'Tooling up' to address the housing crisis

What do communities need if they are to build their own homes?

Russell Hargrave

Press Manager

Our newest polling – published later this month – finds that access to local housing is a concern for three-quarters of the British public. In the meantime, the National Housing Federation Conference is in full swing. Our Press Manager Russell Hargrave chatted with Alastair Parvin of WikiHouse about some of the most innovative ideas helping communities plan and build their own homes.
 

RH: What is the challenge facing community home-building?

AP: When it comes to building houses, historically it has favoured big, centralised developers, either through the private market or the state. Building is inherently a risky, difficult thing, so you have needed to have been able to absorb that level of risk and command the skills of all those professionals.

That is a big problem if we are tracing the challenges of empowering communities to build homes for themselves.

How would you describe what Wikihouse does?

Over the last few years, digital technology has unlocked ‘the long tail’ in many industries, with lots of small companies and individuals starting to outperform those old monoliths. The most obvious example is Air B‘n’B, which is now the biggest hotel chain. We are exploring how those sorts of digital innovations can pull off the same trick, hopefully in a more open way, in the production of housing.

So we are trying to tool up the community sector. The Wikihouse Building System means that, instead of setting up a factory which costs millions of pounds, you can set up a small-scale local factory to digitally fabricate houses.

And we are developing a digital supply chain which will solve the problem of the opacity of the service. If you are a community builder and go to potential building firm and ask ‘How much will this cost?’, they can just shake their heads and suck their teeth – and that’s a problem, right?

That’s the problem programmes like ours are trying to solve. As you design, it will tell you how much material you are using, what it is costing, in a pretty accurate way.

We want homes which are affordable and sustainable, and we want neighbourhoods that are resilient. The centralised housing market of the twentieth century is almost perfectly designed not to give you any of those things.

What is the benefit of having greater community involvement?

The difference between a big developer and a community isn’t just size, it’s their purpose. Developers are out to make money, not make homes.

We are collectively agreed in what we want in our housing and our cities. We want homes which are affordable and sustainable, and we want neighbourhoods that are resilient. The centralised housing market of the twentieth century is almost perfectly designed not to give you any of those things.

Tooling-up the citizen sector is the only way we believe we can tackle the housing crisis.

Communities can also unlock land that developers can’t. Some of the projects we are looking to support are where communities have come together and realised that there are patches of land here and there which aren’t being used. Only through being positive and proactive do they have the power to unlock those pieces of land in ways developers just can’t.

Tooling-up the citizen sector is the only way we believe we can tackle the housing crisis

If it all works, what will Wikihouse look like in five years?

What we would say to start with, If you are a community housing organisation looking seriously at doing some sort of pilot, then please get in touch with us, we are always really interested.

In terms of five years time, we hope to have this platform up and running in a much more accessible way. You will be able to go online and start imagining and designing the thing that you want to build. You’ll be able to see the likely costs of that, not just to build but to run it. And you’ll be able to connect with, or even create, your own local business to make it into a reality.