WikiHouse – a new way to do modular timber construction

Peaks Barn, under construction.

The WikiHouse system brings MMC capabilities to designers and contractors who didn’t think they had the resources for it. WikiHouse CEO Alastair Parvin explains just how easy this system is to procure and put together.

“We describe it as a bit like Lego but for buildings,” Alastair says. “WikiHouse gives you quite a high degree of flexibility of design within its cassette system parameters.”

There are a lot of modular offsite building systems out there. Like many of them, the WikiHouse system is cassette-based. But the WikiHouse approach is unique: an open-source, non-proprietary system that anyone can use and contribute to.

Peak's Barn, a project built with WikiHouse's latest system, Skylark.

Peak’s Barn, a project built with WikiHouse’s latest system, Skylark; © Jack Watts.

The Airbnb of offsite manufacturing

There are two main differences that really set WikiHouse apart. One is that it uses “distributed manufacturing”: the WikiHouse system can be used by a network of small microfactories.

With conventional modular methods of manufacturing, setting up a factory can be prohibitive, with the setup cost plus running costs. A large, dedicated factory can be super-efficient, but it is vulnerable to the vagaries of UK property development: they require a steady pipeline of projects to keep them profitable.

“With CNC-based digital fabrication we saw an opportunity,” Alastair informs us. “There are numerous microfactories out there, up and down the UK. It’s possible to set up a microfactory for £100K or less. WikiHouse’s approach to manufacturing is like AirBnB’s approach to hotel rooms.”

Making the most of the UK’s CNC factories

The UK’s network of CNC factories can use the comprehensive WikiHouse designs and guidance to manufacture cassettes from OSB to a client’s specifications. Anyone can easily browse the WikiHouse website to find a manufacturer near them.

“If it’s a really large project, it can be split across multiple manufacturers if more speed of production is required,” says Alastair. “So there’s a resilience there, which is also very scalable. And those manufacturers can scale up incrementally. As orders grow they might acquire an additional machine. It breaks that difficult cycle of huge capital investment followed by huge risk and liability which has been associated with MMC and prefabrication.”

Open-source and non-proprietary

The other, radical difference is that WikiHouse is open-source. Anyone can find out all about WikiHouse from its website, visit its library and access all its design kits, blocks and guidance for free.WikiHouse's Skylark system being tested in the lab

The design kits include both simple and detailed kits, available for Sketchup, Rhino, AutoCAD and other software. Designs for walls, floors, roofs, corners, windows, doors and all the other components you would expect to find are included. They are currently working on a configurator tool, to make designing a WikiHouse even easier.

“When you think about it, the fundamentals of most building systems aren’t proprietary anyway,” Alastair ponders. “Nobody owns the IP on the brick.”

One big advantages of being open source is that it encourages a great deal of free R&D: a community pool of knowledge. WikiHouse’s evolution is being contributed to by a host of engineers, architects, self-builders and others.

“If timber is to ever replace steel and concrete it has to become generic – what could be the timber equivalent of bricks? And it becomes generic by being opposite of proprietary.”

As he points out, there are lots of architects and contractors who would like to engage in modular construction but who don’t have the time, the economies of scale, or the resources. He sees WikiHouse’s non-proprietary nature as the answer to that: it is readily available and tried-and-tested. They are more than happy to assist anyone who wanted to line up a large project with WikiHouse.

“All they would need do is get in touch,” Alastair assures us. “We can help in terms of getting prices from various manufacturers, or designing a solution that will work according to project size and timeline.”

De Stripmaker is a whole village of WikiHouses, built in Almere in the Netherlands; © WikiHouse NL

De Stripmaker is a whole village of WikiHouses, built in Almere in the Netherlands; © WikiHouse NL

Open Systems Lab, the entity Alastair set up and which runs WikiHouse, is a non-profit company. While the website supplies comprehensive tools and information, WikiHouse do also provide some charged-for support.

“We offer a series of additional design services,” he says. “Some people will engage us to design the chassis for them, or sometimes new blocks that are not yet in our library. Some want guidance on managing a large project, or about procurement.”

A flock of WikiHouses

The WikiHouse library of designs is a collection of standard house designs that use Skylark blocks. Switch House is a compact, zero-carbon home; © WikiHouse NL

The WikiHouse library of designs is a collection of standard house designs that use Skylark blocks. Switch House is a compact, zero-carbon home; © WikiHouse

The system’s design has evolved over the years, with each different iteration named after a type of bird. The current version is called Skylark. The blocks are digitally fabricated by CNC machine to the nearest fraction of a millimetre. They slot and peg together, making it possible to go from foundations to weatherproof envelope in just a few days: the system requires no specialist construction skills. Its wall panels, when clad and insulated, will achieve a U-value of 0.15 W/m2K by default, but you can also add additional insulation if you want to go beyond this.

As its name suggests, it has been used primarily for housing and the system is capable of up to three storeys. The largest span is 6m for single room.

De Stripmaker: a WikiHouse village

Perhaps the most ambitious project the system has been used for so far is De Stripmaker: a neighbourhood of 23 WikiHouses built in Almere, the Netherlands. In 2021, the site was divided into individual plots, and a shared menu of modules was developed that residents could use to design and build their own homes. The results are an attractively varied selection of sizes, layouts and facades, but all recognisably from the same source.

The system used there was an adaptation of a previous WikiHouse iteration called Wren – which they dubbed Swift. At the time, the current Skylark model was still being developed, and Alastair believes the latest version is the best, and simplest, version yet.

De Stripmaker is a whole village of WikiHouses, built in Almere in the Netherlands; © WikiHouse NL

A WikiHouse under construction at De Stripmaker, Almere; De Stripmaker is a whole village of WikiHouses, built in Almere in the Netherlands; © WikiHouse NL

The self-builders set up their own microfactory, with the CNC machine onsite. It was, Alastair admits, very satisfying to see the machine cutting out blocks that were then carried directly over to be put together just metres away. For most builds, however, he suggests that it’s typically simpler to use an established factory elsewhere: WikiHouse components are easy to put on a lorry and take to site.

Here East: Wikiworkspaces

The Gantry at Here East put WikiHouse to an innovative use. Designed by architects Hawkins Brown, a cluster of 21 affordable studios and creative workspaces were created in Hackney Wick, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The studios are installed across the exterior of the 240-metre-long former Olympic Broadcast Centre and overlook the park – part of 1.2 million ft² business, tech, media, education and data campus.

Here East was an “almost perfect problem”, as Alastair puts it, for WikiHouse. The architects had the concept of a series of studios, with each one being clad differently. It lent itself to a standard build-up that could be customized. They also needed a lightweight solution, as the studios were to be installed onto an existing superstructure. Here East was championing digital innovation, so buildings designed using parametric software and CNC manufactured fitted into the whole philosophy.

The future for WikiHouse

Self-builders were the system’s early adopters, but today they field enquiries from across the spectrum, including private developers, architects, housing associations and similar organisations. Alastair points out that, for housing associations, the implications for supply chains and local communities are important in a development.

“Housing associations realise that there’s no point building houses if it hollows out the local economy,” he states. So a system that can use local labour and manufacturing is appealing to them. Housing associations and local councils are often also tasked with challenging, tight sites: flexibility and ease of build is a distinct plus.

Alastair is keen to emphasize that WikiHouse is not competing with anyone: it’s simply a tool that anyone is free to use, whether they are designers, manufacturers,  contractors, installers or self-builders. “The more the merrier” sums up his overall message: he’s happy to hear from anyone curious to use this low-carbon timber system. “Were not trying to create one  company – we’re trying to create 1000 companies.”