Future Tense

The WikiHouse Revolution

Will open-source DIY architecture usher in a new age of architectural innovation?

A build-it-yourself Sears, Roebuck house from the early 20th century

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On Feb. 29, Future Tense will host an event on the Make movement and do-it-yourself innovation in Washington, D.C. For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the NAF website.)

In the early half of the 20th century, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold tens of thousands of self-assembly homes to customers across the United States by mail order. A “Sears Modern Home” came in a railroad-delivered kit complete with more than 30,000 component parts, along with nails, paints, and fittings, and a weighty leather-bound instruction manual to help you put together the designs yourself. The plans were designed to be simple enough to be assembled without help from architects, carpenters, or any specialist contractors—in most cases, Sears homes were assembled solely by the buyer, with the help of friends, family, and neighbors, in communal, barn-raising fashion.

As it was the advent of mass-manufacturing and the birth of American DIY spirit that gave way to the then-popularity of the Sears precut home (Sears wasn’t the first, nor the only company in the business), so it is that an Internet reaching maturity, with open-source spirit, brings us the Sears home of our own age: the WikiHouse.

WikiHouse is an “open-source construction set” that allows you to build your own house from slot-together pieces that you mill yourself, from crowd-sourced, open-source designs that you download free from the Web. The idea is to make it easy for anyone to build a house from scratch, without power tools or specialized knowledge, and for the price of raw materials alone. Choose your design, print and cut the parts, grab some friends, and get barn-raising. Et voilà, you have yourself a WikiHouse.

Houses are assembled from plywood components, cut from internationally standard 8-by-4-foot, 18mm-deep sheets. Of the handful of prototypes built so far, WikiHouses have been square, single-story structures with sloped roofs and small—approximately 175 square feet—foundations. Building takes hours rather than weeks, and the end product is a bare, untreated wooden structure, ready for wiring, insulating, plumbing, and cladding.

The WikiHouse project is still in its infancy. These early, pitched-roof designs are more like sheds than houses (WikiHouse’s creators have and use one as a meeting room), and an actual, full-scale house, of Sears complexity, is some time away—if that’s even the ambition. It remains an optimistic, experimental side-project, as much proof-of-concept as statement of intent: As a collaborative platform for low-cost, resource-light, sustainable housing, it just may have the potential to turn the principles of traditional architectural economics on their head.

Behind the project is London-based design agency 00:/, a self-consciously experimental group of architects and creatives, experimenting about the social implications of design and design choices, proudly de-emphasizing bricks and mortar, and rejecting any notion that a designer’s job is to ship a product. WikiHouse is one such experiment: exploring what lowering the threshold to building houses, and opening up architectural design to global collaboration, might enable.

This is open-hardware on a building scale. “It is, effectively, taking the same principle of the design standards that make code sharable in the software sense—and literally applying it around hardware and CNC-cut timber,” explains Alastair Parvin, a 00:/ architect working on the project. The result: The knowledge of how to design and build your own house—including, eventually, its inner workings, its heat exchange design, and so on—becomes public knowledge. The ambition, says Parvin, is “to put those capabilities into the public domain, where anyone can use them—and collectively, we can improve on them.”

WikiHouse’s framework consists of a plug-in for Google Sketchup—a popular, free program for 3-D design—that takes the design you download from WikiHouse’s website library and lays the component parts onto sheets for milling. Granted, you’ll need a computer numerical-control milling machine to cut your timber—but your local town or school probably has one that you can borrow or rent. (And if you’re really kicking the DIY spirit, why not build one yourself?)

However cheeky, experimental, or small-scale WikiHouse appears to be, its open-hardware underpinnings are serious, its principles interesting and potentially important. In the context of a revolution in tools enabling decentralized DIY living, its ideas offer a route to low-economy sustainable development in a new industrial revolution, overturning architectural convention along the way.

As much as it is about crowdsourced, freely distributed designs, WikiHouse is also about the democratization of the build itself. Early designs have required metal bolts to join their jigsaw parts, but the aim is to make future designs entirely bolt-free—ensuring that the building requirements are as straightforward as possible. Even the mallet used to hammer in pieces is CNC-milled as part of each design—a “poem” to the way WikiHouse want to take things, Parvin says. More poetic than an IKEA hex key, certainly.

These are not the building blocks for complex, robust, modern homes. So what use is a WikiHouse?

With resources and necessary tools few and cheap, as well as being largely material-agnostic (so long as it’s wood, its parts can be local and to suit any budget), there could be many. One thing several commentators have picked up on is how the WikiHouse model could be used in natural disaster zones: cheap, sustainable housing that can be erected in days—if not hours. It’s not ideal for providing emergency shelter in the immediate aftermath of catastrophe, but in medium-term, post-disaster relief and recovery it could prove very valuable indeed. Deliver a CNC mill and a pile of timber panels to a power source anywhere in the world, and build yourself a WikiVillage. A cheap, sustainable solution that fills the gap before the concrete aid arrives.

The exciting thing is that what becomes of WikiHouse is up to us, and our collective imagination. We’re not limited to Sears catalog designs. Fix a structural defect, introduce an extension, improve the ease of the build, and you can share the design, collaborating on iterative improvements. Architecture—a closed, deeply individualistic field in which buildings are identified by their architects before anything else—is a field ripe for this kind of mass collaborative innovation.

This is less about customization and economies of scale than about what collaboration can bring to architecture, big and small, as we share, collaborate, and improve on the knowledge of making buildings. And putting WikiHouse’s philosophy in the context of low-cost, medium-term sustainable housing solutions: The result is much smarter design that could bring with it enormous social benefits, as much in the United States as in the developing world.

Eventually, sales of Sears homes began to slow as the complexity of the modern home increased, coming abruptly to a stop at the onset of the Great Depression. A DIY construction kit simply wasn’t practical for Sears or its customers any longer. For the same reasons, suburban cul de sacs are unlikely to be populated with full-scale, fully complex WikiHouses anytime soon. But neither, I expect, will the project be limited to hobbyist tree houses and garden sheds.