Peter Hirsch’s WikiHouse is a plywood wonder.
It rises all of 12 feet high at Yale’s West Campus, in a stand of Japanese knotweed on the far side of the Yale West Campus Urban Farm. The little house is simple and stout, and its interlocking parts have the look of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle.
Hirsch, a graduate student at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), put it together recently with a bunch of friends. It took several days of work, spread over much of the fall semester.
But make no mistake. This modest structure may not have the grandeur of Sterling Library’s renovated nave, or the eye-catching pop of the Edward P. Evans School of Management, but it’s a revolutionary building, just the same. It hints at a future in which small houses are more sustainable to build and relatively easy to construct.
“I needed this experience,” Hirsch said. “I needed to understand it from development through completion.”
Diminutive dwellings are having a moment. Proponents of the “tiny house” concept stress the economic and environmental advantages of such structures, which include a 300-square-foot “House in a Suitcase” in Spain and a 76-square-foot “Micro Compact” cube in Germany. In the United States, there is the FYI network television program, “Tiny House Nation,” offering examples closer to home.
Meanwhile, the WikiHouse movement has taken root in London, where a group recently built a two-story WikiHouse. Without formal construction training, the group downloaded open-source specifications for each piece of wood and printed the whole thing on a CNC milling machine.
That’s what Hirsch did, too. He printed 430 plywood pieces — roughly two tons of wood — on a computer numerical control (CNC) machine at Breakfast Woodworks, in nearby Guilford. CNC machines are automated manufacturing devices that produce items to precise specifications.
“To print an entire house in 18 hours is pretty cool,” Hirsch said. He brought all of the pieces to West Campus in a U-Haul, where he sanded and sealed them.
Then he enlisted 40 volunteers to provide construction muscle.
“This just makes me stand up and cheer,” said Eli Gould, a 1994 Yale College graduate who owns a timber milling and design company in Vermont. Gould is a guest lecturer at F&ES this semester, and he helped with the WikiHouse build.
Justin Freiberg, manager of the Urban Farm and Sustainability Project at West Campus, quickly gave approval for the WikiHouse, after talking with Hirsch about it. “I was excited from the get-go,” Freiberg said. “I’d like to see this become a center for research projects, looking at the intersection of humans and the land.”
Funding for the project came from the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Yale F&ES, and Yale F&ES’s Office of Diversity, in addition to Yale West Campus and Yale West Campus Urban Farm. The building will be used by a variety of campus organizations: the Yale Sustainable Food Program will use it next spring during classes on foraging wild plants; Being Well at Yale will hold yoga and meditation classes there; nursing students from Food Adventurers will lead education classes for local elementary school students; the undergraduate club YMindful will use the house as retreat space. There also is a F&ES postdoctoral student who will do research at the house on methods of controlling Japanese knotweed.
“The idea is to use it as often as possible, in as many ways as possible,” Hirsch said. “That’s the best part for me. I’m not building irresponsibly. I’m building something that ends up going toward a use and will be used long after I’m here at Yale.” The structure will remain in place year-round.
On the initial building day, Hirsch’s cheerful crew followed a newly groomed nature trail to the spot where a foundation had been readied for the WikiHouse. Small teams began sorting pieces and assembling the first few interlocking “fins” that would be raised to create the house frame. They used mallets to nudge the tight-fitting pieces into place.
“This seems like a nice, intermediate step between 3D printing and regular house building,” said Katie Weber, a first-year F&ES graduate student.
“What Peter has done is a great example of thinking out of the box,” added second-year graduate student Maggie Thomas. “We have a lot of freedom at F&ES.”
Ingenuity proved essential as the construction continued. Although the frame for the WikiHouse went up in just eight hours, Hirsch had to deal with humid conditions and moisture that warped some of his plywood. He and his volunteers did emergency sanding as needed and came up with ways to streamline the building process.
“Once you have things at scale, there’s nothing that any computer or small-scale model could prepare you for,” Hirsch said. “Once it’s life-sized, you’re really running into these problems where things don’t necessarily fit together, and it takes some massaging here and some massaging there.”
In keeping with the open-source ethos of the WikiHouse concept, Hirsch posted information about all challenges and solutions online, so future builders will benefit from his experience.
The finished structure at West Campus is 12 feet wide and 16 feet long, with a minimum of unused materials — which was important for Hirsch’s desire to explore materials efficiency. He plans to use his experience to inform his master’s thesis on the possible environmental advantages of prefabricated building practices.
In the meantime, Yale has an unassuming, new edifice.
“The structure itself is beautiful,” Freiberg said.