How can communities of practice such as ‘self-builders’ (people who build their own homes) learn from each other? And how can innovative approaches for building houses that potentially benefit the public good (like more sustainable ways to manage energy or water, or innovative uses of sustainable building materials) gain traction within and between communities of self-builders?
Those are the central questions we are addressing in The Hackable City research track on knowledge sharing in the self-build community in Buiksloterham (BSH).
In order to get a better understanding about how self-builders share knowledge with each other and what digital tools they use, we organized a workshop that took place on 22 April 2016. Self-builders in Buiksloterham were invited to discuss ways in which individual and often informal knowledge of self-builders was shared and what practices of group learning had emerged. In addition we asked them about their thoughts on ways to institutionalize their informal knowledge and make it accessible for other self-builders or other stakeholders. How could their knowledge be made accessible? And would it be possible to develop a value model that would make the process of sharing information sustainable?
In the rest of this post the methodology and results will be presented.
Buiksloterham is slowly converting from an industrial area to a residential-working neighborhood. Since 2011 various plots have been made available for self-building citizens by the municipality in a number of allotments, spread out over the last few years. In the first two allotments, there were very few residents interested, however in the following years self-building has become increasingly popular.
This residential-working area has been divided in various plot numbers:
- BSH5 – Bosrankstraat (October 2011)
BSH3A – Monnikskapstraat (March 2013)
BSH3B – Monnikskapstraat (November 2013)
BSH3C – Klaprozenweg (Juli 2014)
BSH 2A – Monnikskapstraat (November 2015)
BSH 2B – Klaprozenweg (November 2015)
BSH20A – Ridderspoorweg (December 2015)
Participants were invited through various channels. I had announced it via the Buiksloterham.nl website, approached my direct future neighbors by mail and via Whatsapp. Other residents I approached through a mailing list. Five self-builders and one cooperative builder participated in the workshop. From the six participants, two are residents and the other four are future residents. The majority of the self-builders in BSH are highly-educated people, eager to participate, co-create their neighborhood and have strong opinions as they often have to negotiate for their interests, concerns and rights.
The workshop consisted of an assignment, in which the following question was addressed:
“Which digital tools do you make use of during the self-build process? And how do you disseminate information and knowledge on self-building, acquired in the specific context of building your own particular house?”
The participants were first asked to answer the question above individually and write the answers down on a piece of paper. They were asked to think from their own specific experiences. The participants were given 10 minutes to formulate their answers, after that the participants were asked to share their answers, ideas, thoughts one-by-one, which initiated a discussion among the participants.
The first self-build community – BSH5
The first self-build community in Buiksloterham are the people going to live in a street called the Bosrankstraat, also known as BSH5. They mostly use phone calls, organize physical meetings and have set up a single mail address, which is accessible to everyone. This mail address is not only used for internal updates, but also other interested parties can post queries or get more information from the Bosrankstraat. Specific questions can also be addressed to the specific houses. . According to one of the future residents:
“We used to come together so often, that digital tools were not required. We mainly communicate personally with each other.”
In the Bosrankstraat they have organized themselves quite well and discuss the following topics either physically or via mail. They also make use of Basecamp, a project management tool.
Energy facilities (collectively purchasing solar panels)
Waternet: the water company for Amsterdam and the surrounding, supplies tap water and takes care of the discharge of waste water.
Designing the street
Can I borrow something
Organizing collective pile driving and setting up a foundation plan required lots of communication
Collective purchase of i.e. tiles
Many people in the street have consulted the same building engineer, who is responsible for the structural performance of the building
Sharing their building connections
The following topics are mainly discussed in face-2-face meetings:
Mainly physical meetings
Communicating with municipality
According to one of the future residents of this street, physical meetings worked best, as decisions can be made immediately and have direct results. In order to keep each other up to date they have a joint email account, like a mailing list, and to organize physical meetings they make use of datumprikker.nl.
The people from the Bosrankstraat have also set-up a website in which they showcase their houses and share useful information, relevant for other self-builders. According to another self-builder from this street, they had the vision to understand the potential of the area, developing brownfield land into a residential neighborhood. In order to make the area more attractive and appealing for others, they use the website to make publicity and attract more self-builders. The website is still active and is used to not only share knowledge, but also to disseminate information about the development of the neighborhood, related news and events. A core group of five residents from the Bosrankstraat write blog items to keep the website active.
The second self-build community – BSH3A The second batch of self-builders from the Monnikskapstraat who took options on their plots at the end of 2012 and 2013. They applied some of the lessons from the Bosrankstraat, such as making use of Basecamp a project management tool, to share information and data. The self-builders came to know that the Bosrankstraat had made a collective pile plan, which the second batch also decided to do collectively in order to save money. A notary for the block was also arranged collectively. After this initial stage, people started working more individually. What is most notable is that information is mainly shared physically on the construction site, where neighbors come over to give a hand, explain and share practical information with each other. This works best according to the respondents. People walk by between the Bosrankstraat and Monnikskapstraat to share tips and information. In consequence, one of the self-builders suggested to make short video instructions on site, which should be made freely available. According to him it should be someone from the self-build community who can ask the right questions and document the work at hand, like one of the ‘instructable videos’ found on the web .
The third self-build community – BSH3B
Next the following two cases can be identified where people decide to build collectively and share resources, information and expertise among each other. They can be identified as a privately organized collective of self-builders. In the first case, six households come together and have decided to build collectively, where they also build shared spaces in the building. In the second case they also build collectively, but all have their individual houses. All of them share resources and information in different ways.
The first case in which six households had a plan to build collectively and were looking for areas in Amsterdam to build together. They found out about Buiksloterham and self-building and took an option on a few plots. Next they invited a few friends to join them. Currently they are building together with six households, with some common spaces, such as the garage, office, bed&breakfast and garden.
They have made tight agreements among each other how to communicate and use certain tools for specific information.
Yammer is used as:
a ‘marktplaats’ to sell and buy stuff among each other
information / inspiration
Whatsapp is used for planning, social cohesion, urgent matters and short updates/messages. Datumprikker.nl is used to plan a date.
Meetings take place for other topics such as, related to finishing of the house, casco, choices, issues, and financial information are also only shared in meetings.
Moreover they have divided the responsibility among the residents. One of the residents is construction coordinator and is paid for this job. Another resident is responsible for all the judicial information: insurances, demerger deed, bankruptcies etc.
In the second case the self-builders did not have much knowledge on self-building. So they decided to join forces and work together with their neighbors (three other households). They collectively hired an architect to design the house. Now they have hired a construction supervisor collectively.
They use the following tools:
Whatsapp to communicate directly with the neighbors
Construction supervisor by mail
Architect by mail
They collectively made a plan for piling and arranging utilities (water, electra). They mainly use mail if they have to communicate with large groups, as everyone has a mail. Whatsapp is used for short messages and sharing photo’s. Facebook is used to post specific news items.
Meetings are organized in order to discuss the use of materials, colors, drawing. But also to negotiate with the builder / architect / construction workers.
Collective private commission (building group) – BSH20A
A representative from a building group, also known as a collective private commission project in BSH was also present at the workshop, sharing her experience. In this case the exchange of information takes place between groups rather than within a group, such as the case with self-building. The architect is initiator and also takes the risks. Next they involve other stakeholders: professionals, municipality, other builder groups, interested potential future residents and members of the construction group, which consist of interior designer, bank, municipality.
The following topics are addressed: collective and individual choices, the entire design and process and leasehold. They conduct personal conversations, use mail, newsletters, phone, a website (samenwerkers platform) and facebook. The physical meetings are used to make decisions.
The fourth and fifth self-build community – BSH3C, BSH2A and BSH 2B
Finally one of the self-builders is involved in two groups of self-builders. Different tools are used in each group.
In block 3C they make use of the following tools:
The Municipality website for information regarding self-building in Amsterdam: Zelfbouw Amsterdam. The following information is acquired from their website:
Rules and regulations
Self-building plots being offered
The municipality is approached by mail for the following topics:
Between neighbors information is shared with the following tools:
Forum: sharing information, creating knowledge, (initially people were enthusiastic, not in use any more)
A joint mail address: to inform, share and take decisions
Private mail and phone is used to:
Connect with municipality
BSH2A and BSH2B
In past years self-building has become increasingly popular and attractive. People interested in an individual self-build project had to camp for six weeks in order to get hold of a plot at the so-called ‘self-build market’.
In block 2A and 2B they make use of the following methods to share information:
They organize physical meetings once a month to discuss:
How to share information
A joint garden plan
Mail and whatsapp are only open for members and used for:
informal information sharing and
We were not able to evaluate the use of the tools among the self builders of 2A and 2B and get more information regarding the experiences. Only one self-builder of the last batch of self-builders was interested to participate in our research, but could not make it on the day of the workshop. Only one resident, who has already built a house is developing another house in the next batch. His experiences are positive. Although according to him the physical meetings , which take place every month are too lengthy, discussing each detail. Now he has stopped attending them.
Conclusion and discussion
The following can be concluded from the above results: each self-builders’ group uses their own tools and methods. They self-organize themselves each time and organize and arrange activities, make agreements and decisions with different intentions and objectives. This supposedly depends on the self-builders building stage, as in the case of block 2A and B. They may have met each other on a camping site, where future residents waited for six weeks in a queue to get hold of a plot and had time to get acquainted with each other.
Further one of the topics of discussion was that in case there is a common goal, people are keen to participate and work towards this mutual objective. The Papaverpark is a good example, where neighboring residents were invited to co-design the park during a number of workshops. Another main reason for self-builders to join hands is when money can be saved in the building process. In all the different self-build trajectories the self-builders made a collective piling plan.
Some lessons that can be learnt are, that there are certain motivators to share knowledge and information:
Creating attention for a new neighborhood
In order to create attention for a new industrial area a public website could be work really well, where future residents share their building processes, designs and write blog posts. The Bosrankstraat is a very good example of how they organized themselves and set up a core team of bloggers.
Money and joint objectives
In case money can be saved or when there is a joint objective self-builders intend to work more closely with each other. They use physical meetings as well as various digital tools (mainly mail or Basecamp). This is the case in piling, when money can be saved by organizing this collectively. The development of the neighborhood itself also creates a mutual interest. People are also eager to participate and share their opinion, when there is a joint objective, such as the case when designing the Papaverpark.
Crisis and financial matters
For more urgent matters, which involve crisis in the building process or financial issues physical meetings are also organized. Decisions can be made more easily with quicker results.
In both the privately organized collectives, they use physical meetings for urgent and financial matters. For this they use datumprikker.nl to organize physical meetings.
For more informal and inspirational information they use Whatsapp, mail, Yammer, Facebook.
Monetary and other incentives
People are more keen to share if they can earn some money or acquire a form of status. A few self-builders in Buiksloterham are known for sharing their knowledge and resources for other self-builders. One has set up a website where he consults self-builders for a fee. Another self-builder is known for sharing knowledge related to the neighborhood. Often people interested outside the area come by to have a look at the house. This in order to create attention for the neighborhood. Yet another self-builder is known for supporting neighboring self-builders in times of ‘crisis’. He has a good network of handymen, who can finish the house against relatively low prices. He mediates and provides work for his network of handymen.
Most of the information is shared at the construction site itself, people physically help each other and show each other how to solve certain problems, where they can get the cheapest, but good materials etc. People walk between the Bosrankstraat and Monnikskapstraat, look at and discuss each other’s solutions, ask each other to give a hand. This requires the least effort of organizing and seems to work best and organically.
During the workshop small discussions took place and ideas were shared regarding the use of digital tools, the type of models and implementation.
Some of the methods and ideas which came forward are:
Using creative commons, open source, open design principles for sharing the design of the house. Disclosing your blueprint publicly so that people can modify this according to their needs and wishes and give credits to the maker. By showcasing your house, one can create free publicity, build reputation, which could lead to more assignments and financial benefits;
Make short ‘instructable videos’ on the construction site…how to videos;
Share data on a platform with a built-in threshold: basic information is free, for more detailed information one has to pay. The questions arises how to organize the various information layers and understanding how to design the exchange of information. Are all community members responsible to share or a few community members appointed to keep the information up-to-date?
Giving access to a digital library, where you can find everyone’s acquired information, sorted in topics. Making it centrally available, with a tree structure: from the moment you sign and decide to take an option on a plot. For this a librarian is required, who is responsible for the collection, maintenance, updates, catalogue etc. This could be designed as a website with all the individual plots and by clicking on an individual house more details can be acquired.
From the above mentioned examples it is clear that the self-builders are willing to share information, but have different ideas and thresholds about sharing. Some of the self-builders are open to share their acquired knowledge freely, whereas for others it has become a source of income. The first example is an interesting notion, as the WikiHouse Foundation is working on these principles and designing sustainable building systems, which can be freely shared. The second idea is possible, however the question arises, who is going to make these instructables. From interviews with other self-builders, many of them already use YouTube to fix and make things in their house.
The biggest problem for all self-builders is time. It is hard for many to make time to actually contribute their knowledge. Most of the self-builders are involved in multiple activities; their families, regular work and building their house. So the question remains how to engage the self-builders in sharing their knowledge.
Some argued that it may not need to be organized, because people can find information they require and self-organize themselves organically. From the above mentioned list it was concluded that the most feasible and accessible way to share information is to set up a community platform where some basic information is made accessible for free and in case more detailed information is acquired one will have to pay for this information. This second scenario may also be an incentive for self-builders to actually share knowledge as at the end they may be able to earn something. For one this could result in paid assignments (consultancy, designing). For the other it could result in acquiring status: pride, recognition, media attention of building an exceptional house.
The buiksloterham website, which is built on the digital platform gebiedsonline.nl provides these facilities, where people can share knowledge and information with each other. Small entrepreneurs can offer services, but people can also swap tools and items with each other.
Given the above, we can conclude that self-builders are open to sharing their information. For some self-builders boosting the visibility of their practices, and financial benefits, are incentives for sharing their information. For others, this feeling originates from a ‘hackers mentality, wanting to learn from each other and pass on knowledge. However, to actively share information, and write documents, is not feasible for self-builders – due to limited time. At the same time, making this information public and more accessible has social advantages, because self-builders experiment with innovative building materials, techniques and designs. Therefore, we aim to develop a model that motivates self-builders to share information which is easy, and not too time consuming. For now, we take on the role of curator – and are gathering innovative and sustainable cases to develop a prototype – that will be inspirational and easy accessible for new self-build communities, and other stakeholders.