August 22, 2011

R.House and Wikihouse

There are two interesting prefabricated house models currently in prototype/proof-of-concept stage right now. One is the Skye-based Rural Design's R.House, a low-cost home designed for affordable housing in rural Scotland, using fairly standard technology but made panelised in a workshop by a local builder.



The other is 00:/'s Wikihouse, an 'open-source' house which the purchaser can design online, get CNC-cut out of plywood, and then slot together the structure like a child's toy, with no power tools, ready for cladding and services.




Two very different models but both attempting to crack the question of quick on-site build times and the potential to streamline the construction process, a 2.0 version of the original push towards the MMC (Modern Methods of Construction) advocated in the Egan report back in the day.

The R.House has in its favour that it uses a skillset that is available to virtually any local building firm - broadly, a timber-stud structure, sheathed, clad, relatively conventional - so, unlike the German laminated-timber prefabs so beloved of Grand Designs, it keeps the money in the local economy and allows the potential for local companies to franchise the model. In this sense it is very close to what we tried to achieve at the Rural Studio with the $20,000 house, where we also looked at panelised off-site construction, but the incredibly challenging economics of rural Alabama meant that this was rejected. It is essentially a Highlands version of the traditional kit house, but optimised for a very specific local climatic and planning context, local construction skills and the demands of affordable housing funding. Where it differs from most kit-homes is in its use of large panel sizes and, in design terms, breaking into a more contemporary idiom.

The Wikihouse has the excitement of genuine customisation by the purchaser, almost from first principles and (from my limited understanding) the use of computing power (and algorithms to ensure it stands up?) to generate a workable, structurally sound design from the ideas of a lay customer. But although CNC cutting is now widely available in most areas, the cost of cutting so many elements is fairly prohibitive, and puts this out of the mainstream of self-build into the realm of those with the budget, skills and enterprise to put this together. And you still need to coordinate the cladding, servicing and interior fitout to your liking and budget, which will require professional input for at least some of the stages.

I wonder if there's a way that these models could converge. Could the customer input into the wikihouse model then segue into a set of plans that could be delivered with the skillset of a local builder? Can the streamlining of structure of the wikihouse approach lead to a cheaper, lower-waste, higher-performing affordable home? It seems a shame that the wikihouse project isn't engaging more with a genuinely start-to-finish cycle, from financing to fitout, though this might run against its international agenda as something that can be customised for any context from London to Gwangju (where the first prototype will be exhibited) to who-knows-where.

It's hardly surprising that, with the work I've previously done on very low-cost rural housing, the R.House is initially closer to my heart, but its rejection of some of the possibilities offered by Sketchup and its like - intuitive to use and freely available to anyone with an internet connection - maybe to its detriment as a more universal model. It's going to be fascinating to see where they both lead.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Alison Killing said...

I do really like the idea of designing your house and then just printing it out and slotting it together - there's something quite magical about the idea. It's really difficult to judge the project based on what's in the public domain though - the graphics show quite a range of housing types and sections, but the prototype is a straightforward shed section, extruded. it's difficult to judge at the moment how you could arrange the rooms within, how you could adapt it to anything other than a spacious suburban site where it doesn't have to butt up against other buildings, or what the design process is for the ultimate house owner. and the information isn't there to inform a discussion of those things.

the printing it all out bit is great though.

August 23, 2011 at 10:14 AM  
Blogger Hana Loftus said...

Totally agree. Also interesting that other companies are also doing similar things to the wikihouse in terms of the CNC bit, e.g. Facit in the UK, but definitely positioning it as a premium bespoke service more akin to the German laminated-timber companies than a mass-market product. I'm more interested in the user input into the design using Sketchup etc than the CNC bit, in some ways.

August 23, 2011 at 11:24 AM  
Anonymous Alan Dickson said...

Thanks for the input.

R.HOUSE has grown up out of a desire to provide a solution for those people that need a low cost (capital and running costs) solution to their housing needs. We have tried to use technologies familiar to contractors, clients & importantly mortgage companies, who are famously conservative in the uk towards innovation. Many are still nervous about timber frame and timber cladding.

Wikihouse is a great idea though and I think it is only a matter of time before tools like sketchup & CNC machining have a big effect on user driven housing.

Hoping that R.HOUSE takes off, I am sure we will invest in CNC, although the shed and the rolling crane came first!

August 23, 2011 at 11:32 AM  
Blogger Hana Loftus said...

Alan - in this respect your project's aims are exactly what the Rural Studio's aim was on the $20,000 house which we worked on in its early days. Would be interesting to know if/how you think it is adaptable to locations with a different market from the Highlands, where there might be greater competition/overlap between local contractors, kithouse suppliers and developers/housebuilders of various scales.

August 23, 2011 at 12:02 PM  

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