In the next decade we need to fundamentally change the way we construct buildings, moving from the slow, laborious, wasteful, poor-performing and hugely carbon-intensive methods we still use today, to carbon-negative, 'circular' methods that make the most of manufacturing technology.
There is now an increasing number of companies producing timber-based manufactured building solutions. The problem is that most of these solutions require large scale factories that cost millions to set-up and operate, but then struggle to find consistent demand. They are best-suited to large projects on large sites.
But if we are to transform construction, we also need to transform it for small businesses – and for the self-builders, community organisations, local authorities and social housing providers they work for, who have the best incentive to build beautiful, affordable, zero-carbon homes and buildings.
WikiHouse is an open source, zero-carbon timber building system that can be written and shared as code. Instead of requiring a large factory setup, it can be digitally manufactured in small, local micro-factories. WikiHouse blocks are fabricated to 0.1mm precision using a CNC-machine, and transported to site, where they can be rapidly assembled in hours by a small team, without traditional construction skills.
Since the first prototypes in 2011, WikiHouse has been used all over the world, and is continually improving, thanks to a growing community of contributors and collaborators.
Planning shapes our lives, and the lives of future generations. This makes the planning system one of the most fundamental layers of democracy, and crucial to creating a successful society and economy. And yet the UK planning system is famous for being slow, opaque and inaccessible, especially to those who don’t have much time or money.
A big part of the reason why our planning system is such hard work is that the systems behind it are out of date. Today, when we call a cab, book a holiday, or buy insurance, we do it online, using simple, user-friendly digital services, powered by data. But planning isn't like that. It was created before computers or the web, for a world of documents.
Open Systems Lab is working with local planning authorities and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC) to build the first fully digital planning services. That means services that are simpler, more transparent, and more accessible, allowing users to submit information as structured, machine-readable data, instead of as long, impenetrable PDF documents.
They are also some of the first ‘rules as code’ planning services in the world: that means they can pre-assesses schemes against the relevant planning legislation and policy; not using artificial intelligence but the collective intelligence of planners. To make that possible, we are building Plan✕, an open source platform that allows planning authorities to write and collaborate on their services as flowcharts, without having to learn how to code.
The first services are now in Public BETA, and we are working with more and more councils to improve the platform, and get it ready for adoption at scale.
If you have ever attempted to procure a new building, you will know that it is a ludicrously difficult thing to do. From the outset, you are confronted by a fog of interdependent unknowns, so there is no way of knowing how much your building will cost until after you have built it. The only way to navigate this uncertainty is to hire a sequence of consultants – but their knowledge too is fragmented, conflicted and often largely based on guesswork. In effect, every building we build today has to be designed and made from scratch, often several times over.
All this makes development prohibitively expensive and risky to all but the most well-capitalised. It is a huge barrier to the very groups who are most likely to build the beautiful, zero-carbon places we need: self-builders, community organisations and social enterprises.
Technologies like Building Information Modelling (BIM) and digital manufacturing have the potential to change this, but we believe the technology that has the most potential to really transform the way we design and procure buildings is already here: the web. The web has transformed the way we do almost everything in our lives, but it hasn't transformed the way we design buildings. Yet.
Build✕ is an open source web tool that allows you to rapidly design and customise homes using pre-engineered, pre-costed building systems. As you design, you can immediately see the estimated impact of your decisions on cost and performance, based on the latest data. This design can then be shared with a manufacturer.
Buying a custom-made building should be as simple as buying a custom-made car – and much more enjoyable.
Build✕ is currently a working prototype. We are currently working with building manufacturers to deploy the first commercial configurators.
There is no path to a prosperous, zero-carbon future for humanity that does not begin with fixing our property system. Almost every major economy in the world today has a housing crisis, driven by the inflating value of land. In truth, although we call it a 'housing crisis' it might be better thought of as an 'everything' crisis, in that our dysfunctional relationship with land and property – and the broken incentives it creates – sit at the root of almost every social, economic and environmental crisis that floods across our timelines every day. Buildings account for 39% of all carbon emissions. Meanwhile land rights represent the single biggest store of private 'wealth', and rent is the single largest channel through which wealth is transferred from the poor to the rich.
One of the reasons political leaders have found this problem so intractable is that it is not just a problem of 'not enough money' or 'not enough technology'. The crisis is a function of a deep contradiction at the heart of the system, whereby we treat homes both as places to live, and also as financial instruments; a source of 'passive income'. We know that location value is created by the community – and yet we allow it to be privately captured, creating a valuable asset class. In theory at least, we know how to fix this problem: a shift from taxing earned income and profits to taxing land. The problem is that this is politically incredibly hard, due our vested interest in the existing system. We have become addicted to inflating property.
But there is another way for the community to turn land into a form of shared, community wealth: gradually buy it – then lease it on fair terms. And that's what cities and community land trusts around the world have begun to do.
Fairhold is a collaborative project to create a new class of property ownership, that will make it easier for landowners of any kind to lease their land as a low-cost platform for the community, local economy and environment. The aim is to make it possible for anyone to own a home as a place to live, not as a speculative financial asset. Working with experts and pioneers, we are developing standardised modular lease agreements – like Creative Commons licences, but for land and property.
Working with early collaborators, we aim to publish a White Paper later this year. After that we aim to further test and develop the modules with pioneers and the public, working towards leasing the first site.
The question 'What is ownership?' is one of those stupid questions you only ask yourself at 2am. Except it will still be interesting the following morning. Our legal relationship with the place where we live defines almost everything about our lives: our security, our wealth, our resilience, our ability to put down roots, our agency, our sense of who we are. And yet we don't really have a language to talk about it. Instead we tend to refer to simplified categories such a 'renting' and 'ownership'. This is a problem, because if can't talk about it, we cannot imagine how it could be different.
In reality all forms of tenure can be best understood as a bundle of legal rights and obligations. In other words, ownership is something that is designed, and can therefore be redesigned.
The Atlas of Ownership began as a project to develop a common 'genome' of standard 'patterns' that can be used to describe any form of tenure, and to design new ones. In the process, we realised we could use this genome to create something that the world needs: an open library of different models of tenure across history and geography, documented in way that makes it easy to spot patterns and make connections.
The Atlas will include not just new, innovative tenure models being used across the globe, but also many ancient and indigenous models, many of which were using the same patterns thousands of years ago.
We are currently building the first public prototype of the Atlas, in collaboration with research organisations and pioneers.