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Ben Whitfield, Technical Director at AWA, about his experience working on WikiHouse projects

An interview with Ben Whitfield, Technical Director at AWA, about his experience working on WikiHouse projects

An interview with Ben Whitfield, Technical Director at AWA, about his experience working on WikiHouse projects

We speak to Ben Whitfield, Technical Director at AWA, about his part in delivering AWAs WikiHouse projects and involvement in the technical development of the structures.

Can you explain what WikiHouse is?

“WikiHouse is an open-source project designed to make building houses or small buildings easier to build and more affordable.

“It’s made of timber panel materials like plywood or another product called Oriented Strand Board (OSB). By using Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines, the material is cut into shapes that can be slotted together; these arrive with an IKEA-like set of instructions for easy assembly.

“It means that anybody can have a go at building their own home. With some pretty simple tools and a few volunteers, you can put up the shell of a building in between 2-4 days.”

What is the history of WikiHouse?

“An architect called Alastair Parvin first conceptualised the idea in 2011. Since then it’s evolved and people in countries all over the world are working on this project. It’s constantly evolving, with people making these buildings their own and innovating ways to make them more structurally robust.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have helped develop them from a structural engineering perspective, which is just one facet of the project. To get approval from building regulations, WikiHouses require sign-off by a structural engineer so it’s important we are a part of the wider project.

“Up until fairly recently, it was a struggle to be able to get a mortgage on these buildings because mortgage brokers weren’t prepared to insure them. Since then, new insurance and warranty products have come to the market to make it easier to attain a mortgage on WikiHouses which is great.”

What WikiHouse projects have you been involved in?

“The first project I worked on was a studio barn in Scotland. It was a very tall shape built with triangular frames, with board added to the inside and outside so that it all came together structurally.

“I then worked on a private two-storey farmhouse in the Midlands. That was the first double storey WikiHouse project I had been a part of and having a second level definitely made the process more complicated!

“The site team put together a series of frames that were just over a storey high, from there they were able to pivot them off the ground into position. When each section was ready, they slotted the top into place and put the outer and inner boarding on.

“They managed to get the whole frame up in a week. It went from being just foundations to a building within a very short space of time. Then the team focused on waterproofing, cladding and fitting it out. From a cost perspective, building a WikiHouse is quite affordable if you can get people to help you do it.

“I also worked on a series of buildings located behind the Olympic Media Centre in London. We designed a series of creative studios that could be used for artists, photographers and digital fabricators. All the studios were made with the same WikiHouse system as the projects mentioned above but were built on a large steel gantry. There were 21 units and each one was made unique which was exciting.”

What are the benefits of a WikiHouse?

“A great thing about a WikiHouse is that they are well insulated and properly sealed so they don’t get draughty at all. Thermally, they are very high-performance buildings which lowers energy bills.

“Another great thing about them is that people feel much more connected to their homes when they have built them themselves.”

Describe some of the recent developments when it comes to WikiHouses

“The latest system, named Skylark, has been developed to simplify the design and construction processes. It utilises a cassette-based approach, where individual wall, floor and roof blocks are pre-fabricated within a workshop and delivered to site ready for assembly. The cassettes are 60cm wide, and they can have the insulation pre-installed so it’s a much simpler process on site. The system also uses less raw material than previous versions, reducing waste and cost.

“The team at Open Systems Lab (OSL; the people behind WikiHouse) organised some full-scale structural testing on the Skylark system, using the BRE’s state of the art testing facility, which has really improved our understanding of the behaviour of the system and the way it fails. This has allowed the system to be refined, to make it even more robust and developing structural design methods which more accurately represent the system’s behaviour under load.”

What is the future of WikiHouse?

“We are 12 years in and new projects are being carried out all over the world. WikiHouse isn’t unique in that others are using CNC manufacturing to create similar structures, the difference is that WikiHouse is trying to innovate and bring about change within the wider industry.

“Teams are working on a website called BuildX which is currently in its BETA phase. The site is aimed at the general public, allowing the user to choose their site on a map, enter the measurements of their intended build and find out pricing and details about the process. The purpose of BuildX is to streamline the process that so that more people can benefit from building their own house.

“We have a need for more housing in the UK and the WikiHouse model is being explored to improve this. WikiHouse is a not-for-profit organisation focused on creating a system that is open to be used and adapted by anybody.”

What is the benefit to AWA of working on these projects?

“Having involvement in the development of these structures helps me to be able to approve projects more easily, in turn allowing us to provide a better service to our clients.

“It’s an unusual, exciting, new form of construction that AWA now has a lot of expertise in. There aren’t many structural engineering companies in the UK that currently have experience in designing and approving WikiHouses, so it gives us a niche in the market.”

Contact us on 01794 524447 to find out how we can support your WikiHouse project. 

Why choose AWA Engineers

AWA is a structural engineering and civil engineering consultancy established in 1987, with a hard-won but deserved reputation for delivering excellence in our profession.

Our philosophy is simple: we put people first. This has resulted in a high number of repeat clients and an impressive track record of successful award-winning projects. We are proud to be professional, and approachable; we believe this makes us the ideal partner for your project.

AWA has chartered engineers in our offices located in Romsey, Hampshire and Bath, Somerset. We deliver services to clients across the South, South East and South West.

Our team includes both chartered structural engineers and chartered civil engineers committed to continuous professional development ensuring you benefit from up to date industry expertise, whatever your project entails.

Contact us today

To find out more about how AWA can help with your project, get in touch today. Call 01794 524447 (Romsey) or 01225 251498 (Bath)  to speak to a member of our team. Alternatively, email mail@awaengineers.com and one of the team will be in touch.

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