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).
Following the conclusions from our field work, we found that self-builders are enthusiastic about the idea to share their knowledge. For some self-builders boosting the visibility of their practices is an incentive for sharing their information. Many of them are architects or designers themselves, and through displaying their own self-built houses they hope to acquire new business. For others, their willingness to share can be linked to their ‘hackers mentality’, wanting to learn from each other and pass on knowledge.
From the perspective of future self-builders, the local government as well as society at large, there are also some positive outcomes to be expected from the sharing of experiences. For the municipality the lessons learned from individual experiments could inform policy. At the same time, innovations done by individual self-builders with regard to sustainable solutions, project management, social innovation or the application of building materials could be very useful for future self-builders. And if sustainable solutions can be repeated or scaled up, this is clearly a benefit for society as a whole.
Despite all these good intentions and possible societal benefits, in practice it has proven difficult to set up a collaborative or bottom-up system for information sharing. The biggest problem among self-builders for the exchange of knowledge is time. It is hard for many to make time to actually contribute their knowledge and experiences, even though they are open to share information.
In earlier workshops organized by us, a few suggestions were made to overcome this problem. One of them was the appointment of an independent ‘curator’ or information professional that was to collect and publish relevant information.
We decided to take up this role of curator and develop a prototype for an app that could be used to share information and experiences about self-built homes in Buiksloterham on site.
Making the invisible visible on location
The app was modeled on the idea of the German initiative of the Internationale Bauausstellung (International Architecture Exhibition), an on-site exhibition of novel approaches to building, displaying new social, cultural or ecological principles for architecture and urban planning. We found this an appropriate approach as the first generations of self-builders in Buiksloterham are special in that they are building a bottom-up neighbourhood in a brownfield. Many of these self-builders are themselves architects or designers who have used the availability of self-building plots to experiment. This has resulted in a very diverse mix of houses. Each has its own style of building and material use and many are based on a technological, cultural or economic innovative ideas.
For instance, some have experimented with applying sustainable building materials, techniques and designs. Others have innovated financially as well on a social-cultural level. Moreover they also have set up local businesses, such as renting out flexible workplaces, and setting up local food cooperatives. Furthermore the community consists of active citizens that have taken ownership in public surroundings of the area. So far they have collaboratively designed a park and a street in the neighbourhood in close cooperation with the municipality.
In order to make the innovations accessible, we came up with the idea to make the invisible, visible like a Bauausstelung, in the neighbourhood itself. This allows those interested in self-building to see and feel and experience of the materials and objects live on location and make the invisible systems within the homes visible.
Designing the app
In total we collected six stories about innovative building practices in the area; five centred around self-built houses, one on the communally designed Papaverpark. Each house brings a specific invention, which is highlighted by giving it a title.
After collecting and editing the content we developed a first prototype app. The first version had several categories, in which each self-builder had a similar set of questions:
How did I build my house
How did I pay my house
Don’t do this again
What does it bring
Copy my house
This is how I make a living from my house
After testing this version, which was tested internally, it became clear that this was not working, as the variation between each self-building process was too high. We let go of this design, as we concluded that each building process has it’s own unique story and cannot be force-fitted into categories.
For the next version we decided to highlight six unique inventions, with each an in-depth story about their respective house and the park.
Each house has it’s specific title which gives insight in the type of innovation:
The Flexible House
The Sustainable Wooden House
The 3-Generation House
The Grow House
The Glass House
Each story gives specific information about building processes, sustainability, inventions on social-cultural level, designing with limited budgets and communal designing of public spaces. Within each story deep links are provided to acquire in-depth knowledge on technicalities, drawings, photo’s, videos and/or suppliers. Further contact details are provided, so that new generations of self-builders and other stakeholders canget in touch for more information.
By adding ibeacons on location, the app vibrates, giving information about the respective building.
Methodology – Testing the app
Future self-builders and self-build residents from Buiksloterham were invited through a personal mail to test the app. In total six residential self-builders participated and one future self-builder.
We started the test near the big red shovel, the self-build symbol, where we gave instructions about the usage of the app and the program for the afternoon.
The participants walked from one house to the other and browsed accordingly through the pages. Most participants mainly exchanged information on location, talking with each other and sharing their practices. Many of them knew each other and were aware of each others projects. It was interesting, because we could also enter some of the people’s houses, which was considered as an added value.
After testing the app, two participants left. The remaining participants were given an evaluation form to share their experiences with the app, during a lunch catered by one of the local self-builders. We also shared our experiences and ideas during lunch. A few highlighted that the deep links were really valuable, as well as the links to suppliers. The discussion ended with residents sharing the added value of developing a local community network, where people can share their businesses etc.
The evaluation form gives us an understanding of how the participants view the app. The following aspects were addressed:
The expectations and usability of the app;
The content of the app;
Models to share information;
Models to finance the app;
Motivations to participate in the research.
ad.1 The participants faced some problems during the walk. First of all the ibeacons did not vibrate on location. Also some iPhone users, were not able to swipe the screens.
The participants were very enthusiastic about the app functioning on location, that way self-building processes become clearer. It was appreciated that some opened their house to have a ‘look behind the scenes’.
ad. 2 The participants were enthusiastic about the diversity in content and creating visibility about the different ways of building houses. Most of them liked the combination of receiving the information in text, images and video. Everyone was interested in the different types of information, whether it is financial, sustainable or social-cultural. The future self-builder was especially interested to get a better grip on the costs involved when building a house. Also she was enthusiastic about the deep links, giving access to practical information, such as reliable builders. Some are interested to not only unlock information related to innovations in self-building processes, but to add an extra layer in which the local community is supported to share information.
ad. 3 The participants were mixed about how they want to share their information in the future. Some would like to control, add, create and share content themselves, whereas others have made it clear that they limited time and would like to be interviewed and outsource this task.
ad. 4 The participants also have a mixed idea about whether they were willing to pay for the content. Most people are are willing to pay some money to download the app, if the content is relevant. Some are not sure.
In-app payments, such as paying self-builders consultancy fees for sharing information have a high tresh-hold. Most self-builders doubt whether they would pay a consultancy fee to self-builders. One made it clear she would rather ‘Google’ that information. Some are willing to pay, in case the information is relevant.
ad. 5 Most participants were curious to test and learn about the app. Some had also come to network.
All participants see the potential of the app and are enthusiastic about the idea to bring it to a next level. Some are also interested to create an extra layer in the app, so that it also functions as a local network system.
Everyone agrees that in order to make the app interesting more stories of self-builders should be incorporated. Most are willing to share their data themselves, others are more aware about their limited time and would like to outsource this task. One of the self-builders, is keen to set up an editorial board, so that all the content is being screened, before it is uploaded. That way the quality of the content is guaranteed.