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Wikitecture - Radical Collaboration in Architecture

Many of the precepts that began with Open Source (collaboration, shared IP, crowdsourcing etc.) are migrating from software development into a series of ever more surprising disciplines. Today old-school institutions like Proctor and Gamble go outside of their own R&D teams to innovate new products while Best Buy opens APIs to allow outside developers to build on their catalog data.

Now here comes “Wikitecture” applying these precepts to the very complex process of designing buildings. I want to dig into some of the details of Wikitecture and summarize what I think it has to teach us about collaboration.

My friend Jon Brouchoud is the co-founder of Studio Wikitecture, a group dedicated to bringing collaboration into the architectural process. He and Ryan Schultz have been pioneering “Wikitecture” for the past two years using Second Life as a proving ground.

Recently Studio Wikitecture won Architecture for Humanity’s Founders Award for their submission; a health facility in Nepal. There were over 500 entrants to the contest. Many of Studio Wikitecture’s contributors (roughly 40) were not architects but each brought specific, local knowledge that benefitted the project. A few examples:

  • Adobe and gabion wall construction was suggested as among the most viable design material given the exact (and remote) location and the ability to utilize local labor. Other materials would not only cost more but could even be prohibitive in terms of shipping into the area.
  • In Nepal an odd number of steps is considered inauspicious so all stair plans were designed for even numbers.

Jon told me that Wikitecture achieved a level of depth and detail in research that would be extraordinarily difficult and time consuming for one firm to manage alone. This gets to the first benefit of Wikitecture; it brings local knowledge into the design process. This video shows the building process:

As for how Wikitecture handles the more subjective task of reaching consensus on designs, Jon and Ryan developed a tool they call the "Wiki Tree," a 3D version control and voting system that uses a tree metaphor. As designers create submissions they are displayed as a new leaf on the tree that is then made available to the rest of the community to review. Positive votes on that design "green" the leaf, votes against the design turn the leaf red. Red leaves eventually fall off the tree as the tree prunes itself over time, leaving only the more popular design ideas as options for further development. The result is a visual display of design builds, enabling participants to assess, vote, comment and contribute toward the project's design evolution. This gets to the second benefit of Wikitecture; it uses a structured process to ensure quality collaboration.
This video highlights some aspects of the Wiki Tree functionality:

Many businesses are wrestling with the notion of “collaboration” and its possible benefits. Wikitecture reinforces some important points:

  • Nothing is off limits: Collaboration can successfully occur in the production of almost anything (if architects can do it anyone can…).
  • Diversity adds value: The more people from differing backgrounds the better the information pool to draw from.
  • Structure drives behavior: Collaboration benefits from a clear structure to facilitate results. The wiki tree works in much the same way that Wikipedia does in setting specific rules up front that drive a successful outcome and allow many people to contribute harmoniously.

Wikitecture is first sophisticated tool I have seen in 3D where programmed logic provides a clear structure to facilitate collaboration. Are there other radical examples of collaboration taking place that we should be looking at?

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  • http://koordinates.com Ed Corkery

    Would definitely be useful for any kind of high-end collaborative mapping project. By “mapping” I mean analysis / design maps, rather than the digitizing of real-world objects.

    So, for example, a collaborative effort designing the map layout/path of a new motorway between government planners, sub-contractors, civil engineers, architects, geotechnical engineers, environmental scientists, etc.

    It would really just be an extension of Wikitecture to the Earth coordinate system, rather than using a project-localised 3D coordinate system.

  • http://radar.oreilly.com Joshua-Michéle

    @Ed,
    Right! So you could actually see Geospatial and Civil Engineering and Arch. software packages allowing multiple parties not only to simply markup designs but actually iterate designs. A lot of the information modeling systems in Building and Civil allow for designs to be rapidly prototyped and modified in 3D but I haven’t seen any collaboration beyond simple markup (basically proprietary PDFs)… this would be a great way to engage the entire building lifecycle…
    thanks – J

  • http://koordinates.com Ed Corkery

    There’s an Auckland-based company called Right Hemisphere which has built a collaborative 3D engineering design system with VR capability etc, very impressive stuff. But it’s built around a proprietary and expensive backend server to integrate various types of data and stream it on-demand to the clients. They get away with that because their target markets are the aerospace and automobile industries, where central designer/assembler companies working on mega-projects can dictate a software platform to their sub-contractors.

    Have a look around their website:
    http://www.righthemisphere.com/
    http://www.righthemisphere.com/company/links/solutions/collab/index.html

    If you run Windows, I think you can download some trial versions of their client software.

    In construction, you’d be lucky to get all companies involved in a project using one standard CAD package (many of which don’t handle geographical data very well), let alone convince them to commit to a common iterative collaboration system.

  • http://blog.rebang.com csven

    Yet no mention of the just announced next effort? And no mention of IBM’s recent deal with FIT to further develop their virtual PLM application using OpenSim?

    You could have … should have … provided a bit more, in my opinion.

    @Ed – civil engineering collaboration is already in Second Life as the “Public Works Group” ( http://www.publicworksgroup.com ).

  • KennyW

    Great concept could work well as a “Green Collaboration” process, rather than having large teams meeting periodically, or large design charrettes , you can have many participants from a lot of trades and professions work at the concept and schematic phase of a project and never leave their office. I was involved in something similar called a BIMstorm, but I like the user friendly interface I see here better.

  • http://www.tasjian.com Zac Tasjian

    This looks similar in many ways to Google Sketchup and 3D Warehouse. Interesting mashup with the open SIM idea.