their children as a ‘starter-kit’—a form of “hand-me-down housing.”

Martin and Danny also wanted to ensure that what they produced was healthier, stronger and more environmentally friendly than the current housing stock. “We wanted it to be world-class in terms of its ability to stand up to seismic resistance. We also wanted it, longer-term, to go beyond sustainability to something that could be restorative to our environment.”

Wikihouse NZ at the Makertorium at Te Papa, 27 April 2013, via WikihouseNZ/SpaceCraft. Used with permission.

Creative Commons licensing is a core part of WikiHouse. As Martin explains, “Creative Commons is essential to the whole WikiHouse project. There are ten core principles, and principle number one is be lazy like a fox. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Copy, adapt, give credit and share.”

Creative Commons licensing enables WikiHouse teams from around the world to collaborate and improve on each other’s designs. By way of example, Martin explains that the initial WikiHouse design “had a lot of mechanical fixings in it. A collective design effort quickly eliminated the need for those. The system we’ve got at the moment can be put together without power tools, by unskilled people in a very short length of time. There are no mechanical fixings in it, no bolts or screws or glue.”

Going forward, Martin sees WikiHouse taking off through a series of local projects, “probably neighbourhood based manufacturing plants, where local people can drop in, not just to build buildings, but all sorts of other things as well.” This global network of community-based organisations is where Creative Commons licensing becomes important.

“We really see this as a social enterprise, and it’s only going to work if we can deliver on scale—very large scale. One of the workshops we’re setting up in the WikiHouse project is in Rio. The global perspective on the project is that in the next 40 to 50 years, if the projections hold true, then we’ve got to built as much urban development globally as currently is in existence. This is mind-boggling. We can’t do that with conventional building techniques or without openly working together on solutions.”

In 2012, WikiHouse Rio won part of the TED City Prize 2.0, for its project setting up an “open source maker lab in the heart of the favela.” With its Creative Commons licence, this project could potentially be duplicated—and improved—in other cities around the world.

“As I see it, if you’re shutting away that information, the things that you learn, then it’s essentially a waste-stream. It seems critical that, as far as possible, you’re open. If you take the bigger picture, it can seem a bit petty to fence that knowledge away, and charge people to access it; especially since any new idea only ever builds incrementally on all the knowledge and wisdom that went before. Creative Commons seems like a great way to acknowledge that.”

Open source hardware, however, is still a new concept, especially for highly-regulated industries like construction. “It’s much trickier to get the globally distributed network right, especially when it’s a mix of professionals and amateurs.”

Despite these challenges, Danny and Martin, along with the founding WikiHouse team in the UK, are looking to have a finished house by the end of the year. “That’s one of the beauties of a large, open source project: It’s surprising how quickly it can progress.”

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