Game Changer: Alastair Parvin

The brain behind WikiHouse, an open-sourced platform that promises to remake the field. Is it a threat to the primacy of the architect, or a glimpse into our digital design future?

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Parvin’s WikiHouse team shares a floor in London with 00:/ design studio, operating in a space provided by Hub Westminster, a collaborative of creative and social enterprises.

Photography by Kate Peters

I first met WikiHouse cofounder Alastair Parvin—not in the flesh, of course, much less in print—courtesy of YouTube. You can do the same by watching his lecture, “Architecture for the People by the People.” In the video, Parvin explains the WikiHouse concept to the 2013 annual TED conference in Long Beach, California. Looking young and trim in a white shirt and blue jeans, Parvin’s voice is chipper and confident as he delivers his provocative idea to the world.  

Given that the 1,600 TED lectures that are currently available online have been viewed more than a billion times, you may have already heard a little about the WikiHouse by now. In case you haven’t, it’s “an open- source construction set,” according to the WikiHouse online collaborative. “The aim is to allow anyone to design, download, and ‘print’ CNC-milled houses and components, which can be assembled with minimal skill or training.”

So, assuming you have a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) milling machine using CAD/CAM readily at hand, you’ll be all set to start building your own house simply by downloading the WikiHouse software. If there are things about the standard WikiHouse design you don’t like, you can just edit online. Parvin, a 30-year-old British architecture graduate of Sheffield University, certainly makes it sound as easy as it is desirable: a form of low-cost, well-designed mass housing as easy to slot together as a chair from IKEA, available to anyone and everyone around the globe. 

"We’re saying that architecture and, by extension, cities, are made by just one percent of the population, and that this isn’t as it should be."

Both on the TED video and in person, Parvin is an assured and populist salesman. And a bit of a WikiHouse poster boy, too. He’s so keen, in fact, that it’s easy to see him as the equivalent of a bright-eyed Mormon missionary setting out to convert the world. When I looked into TED, I was not surprised to find that Chris Anderson, the former journalist and publisher who fronts The Sapling Foundation that runs TED, is the son of medical missionaries, brought up by parents spreading a practical message of Western enlightenment to poor people in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. Parvin has something of the evangelical preacher about him, too (as do many people converted to or raised in the all-pervading religion of digital technology and communications).

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Jan 9, 2014 05:39 pm
 Posted by  kenny1984

While I feel the core of this thought process minimizes the value that licensed architects bring to the table, the idea of modular or even a kit of parts for housing is not new. Sears offered such a product. Sears Catalog Homes (sold as Sears Modern Homes) were ready-to-assemble kit houses sold through mail order by Sears, Roebuck and Company. Sears reported that more than 70,000 of these homes were sold in North America between 1908 and 1940. Also to believe that the majority of homes built in the US are actually designed by architects, could be a stretch. I would venture a guess that they are designed by home-builders, not licensed architects.

Beyond that, it is sad to hear this group believes just anyone can design a city. There are enough examples of how unplanned growth results in places that are unpleasant to live-in or visit.

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