A short history of WikiHouseNZ

The philosophy behind WikiHouse is thousands of years old: a community of people work together to build a house that is affordable. They share labour, tools and food. Then they work together to build the next one; and so on...

In Western countries, that's been made much more difficult by increasingly complex building regulations, the high cost of consents, labour and materials, and a drift away from community to individualism. Against that, communications technology has made it possible to collaborate across countries and to share many phases of a project. Just as Open Source software has become a major force in computing, so WikiHouse – an Open Source construction system – is set to become a major force in housing. Many designers cross several countries are collaborating to make it simple for everyone to design, print and assemble beautiful, low-energy homes, customised to their needs.

Alastair Parvin & Nick Ierodiaconou

Alastair Parvin & Nick Ierodiaconou

WikiHouse had its beginnings in the United Kingdom in 2011, when designer Alastair Parvin and design partner Nick Ierodiaconou, were invited to do an exhibition piece in South Korea about open-source design communities. Alastair had been writing a book that looked at ways of scaling self-build as a response to the UK housing crisis. Their immediate response was that rather than talk about open design, they should just try to do it with an experimental project. This open-source house ultimately generated great interest world-wide.

In this TED Talk, Alastair Parvin presents a simple but provocative idea: what if, instead of architects creating buildings for those who can afford to commission them, regular citizens could design and build their own houses? 

Prior to this, English designer Martin Luff and Australian designer Danny Squires – both now resident in New Zealand –  started chatting via Twitter about the lack of innovation and poorly conceived temporary housing solutions being proposed for Christchurch following the disastrous earthquakes that had hit the city in 2010 and 2011.

This led to them agreeing to meet up at TEDxEqChCh in May 2011, although the link-up didn't happen as planned. They actually met for the first time a week later at New Brighton library, and talked about how they could make a difference by addressing the underlying human needs for housing that exist around the world.

Martin Luff & Danny Squires

Martin Luff & Danny Squires

“The initial in-house name for our project was simply 'better shelter',” note Danny and Martin, “reflecting the essential needs we sought to meet. This was born from a powerful sense of responsibility to those caught in the tragedy of the Canterbury earthquakes and the generations that will follow. We believed there was a responsibility to ensure that the subsequent reconstruction of Christchurch and Canterbury doesn’t just build back that which has failed before and that which cannot take us forward sustainably, but instead to grasp this opportunity to re-imagine what could be and to build back better; much better.”

Their early motto was ‘think radical’, to reflect what they saw as a pressing need to transcend traditional solutions which have so far failed to adequately address these needs, and the imperative to cast aside unsound, inappropriate and unsustainable contemporary construction methods.

The pair cast their net around the world to hunt out likely solutions suitable for New Zealand issues. In the process, they discovered the WikiHouse project and quickly realised it had potential to meet all the needs they had identified, plus some. They contacted Alastair and the UK team to propose forming a New Zealand team to develop WikiHouse as a NZ 'lab' and adopted the name Think Radical.

At the start of 2012, the New Zealand lab began working more intensively to develop the WikiHouse system, gather support and put in place a management and supply system to support the level of scaling which they envisaged. During this period, quite significant (but slow) hardware development was driven by a sequence of small exhibition prototypes and events.

By early 2012, Danny had done the first scale laser-cut model from existing designs, and shortly after that Martin and Danny started to work on the box beam and other elements which evolved into the 'longspan' frame and infill variation of the system which is now being used. This was in parallel with developments being worked on largely in the UK by Alastair Parvin at 00:/ a London based strategy & design practice, with regular contributions from other colleagues and allied companies.

By May 2012, the New Zealand team had presented at a Sustainable Habitat Challenge (SHAC) workshop and picked up the first award for WikiHouse for commercialisation of sustainable buildings. Soon after they picked up a commendation from New Zealand Institute of Architects regional branch for a Canterbury Pavilion concept. In the UK, the WikiHouseUK team were presented with the Royal Institute of British Architects President's gold award for research. As a consequence, WikiHouse received significant global exposure and positive reviews in a variety of media channels, including CNN, Wired, Forbes, The Guardian, Wired, Engadget, and Popular Science. One of the awards was the  TED Global Prize 2012, which led to Alastair being invited to give a TED talk in spring 2013 which gathered a million viewers worldwide.

Around this time, Martin and Danny  were advised to formalise a company structure in the interests of credibility and trust. It was suggested that Think Radical would be, well, too radical, so they spent quite a few weeks throwing around name suggestions before reaching agreement on Space Craft Systems, which was duly registered as a limited liability company in July 2012. From this base, SCS and the WikiHouseNZ Lab began to form a broad network of contacts, team members, supporters and partners. One of the foremost amongst these was David Guthrey of Health 2000 who provided the first injection of financial capital to enable full-sized development to take place.

A major step forward came when Martin and Danny, along with other members of the WikiHouseNZ team, unveiled the first full-sized proof of concept structure during Makertorium, an event at Te Papa, Wellington, in May 2013 which was billed as “a showcase of Kiwi ingenuity”.

WikiHouse at Makertorium, Te Papa.

WikiHouse at Makertorium, Te Papa.

It was an awe-inspiring moment as the Space Craft team and volunteers fitted the last piece of their prototype frame together. It represented the culmination of nearly 18 months of dogged determination to get the WikiHouse open source concept to reality in this country… indeed  this was the first full-scale WikiHouse frame on the ground in the Southern Hemisphere. The frame itself was cut on a router at the Fab Lab at Massey University in Wellington and later shipped to Christchurch. Primarily for the purposes of physical testing and engineering assessment, it is also a showpiece for various organisations and individuals and will provide a platform for further work and development of applicable cladding and lining systems, along with the other elements required for a livable 21st century dwelling.

The Te Papa event was capped by the Mayor of Wellington, Celia Wade-Brown, making the capital city the first to propose writing WikiHouse into its official housing policy in her re-election platform. http://www.celiaformayor.org.nz/housing_policy

Another WikiHouse NZ timelapse of their build at Makertorium in Wellington

2013 saw numerous other developments also:

At Festa 2013 at the Christchurch Polytech (CPIT), 12 people assembled the 10 square metre WikiHouse frame in under two hours. As part of that Labour Weekend event, SCS created a test green-roof system in partnership with Sustainable Habitat Challenge and Greening the Rubble.

● Space Craft Systems began building a strong New Zealand team to back the project.

● SCS fully developed an entire new generation of the structural system.

● SCS cut the first full-sized proof-of-concept framework under the new system and tested the concept through a range of assemblies and disassemblies with various community groups and interested individuals.

● Two TED interviews were held with Space Craft Systems and the NZ Lab.

● In addition to Makertorium, SCS presented the WikiHouse system at Green Party and Labour Party national conferences.

● WikiHouse and WikiHouse NZ continued to receive exposure in a variety of high profile and influential media outlets.

● SCS raised sufficient financial and social capital to complete phase one of development.

In 2014, SCS identified a strategic group of material suppliers to fit out our first fully finished WikiHouse build. BBC World Service (audience 22 million) interviewed Danny and Martin.

A key event was a partnership between the Department of Conservation and WikiHouseNZ  for FESTA (Festival of Transitional Architecture) at  Labour Weekend in Christchurch. They hosted a joint public workshop, ‘Urban Conservation – turning ideas into reality’, during which around 50 people came together to share their vision for urban/suburban conservation, creating networks and communities to activate ideas.  Participants from a diverse range of ages were asked to tackle urban challenges from a conservation perspective: transport; nature/human corridors; water; activating communities; and designed solutions at a local level. DOC have partnered with WikiHouseNZ because of shared values and a common interest in how urban people engage with and impact on their environment.

Bridget Frame, Social Enterprise Fund Trustee, announcing the $300,000 funding grant.

Bridget Frame, Social Enterprise Fund Trustee, announcing the $300,000 funding grant.

A major development in 2015 has been a funding grant of $300,000 from the Canterbury Community Trust. The announcement of the grant was made at an event at the chapter's new WikiLab in Addington in May. Attendees were able to see a prototype of the WikiHouse system on display. Speaking from the UK, WikiHouse founder, Alastair Parvin, highlighted the importance of the work being done worldwide and endorsed the world-leading innovation coming from the New Zealand team. Bridget Frame, Trustee of the Social Enterprise Fund set up after the Canterbury earthquakes, stated that of all the applicants, WikiHouse was the enterprise that excited them the most.

The funding partnership with The Canterbury Community Trust will enable the next phase, a fully compliant BackYarder, to be completed and put on show in the latter part of 2015. This will give the general public their first close-up look at a completed WikiHouse, and it is hoped it will lead to commercial production of houses available for general sale in 2016.

Where is WikiHouse now? WikiHouse is finally about to 'reach the start line', with an increasing number of funded projects and collaborations lining up and getting under way. Worldwide there is now a loose community of approximately 500-600 people, 31 chapters and dozens of  people working full or part time on WikiHouse projects. WikiHouseNZ, along with the UK, has become one of the world's two major hubs developing adaptable housing designs that will empower people to create their own communities, with the aim of giving people the ability to create their own high-performance living environments, to suit their own purposes.

In March 2015, Space Craft Systems moved into our new protoyping space in Addington, Christchurch. One of the first things we did was to bring together a dozen or so volunteers to learn more about WikiHouse by assembling our original proof-of-concept protoype frame. Here's what happened!