Interview with WikiHouse’s Alastair Parvin and Nick Ierodiaconou

Laura Cochrane

I'm a DIY editor at Instructables and I used to be an editor at MAKE and CRAFT. I like hiking, biking, rock climbing, and etymology.

677 Articles

By Laura Cochrane

I'm a DIY editor at Instructables and I used to be an editor at MAKE and CRAFT. I like hiking, biking, rock climbing, and etymology.

677 Articles

From MAKE Volume 30:

WikiHouse is an open source construction set: a pool of 3D models of houses and a plugin to help convert them into CNC cutting files, shared under Creative Commons. The WikiHouse SketchUp plug-in turns 3D models into labeled 2D milling sheets that can then be cut on a CNC and put together, like a very big piece of flat-pack furniture. The plug-in script is available on Github for others to build on and improve.

I emailed WikiHouse’s Alastair Parvin and Nick Ierodiaconou to confirm the facts of this brief article, and I thought their responses were interesting. Here they are!

Laura: WikiHouse is a community of designers sharing Creative Commons licensed template files.
WikiHouse: Yes, in a sense. We might say it’s the other way around in that the seed of the project is a pool of 3D models of houses and a plugin to help convert them into CNC cutting files, all shared in the public domain under a Creative Commons license, so anyone is welcome to take, use, add and improve them. Of course, initially this has begun primarily with us, the WikiHouse team, our friends, and a growing bunch of people. So the structures shared on there at the moment are mostly by us and our friends, working with Momentum Engineering. But there are a number of other individuals and groups now around the world that we’re aware of who are working on their own iterations and work. We’re hoping more and more of it will be shared soon!

L: GitHub is the platform across which users share their designs.
WH: The WIkiHouse models use Google SketchUp (a free, easy to use 3D modelling tool). The WikiHouse plugin for Google SketchUp uses a script to turn 3d-models into 2d-milling sheets, so from a model you download you can click ‘Make this House’ and it will generate a set of cutting files which can be used to CNC cut the parts for the house from. This plugin script is also open source, and is, as you say, shared on GitHub (a social software platform) for others to build on and improve.

The actual 3D models of the houses themselves are not shared on GitHub – it’s much easier than that! Once you install the WikiHouse plugin for Google SketchUp, models can be uploaded and downloaded more or less at the click of a button straight from SketchUp to the website. Designs can either be downloaded directly for immediate use, else existing designs can be adapted or new ones produced by anyone with a basic knowledge of SketchUp and an understanding of the logic of the system. Instructions are provided on the WikiHouse website.


L: The building materials are fabricated from locally sourced plywood cut on a CNC mill.
WH: Yes, exactly. Our motto during the whole project has been a fantastic quote by John Maynard Keynes: “It is easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits.”That, after all, is the essence of the maker revolution, our ability to share knowledge and software tools globally, which empowers people locally to use materials available. We chose plywood sheets because they are already widely available, as is (more and more) access to CNC cutting machines to cut the parts for the houses.

The WikiHouse plugin, as well as converting 3D models into 2D cutting files, also labels the parts with their component name, so the actually building process is remarkably fast – it’s really like building a very big piece of flat-pack furniture!

L: Assembly requires minimal skill, by local people.
WH: The assembly is indeed very easy. It requires no power tools (perhaps a screwdriver!) and a few volunteers to put up a structure. It’s actually an incredibly sociable activity we’ve found – reminiscent of community barn raisings. Every time we’ve made a prototype, people have wanted to join in! A small shelter can be erected in a single day.

WikiHouse structures are then ready to be clad and weather-proofed, have services introduced, etc. One of our next ambitions of the project, apart from improving the code and developing the system, is to extend into these other parts of houses, such as cladding, windows, services, etc., such as heat exchangers. Wouldn’t it be great if open source recipes for making your own versions of these were freely available in the public domain?

L: People can design, download, and “print” CNC-milled houses and components.
WH: This is the underlying concept of WikiHouse… We want to make it possible for people to actually design, download, fabricate, and build their own houses, given access to a computer, the internet, some plywood, and a CNC mill. Mills of this sort are becoming increasingly accessible and affordable, with designs to build your own from little more than a power drill, some plywood, and a computer available online. For example, there is the Blackfoot build-your-own CNC mill, which, rather brilliantly, is made from parts which are themselves CNC cut (so the machine can cut replacement parts for itself, or reproduce. You may already be aware of this?).

If the 20th century was all about democratising the ability to consume, we think what the maker movement (and particularly publications like MAKE mag) are bearing witness to is the forming shape of a 21st century, which will be all about democratising the ability to produce for themselves: which will come about by dramatically lowering the threshold and sharing tools and capabilities in the commons.

Houses might seem like quite a large instance of this shift, but it’s such an important and universal need that we think it’s something well worth trying to do! Someone suggested to us that WikiHouse was an attempt to make a YouTube for housing!

L: Started by design firm 00:/, creative collective Espians, and Momentum Engineering.
WH: 00:/, Momentum Engineering, and the Espians were all co-designers of the original WikiHouse system and the original WikiHouse prototype structures.

L: How many contributors do you have currently?
WH: We currently have dozens of people worldwide taking an active interest in development of the WikiHouse system (including hobbyists, carpenters, and university students). In addition, there are many hundreds more who are following the project with interest – to date we are counting some 70,000 unique visitors to our website, and many via Twitter on @WikiHouse. Because it’s all a not-for-profit, open-source venture, we know that slow and steady will win the race, but watch this space for some exciting developments over this year. All kinds of support and donation are welcome!

L: How many houses have been built using WikiHouse? Where?
WH: WikiHouse is still at an experimental stage. Several prototype structures have actually been built, but we are yet to use the system on a finished building. We are currently working on plans to achieve this within the coming year, given some further contributions from the community and the right opportunities to progress to a finished building. There is interest in America, Germany, and New Zealand on this front, and we hope to progress quickly through the next stages of development. If anyone is interested in working with us to achieve this, we’d love for them to get in touch via [email protected].

L: Are 00:/, Espians, and Momentum Engineering working on any other ventures together?
WH: Yes, we are working on a number of innovative projects together, from sustainable architectural works in the UK to a new open source social networking platform due for release later this year.

From the pages of MAKE Volume 30:

MAKE Volume 30Until recently, home automation was gimmicky, finicky, and user-hostile. But today, thanks to a new crop of devices and technology standards, home automation is useful, fun, and maker-friendly. In the special section of MAKE Volume 30, we’ll show you: how to flip any switch in your home with a smartphone, home automation without programming, controlling your HVAC with an Arduino, a webcam security system, and a wall-mounted Notification Alert Generator (NAG) that plays timely reminders as you walk by. Plus, you’ll build a Yakitori Grill, a robust R/C flying-wing airplane, sturdy furnishings from PVC, and more!


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