WikiHouse Democratizes Design For Inexpensive, Easily Built Homes

An estimated 100 million people around the world are homeless, a statistic that Alistair Parvin hopes to help change.

In August 2011, Parvin helped start WikiHouse, an "open source construction set" designed to let those with little or no building experience construct sturdy, long-lasting homes. A would-be builder downloads free sketches of each piece of a house from the Wikihouse website, carts materials to a machine shop for carving, then assembles the house based on instructions, much like one would assemble an item of IKEA furniture.

"Two or three people working together can build a small house in about a day," Parvin said at a TED gathering Thursday, the Agence France-Presse reported. "People continually get confused between construction work and having fun."

At TEDGlobal in June 2012, the WikiHouse team won a cash prize for being "likely to spur" a city of the future. They took the prize money to Brazil, where they teamed up with Dharma, a local youth mobilization project, and the analysis agency BrazilIntel, to begin building houses in the country's poorest slums.

Since the cost of machinery is still prohibitive for many, the team hopes to set up a "maker lab" in Brazil, with a computer-controlled cutter that can turn plywood into building materials for WikiHouses, PopUpCity reports.

"Our aim [is] to tap into a creative maker culture that exists in the favela and provide the community with the tools, ideas and capabilities baked into the WikiHouse ethos to take their skills to the next level," reads the webpage for the Brazilian project, now dubbed WikiHouse: Rio. The team hopes to eventually create many such "maker labs" in poor communities around the world.

By September of last year, WikiHouse had built eight prototype houses. But it might face competition from other companies that also offer inexpensive models to build houses.

The Pallet House project, an initiative to create housing from discarded wooden shipping pallets, won an honorable mention in a 2011 competition to design refugee-friendly traditional housing. The MyShelter Foundation and Hug It Forward, meanwhile, have begun building small shelters and schools out of discarded plastic bottles in the Philippines and Guatemala. And U.S.-based company Tumbleweed has made a business of selling plans to people hoping to build so-called "Tiny Houses," cheap, small homes that can be transported on trailers or trucks.

Still, in the burgeoning sphere of "democratized design," alternatives for less expensive housing will likely only help the movement grow. Parvin, at least, remains optimistic. “For too long, cities have been made by the 1 percent and consumed by the 99 percent," he told TED. "We wanted to see what it would take to create something that would allow the 99 percent to make cities for the 99 percent.”