KUNM

DIY Houses In The Internet Age: Some Assembly Required

Feb 17, 2014
Originally published on February 18, 2014 7:19 am

If you can barely swing a hammer, you can still build your own home.

Builders at the Maker Faire in New York City proved this point last fall, with something akin to an old-fashioned barn-raising.

The event celebrates the do-it-yourself aesthetic, particularly when it comes to digital fabrication and open-source construction plans. Using wooden mallets cut from plywood, a crew of eight banged together the slotted frame of a WikiHouse without a single nail.

The result: a livable home.

"No one, I would say, is a professional builder of buildings," said Nick Ierodiaconou, an architect on the London WikiHouse team. "When everyone came together at the beginning of this process, no one knew the system."

Advances in technology and a bit of architectural activism have led to the WikiHouse project, founded in London by Alastair Parvin two years ago. The project makes digital blueprints available online for free. Amateur builders use computer-cut plywood pieces that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

It took the WikiHouse team of eight just two days to build its two houses, which were 12 feet wide, 26 feet long and nearly 10 feet high.

Builders use 3-D modeling software to design the houses and direct a robotic power tool called a CNC router to cut parts out of sheets of plywood. The free designs can be customized with computer-aided software.

Some CAD software has a steep learning curve but SketchUp, a program popular with woodworkers and architects, is simple enough for kids to learn, says SketchUp's product manager, John Bacus.

"I teach it to third-graders and they do just great," he said. "They make models of dog houses and forts they want to build in the back yard."

Two college students in Denver used 3-D modeling software to design their WikiHouse.

Lacy Williams, an architecture student at the University of Colorado, and her boyfriend spent $5,000 to build a WikiHouse to live in during a semester-long field project in Utah.

Architecture students "need to know how to build something," Williams said. "And for us to be able to learn this alternative style of building, it was invaluable."

Williams and her partner built a 150-square-foot shelter they call the FOUNDhouse. They used discarded building material and bought sheets of plywood they cut on a CNC router. It took more than an hour to cut each of the 60 sheets.

"It's a 3-D puzzle," Williams said. "With enough time, you can figure it out."

There's a long history of ordinary people building their own homes. In the first half of the 20th century, Sears, Montgomery Ward and other companies sold more than a quarter-million kit homes. The blueprints were tailored for novice builders. Sears promised that "a man of average abilities" could build one of these houses in about 90 days, said Rosemary Thornton, who wrote a book on the topic, The Houses That Sears Built.

"Seven-hundred-and-fifty pounds of nails, 27 gallons of paint and varnish, and 10 pounds of wood putty. These were complete kits," she said. "Right down to the doorbell and coat hooks."

The WikiHouse may not become the kit home of the 21st century. But it fills very particular needs.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, the scene of a devastating earthquake in 2011, the WikiHouse team is designing an earthquake resistant structure. In Rio de Janeiro, where the favelas, or slums, are crowded and land is at a premium, another WikiHouse group is gearing up to build two- and three-story homes. It's just what Parvin, the WikiHouse founder, hoped for.

"The aim is to make it possible for anybody to get access to design knowledge, even if they don't have a lot of construction skills, [or] an awful lot of money and get a house which is actually suited to where they are," he said, "and not just a one-size-fits-all house."

Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter and podcast producer. For links to radio docs, podcasts & DIY stories, visit his website.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Thanks to a new online effort, you know longer need a contractor to build a house. Advances in technology and a bit of architectural activism have lead to something called the WikiHouse project. It makes digital blueprints available to anyone for free online and amateur builders use computer cut plywood pieces that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Jon Kalish reports the results can be a livable home.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Last fall, New York City saw something akin to an old fashioned barn raising.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, hang on, hang on, hang on, hang on. Let me grab that.

KALISH: It happened at Maker Faire, an annual event that celebrates the do-it-yourself aesthetic in general and digital fabrication in particular. Using wooden mallets that were cut out of plywood, a crew of eight banged together the slotted framed members of the WikiHouse with a single nail. The WikiHouse project was founded in London a little more than two years ago by Alastair Parvin.

ALASTAIR PARVIN: Now we're on the roll, it goes very quickly. It's always like that. Some days it starts to look like a house for the first time.

KALISH: The WikiHouse team assembled two houses at Maker Faire. This one was 12 feet wide, 26 feet long and nearly 10 feet high. Nick Ierodiaconou is an architect who's part of the London WikiHouse team.

NICK IERODIACONOU: It took eight people two days to put this thing up. No one, I would say, here is a professional builder of buildings. And also when everyone came together at the beginning of this process, no one knew the system. They'd never done it before.

KALISH: They use 3-D modeling software to design the houses and direct the robotic power tool called a CNC router to cut parts out of sheets of plywood. The free designs can be customized with computer-aided design, or CAD software. Some CAD software has a rather steep learning curve but SketchUp, a program popular with woodworkers and architects, is simple enough for kids to learn, says SketchUp's product manager, John Bacus.

JOHN BACUS: I teach it to third-graders and they do just great. They make models of dog houses and forts they want to build in the backyard and all that kind of stuff.

KALISH: Two slightly older students in Denver, Colorado, used 3-D modeling software to design their WikiHouse.

LACY WILLIAMS: For an architecture student, I really believe you need to know how to build something.

KALISH: Lacy Williams is a third year architecture student at the University of Colorado. She and her boyfriend spent $5,000 building a WikiHouse to live in during a semester-long field project in Utah.

WILLIAMS: And for us to be able to learn this alternative style of building, it was invaluable.

KALISH: Williams and her partner built a 150-square-foot shelter they call the FOUNDhouse. They used discarded building material and bought sheets of plywood they cut on a CNC router. It took more than an hour to cut each sheet.

WILLIAMS: It's a 3-D puzzle. It's a little more difficult than a jigsaw puzzle obviously, but it's definitely something that with enough time, you can figure it out.

KALISH: There's a long history of ordinary people building their own homes. In the first half of the 20th century, Sears, Montgomery Ward and other companies sold more than a quarter-million kit homes.

ROSEMARY THORNTON: It was the average man and woman who put these homes together and they'd often invite friends and family, not unlike a barn-raising. Sears promised that a man of average abilities could have one of these houses built in about 90 days.

KALISH: Rosemary Thornton, who wrote a book about the Sears kit homes.

THORNTON: Each kit home had about 12,000 pieces of house and came with a 75-page instruction book and the mortgage application was just two questions. One, do you own the lot on which you intend to build and two, do you have a vocation? It didn't matter what color or race or creed you were. It didn't matter what your last name was, you got a mortgage. It was just such an opportunity for people that didn't have opportunity. It really did change the face of America.

KALISH: The WikiHouse may not become the kit home of the 21st century, but it is filling a need. In Christchurch, New Zealand, the scene of a devastating earthquake in 2011, the WikiHouse team is designing a structure that is earthquake resistant. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the slums, known as favelas, are crowded and land is at a premium, another WikiHouse group is gearing up to build two- and three-story homes.

WikiHouse founder Alastair Parvin says that's just what he hoped for.

PARVIN: The aim is to make it possible for anybody to get access to design knowledge, even if they don't have a lot of construction skills, don't have an awful lot of money and get a house which is actually suited to where they are and not just a kind of one-size-fits-all house.

KALISH: For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.