Images: Victoria Turk/Motherboard

A Tour Through the Downloadable, DIY Smart Home

It’s just a little more complex than an Ikea project.

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Sep 19 2014, 6:25pm

Images: Victoria Turk/Motherboard

The  WikiHouse project is a shining example of open-source architecture: a building design you can download, send off for production, and then put together with no real construction experience. In the latest version of the project, this open-source ethos now extends beyond structural blueprints to include a bunch of Internet of Things-style electronics.

WikiHouse 4.0 is essentially a downloadable DIY  smart home, where you build—and control—everything, from the prefab walls to the lighting.

Sarah Gold, designer

The prototype of the latest WikiHouse design was assembled in London this week as part of  London Design Festival, supported by Arup, Project 00, and the Building Centre. Sarah Gold, a designer on WikiHouse, told me that the structure had been built by eight volunteers over two weeks, and was made entirely of sponsored materials. "So WikiHouse 4.0 is talking about not only the different materials we can use to build our homes, but also who can build," she said.

It's a simple workflow: download the model, send it off to be CNC milled, then fix the parts together. "We constantly iterate with the shapes of the cut pieces so they either can't be put together wrong or, if they are put together wrong, it doesn't matter because it's all symmetrical," explained Gold. You first build wide frames that make the general house shape, then raise them "in very much a barn-raising style" before inserting board to add rigidity and adding insulation and a watertight membrane into the walls. It's just a little more complex than an Ikea project.

While the whole point of open-source design is that it's pretty generic, homeowners can modify the house by adding or removing modules to change the size, or using different materials. "You really can use whatever you want, as long as the sheet material for your chassis is structural." The prototype, made of SmartPly OSB, had two main rooms and a staircase leading to a roof terrace. As I walked around the two-storey building, I felt the boards beneath my feet creak, but Gold assured me it was incredibly sturdy and structurally tested by Arup.

A smattering of QR codes and NFC tags on the bare walls of the prototype house take things beyond flatpack assembly and into smart home territory. Through these, visitors can access the building's intranet control system. An in-browser program allows control of the lighting, ventilation, and any other sensors you might have in the home.

Wires in the service zone on the ceiling

In a neat little design feature, all of the wires are hidden in a "service zone" behind panelling that covers the whole room an inch or so off the outer wall. "That means you can run your wires anywhere you want throughout the whole building and just move any of your sockets," said Gold. You just drill a hole and move the wire wherever you want your fixture—no need for an electrician. The house's entire plug-and-play system is intended to form a complete DC circuit to make it safer and more energy efficient.

This makes the whole "smart home" design very customisable, and raises some interesting questions around how we use the Internet of Things. As more objects gain sensors and get connected, there are increasing concerns over the security of the data they collect and transmit. It's been demonstrated time and again that the  Internet of Things can be hacked, and how much do you really want Google to know about your heating preferences, or Samsung about your fridge-raiding habits?

The central hub that controls the home

If your devices were built from open-source hardware and software, and you could access them through one central system, perhaps you could keep that data in the bubble of your home. The WikiHouse project isn't quite at that point yet, but Gold envisions open source alternatives to rival the likes of Nest. "That's where my particular interest comes in this project: this idea of having a modular, adaptable system with open data controls and returning control of the house in every sense back to its owner," she said.

One intriguing example of an open-source device in the current WikiHouse is a heat exchanger designed by Arup, called the Open MVHR. It's built out of 3D-printed components and parts made of old beer cans and circulates warmed air through the rooms.

The stairs leading to a roof terrace

In the future, Gold imagines a rather novel heating system: a smart home that has its own domestic data server, rather than relying on cloud servers, which could then heat the house with the energy it expends.

Other discussions around the development of future WikiHouse designs include keeping the house's data secure, enabling the DIY buildings to speak to each other, incorporating water and waste systems, and taking the whole house off-grid.

While a cheap, easy-build house clearly has applications in disaster relief efforts, Gold said their design was intended to address the (currently pretty critical) UK housing market. "I think it's far better for a group of designers in the local area to take the project on because they know those problems best," she said.

The Wikihouse at the Building Centre in London

Putting together a two-up, two-down WikiHouse 4.0 design is estimated to cost £50,000 ($80,000), including all the services and major appliances. That price doesn't reflect the issue of finding land to build it on, however. "Whilst this is a neat solution for the hardware of housing, there are other underlying issues specific to the UK that we need to target," she said.

In spite of those hiccups, the WikiHouse has obvious potential as a truly disruptive technology; Gold envisaged a community pitching together to buy their own CNC milling machine and helping each other build their own homes. With the minimal levels of investment, time and skills required, it's certainly not an unattractive way to get on the housing ladder.