Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Open Source World
About Alastair Parvin's TED Talk
Instead of architects creating buildings only for those who can afford to commission them, what if regular citizens could design and build their own houses? Designer Alastair Parvin says it's possible.
About Alastair Parvin
Alastair Parvin is an architect and co-founder of WikiHouse, an open-source construction kit. It allows anyone to freely share model files for structures, which can then be downloaded, "printed" on cutting machines and easily assembled.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
So how often do you walk into a building - not a fancy building - just an ordinary, you know, normal building. How often do you walk in and slow down - really just look at all of the things around you? That's what Alastair Parvin does all the time. He's a designer.
ALASTAIR PARVIN: What I'm really interested in is the background stuff, the stuff people take for granted. So I kind of - I find myself walking into a hotel room and looking at the plug sockets and going, that's interesting. Why are the plug sockets here different than somewhere else? How did that come about?
RAZ: Do you know what I can't get? I can't get why the hotels don't have plug sockets next to the bed. They have alarm clocks - they have alarm clocks, and how many times have you unplugged the alarm clock to plug your iPhone plug in there?
PARVIN: I know, right?
PARVIN: And the reason why is because what we've always done is we've separated design from the process of making, which, in turn, is separated from the process of use. Ultimately, you've got to put power into the hands of the person who's going to use the thing.
RAZ: And Alastair says when that doesn't happen - when the designer and the maker and the user are all in different places not talking to each other, you get designs that don't work. You get ugly buildings that nobody likes or schools that look like prisons - homes and apartment buildings that don't make sense for the people who live in them. And part of the reason for this, says Alastair, is that architecture and design are so centralized. They're anything but open.
PARVIN: And there is this kind of myth of the hero individual architect - this kind of genius who produces a sketch and then throws it over a balcony, and it just somehow happens into the world. And I guess locked into that is this idea that, well, we know best - where design and development is something done to people, not done by people.
RAZ: Yeah, I mean, you look at most big cities, and it's skyscrapers and huge housing projects and big box doors, and that was just kind of put out there, and we just kind of accept it.
PARVIN: Yeah, and actually, we all believe in the idea of democracy, right? And so the irony was that, really, since the Industrial Revolution, we've been bought into these big systems of design and development that were incredibly actually undemocratic. And suddenly, we're moving into a world where potentially that might not be true.
RAZ: Alastair picks up that idea from the Ted stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PARVIN: So the challenge we face is how are we going to build the tools, the infrastructure, and the institutions for architectural social economy? And that began with open-source software, and over the last few years, it's been moving into the physical world with open-source hardware, which are freely shared blueprints that anyone can download and make for themselves. And we were fascinated by what that might mean for architecture. So about a year and a half ago, we started working on a project called WikiHouse. And WikiHouse is an open-source construction system. And the idea is to make it possible for anyone to go online, access a freely-shared library of 3-D models which they can download and adapt. And almost at the click of a switch, it can generate a set of cutting files, which allow them, in effect, to print out the parts in the house using a CNC machine, which is like a large printer that can cut sheets of plywood. And the parts are all numbered, and basically what you end up with is a really big IKEA kit. And it goes together without any bolts. It uses wedge and peg connections, and even the mallets to make it can be provided on the cutting sheets as well. And a team of about two or three people working together can build this. They don't need any traditional construction skills. They don't need a huge array of power tools or anything like that, and what you end up with is just the basic chassis of a house, onto which you can then apply systems like windows and cladding and insulation services based on what's cheap and what's available. Of course, the house is never finished. With a CNC machine, you can make new parts for it over its life or even use it to make the house next door.
RAZ: So how could WikiHouse change the way we think about design? Alastair Parvin returns in just a minute to explain. I'm Guy Raz. Our show today - open-source. And you're listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Open Source, how sharing ideas in the open can change the way we live. And we were just hearing from Alastair Parvin. He's a designer who co-founded something called WikiHouse. And WikiHouse helps users build a simple house in just a few days anywhere in the world. And when people really start to do this, Alastair says, it will totally upend the way we think about our homes and offices.
PARVIN: When an architect is just kind of producing a hundred houses in a week, they don't get to pay attention to every small little detail, whereas the person that lives there lives there for years and weeks and months. And so they'll tweak the house and they will change it, and they will learn how to use it. So that's one of the interesting things about open source design is that you can almost think of it as a way of downloading a piece of design that already has embedded within it thousands of hours' worth of attention.
RAZ: Wow. Ultimately the idea is that you want everybody to have power in designing where they live, how their communities are designed, like, that this shouldn't just be something that is handed to them but that everybody has a chance to kind of participate in.
PARVIN: Yeah, there's this fantastic quote which we think is from John Maynard Keynes. It's this idea of it's easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits. And that's really funny because on one level it's so obviously true. But at the same time, it's not how our whole industrial economy works. Almost our entire 20th century industrial economy was based around almost the exact opposite idea, which is shipping around materials and products. But the moment you could email a recipe to the other side of the world and then fabricate it and replicate it in a tiny workshop or a garage to an extraordinarily high degree of precision, open source became something that could move from the world of code into the world of physical things.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PARVIN: We and others have built a few prototypes around the world now - and some really interesting lessons here. One of them is that it's always incredibly sociable. People get confused between construction work and having fun. But the principles of openness go right down into the really mundane physical details, like never designing a piece that can't be lifted up, or, when you're designing a piece, make sure you either can't put it in the wrong way around or if you do, it doesn't matter because it's symmetrical. Probably the principle which runs deepest with us is the principle set out by Linus Torvalds, the open source pioneer, which is that idea of be lazy like a fox. Don't reinvent the wheel every time. Take what already works and adapt it for your own needs. We're moving into this future where the factory is everywhere. And, increasingly, that means the design team is everyone. And that really is an industrial revolution. When we think that the major ideological conflicts that we inherited were all based around this question of who should control the means of production. And these technologies are coming back with the solution - actually maybe no one. All of us.
RAZ: So this idea of right now you've got all these, like, designers and people coming in and exchanging ideas and thoughts and, is that unusual? I mean, are designers proprietary normally, or are they kind of like, yeah, let's sort of - like, I'll tell you exactly what I'm thinking here?
PARVIN: It's - this is really interesting because designers and architects in particular are really taught to think that they are proprietary. But actually the strange thing is, it's not true. And actually, it's never been true. Architecture has always been a big copy and paste function. Why do we think that some of our big grand buildings of the state are neo-classical buildings? They're basically copies of, you know, ancient Greek and ancient Roman architecture.
So everything in architecture is a copy. But the problem is that, actually, we've been copying really inefficiently, like, we're really bad at copying. Effectively, architects are resolving the same problems again and again and again. But the moment you open source things - open source is another way of saying that once solved by someone, no problem ever needs to be solved twice.
RAZ: Do you know we open sourced the playground in my neighborhood, and what normally would have taken three months took two years? Because it's chaotic, because everybody had a say, everybody was involved with it. You know? So it's also, like - right? It's also a little messy sometimes.
PARVIN: I think this also comes down to your - I guess the way that we understand open source. So open source isn't the same as, for example, crowdsourcing ideas. It's not about finding a consensus. It's about giving everybody opportunity.
PARVIN: Actually the irony is that the one of the reasons why open source is such a successful form of collaboration is that, actually, it's a form of collaboration that requires the least interaction between the collaborators. Like, what you're actually doing when you open source something is bundling a piece of knowledge in such a way that somebody else thousands of miles away, who you've never met and possibly will never even talk to, can take it and find it useful straight away. So there's this paradox because one of the things that makes open source work is that actually it doesn't require us to collaborate.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PARVIN: We're aware that WikiHouse is a very, very small answer. But it's a small answer to a really, really big question, which is that globally right now the fastest-growing cities are not skyscraper cities. They're self-made cities in one form or another. So if we're serious about problems like climate change, urbanization and health, actually, our existing development models aren't going to do it. How extraordinary would it be though, if collectively we were to develop solutions not just to the problem of structure that we've been working on, but to (unintelligible) infrastructure problems like solar powered air-conditioning, off-grid energy, off-grid sanitation and put them all into a commons where they're owned by everyone, a kind of Wikipedia for stuff? How much would that change the rules? And I think the technology's on our side. If design's great project in the 20th century was the democratization of consumption that was Henry Ford, Levittown, Coca-Cola, IKEA, I think design's great project in the 21st century is the democratization of production. And when it comes to architecture in cities, that really matters. Thank you very much.
RAZ: Designer Alastair Parvin. He's the co-founder of WikiHouse. And as you heard him say earlier, people have built hundreds of prototypes around the world. You can find Alastair's entire talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.