The evening after we’d come back from the site I spent a lot of time trying to get a better sense of the viability of the scheme. The open source housing website was the most convincing aspect of the whole project. This website was designed to facilitate the complete process of the construction on a house. Initially a user would register and start a design in a 3D graphical modelling program. A house had to be designed using components from the standard set, and the software had an understanding of which components could fit together. Similarly when components were moved to a close proximity in the model they would snap together in ways that were valid for the pair of components. I discovered that there were standard builds that could be loaded and then modified or not. Additionally, the designs of other users of the software were all available From all of this investigation of the software I felt that this standard set of components would allow, within reason, a reasonable variety of houses to be designed. There would be similarities between all of the dwellings of course, but not so much that my sense of style (not a very well developed sense in my case) was offended.
And then, after a design was completed, a design rule check would be run automatically showing a list of problems and indicating each on a 3D visualization. The design could then be edited to fix the problems. The documentation indicated that in most cases the 3D editing program would be able to make sure that design rules were obeyed during the creation of the design, this was facilitated by having very strong and light components.
Once a structurally sound, standards compliant design was complete other software produced parts lists and then built a plan for the construction. This plan contained the sequence of operations on the house components in the order that would produce the finished dwelling, but in addition to this was another sequence that showed the operations required to build the components of the house. This second sequence was the most complex since it relied on a group of house builders to work together, but geographically dispersed, to construct components for all of the members’ house builds. The software would not only produce these sequences but would allow all the members of the dispersed team to interact with other, so for example as members of the group finished particular components the builders would log in and mark of that the items were completed. The software would then organise transportation of components as required so that builders would have access to components as required for each of their build plans. The complexity was daunting.
I was conflicted and confused by the capabilities of the software when contrasted with the other aims of the project. It seemed hypocritical to rely on the one hand on this sophisticated program, and then on the other to advocate a style of building that was designed to use as little technology as possible. So I added myself anonymously to the forums that were used to discuss the project. I was heartened to discover that the on-line behaviour in these forums was for the most part unusually polite. After reading for almost an hour I came across the following explanation from a woman who I recognised as being one of the original founders.
“Some people have criticised us for our use of the technological advantages of computer system. Apparently we’re supposed to give up all these advantages and build our houses with stone axes. We say one thing and do another, advocating simple tools and then we go on about a massively complex tool. They suggest out ideas are without merit because our project is not future proof if that future is not bright but instead is a collapse. They even go as far as to suggest we are hiding something and really just want to collect free labour in some sort of pyramid scheme of woodworkers. We are told that we are actively deluding people by playing on their romantic ideas about living in houses built built by the owners and that augment nature rather than pollute and waste it.
What I want to say is that of course we want to use technology where we can, but only in ways we know we can do without. The design of the house building components employed many hours of simulations and is fixed. We’ve proven that these components are a good enough set to be radically useful without needing redesign. The components and the houses can be built without power tools or electricity, but it is quicker if you do have access to these things. And finally, the most criticised element, the build management tools on the web. I admit, this is an incredibly useful tool, it stops waste, optimises time and generally enhances the efficiency and quality of the build process beyond measure. It can be replicated with people though, not as well, but the process is well documented. This is the point and the essential trick built into the project. The backup plan if you want to think of it like that. So there is a book, widely distributed, which contains the procedures, plans and techniques from which the computer system was built. “