A building democracy?

self-buildted talk







Two things have occurred recently which coincidently had a striking link with each other.

First was a self-build workshop as part of the Birmingham Architecture Festival (BAF 2013) with architect Duncan Roberts, demonstrating an adapted Segal method of construction to build a small timber frame. The second was Alastair Parvin delivering a TED talk on Wikihouse in California to a packed audience a few thousand miles away.

At the end of the self build workshop, the participants congratulated themselves with some tea and biscuits. Alastair got a standing ovation.

Wikihouse is a very interesting project in suggesting a way to improve the “economics of architecture”. The developers of Wikihouse are quick to point out that there is nothing new in their proposal compared to other existing methods of self-build apart from a web connection. However, if this is nothing new, then we should be wary that it may also be unlikely to take off, otherwise it would have done so in the first instance – surely?

Clearly the presentation was an introduction to a scheme that has great potential but at risk of over simplifying the process of construction to “erecting a frame in just a day.” Having seen the presentation after participating in the self-build course, I feel I have some experience (although minimal) to say that it will take much longer.

Building, as part of a community is rewarding and a sociable activity. It should be encouraged but there are too many obstacles to just start from pure desire alone – it needs strategy as well as conviction. From experience, participating in such collaborative events shows there is still a need for a hierarchy in personnel based on skill and experience as well as leadership.

barn raising












image source: http://www.theshakercraftsman.com

Barn-raising (as a historical precedent), brings a community together in a single event, seemingly in an open and egalitarian way. Everyone in the community had a specific role with everyone required to contribute, born more out of necessity to have as many people assisting as possible. These self builds provided capacity but not ability. They still relied on craftsmen to assist in completing more technical parts of the job.

The democracy is therefore not in the act of building, but for the desire to instigate it and intended use that come afterwards. It is worth pointing out though that participating in community builds does help encourage communal ownership amongst other positive aspects.

Yes, the possibilities are now seemingly endless with open-source software and hardware though Alastair Parvin’s own inadvertent admission reveals something interesting – these technologies have the capability in “lowering the threshold for time, cost and skill”.

Time and cost – great. Skill? Let’s think about this. These technologies are essentially making it easier for us to make things. The haptic skill of carpentry is substituted through engineering. The beauty is not necessarily in the technology, but the idea that these things should be shared under creative commons. 

Wikihouse demonstrates the divergence from a craft (whether you call it convention, traditional or other) that still can have relevance today and one that may allow someone to earn a living as well as be able to build. Instead, skill is transferred through an online portal. Not because it is easier (it is, and possibly more comfortable as well) but because we think it is new.

A way of building a truer democracy is through sharing these skills. Knowledge and know-how still has a great value to society but is far too easily forgotten.

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