Wikilab: Adapting the WikiHouse concept in Brazil

Rendering of the project

Our Wikilab project is an experimental laboratory, made with WikiHouse technology, to be built by a team of volunteers on the São Bernardo campus of the UFABC university, in the São Paulo area, Brazil. It is based on the WikiHouse Wren module, which is now a well-tested and solid technology, and also reuses some of the solutions experimented by the Casa Modelo project made at URFJ in 2015, which was also based on WikiHouse.

The laboratory will host both the Free Software Laboratory of UFABC and a Makerspace used by the hacker communities of the ABC region (a metropolitan area formed by 3 cities around São Paulo: Santo Andre, São Bernardo and São Caetano) and be a link between the university, free software users and developers, local communities and local hackers/makers movements.

The 3D model

The project is now in development phase. The terrain will be donated by the university, and the construction costs covered by an ongoing crowd-funding campaign. Following the true spirit of WikiHouse and open-source movements, all the project documents, files, images, plans, spreadsheets are available online for all to see and reuse, and all the material that will be gathered further during the rest of the project phase, the construction itself and even our observations after that, will also be shared at the same location. The development of the project is done entirely with free software, by a large team of architects, free software activists, students, makers, local CNC companies, and just anybody else interested in helping.

A test we did to calibrate the cutting machine and verify if OSB panels worked well (they do!)

The project files are stored on Github, and an online 3D model is available on Sketchfab.

A typical "cut sheet", automatically generated from the 3D model, that is fed to the cutting machine

The original WikiHouse project has been born and developed mainly in and around the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Although the base concept is universal (wooden panels, cut by a computer-driven cutting machine, are assembled without nails or glue, like a big construction game), developing this project in Southeast Brazil gave birth to a series of interesting differences with the original UK version.

The WikiHouse Wren system

One very early decision taken was to use a hybrid technology: Half WikiHouse, half conventional, concrete block-based construction. This would allow us to move all hydraulic equipment out of the wooden part, into the concrete block part. Water and humidity are the most mortal enemies of wood, so this already removes a big part of the danger.

If this hybrid system has a lot of disadvantages in colder countries, because it is hard to guarantee tight joining between the wooden and concrete block parts, and cold and humidity could easily enter the construction, in the mild Southeast Brazil climate, that is rarely too hot or too cold, having not totally tight joints is not a problem.

The hybrid model

There is another interesting aspect: If the wooden, WikiHouse-based part will be built by a team of volunteers with no previous construction experience, the concrete block part will be built by professional constructors. So the construction team will also be hybrid, formed by professionals and non-professionals together. This can be a very rich and rewarding experience for both sides, and might give birth to new ideas to build quality low-cost constructions.

Another interesting aspect of our geographical situation is the strategy used to keep the wooden structure free from humidity. Instead of packing our wooden pieces into a tight wrapping such as bituminous or plastic membranes, a typical northern hemisphere solution, it is around here much more efficient to rely on wind and natural ventilation to keep things dry. The traditional south-American hut constructions all use that principle: A large straw roof, under which wooden structures are protected from rain but exposed to air.

In our Wikilab project, this is translated into a translucent polycarbonate or polypropylene skin, that is fixed on spacers, to allow the air to flow freely between this skin and the wooden construction. The skin is only there to protect the construction from the rain, and is left open at the base to allow fresh air to enter, and at the top, to allow hot air that has been warmed by the sun rays to escape.

The natural ventilation system

This technique has already been experimented in the Casa Modelo, but that project unfortunately lasted too short to be able to draw meaningful conclusions. However, we all believe it was a very good idea that should be developed further.

This natural convection provoked by the warming of the air is also used inside, where side openings let enter part of the fresh air that is pumped in by the convection. Other windows, on the flat sides of the buildings, can be opened, creating an additional air flow on hot days.

And if this is not enough and too much heat comes in, several additional solutions can be imagined after the construction is finished, such as covering it with vines, or adapting sun breakers.

Our hope is that this project will be a testimony that it is possible to build quality and low-cost constructions, that use simple materials, don't rely on the construction industry but don't close the door to them either, are modular, adaptable and in large part recyclable, and welcome and use the exterior climate instead of fighting it.

More information can be found on the project repository and on our own website. I will also be talking about this project online on May 29th with people from the WikiHouse Foundation, participation is open to everybody. See you there!