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P2P Architecture (7): Vajra, a vision of a Maker Incubator Eco-Village

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
3rd September 2008


Eric Hunting:

Thinking more on the concept of a Maker Incubator, I thought I might try to illustrate it with a detailed description of how I imagined such a community to be. Though I am inclined toward the notion that the architecture of such a community should be largely the product of P2P planning among its inhabitants, for the sake of illustration I decided to offer a more specific description of one seemingly likely form.

Introduction:

The basic idea of a Maker Incubator is of an eco-village centered on a communal fabrication facility whose relatively small group of inhabitants seek to cultivate Post-Industrial technology through the cultivation of open source designs or ‘recipes’ for a large variety of practical everyday artifacts and, most importantly, the tools to make them with. The members of the community, all offered participation based on their maker skills/talents and their interest in the field, would make a modest living in this pursuit through the media publishing associated with disseminating their designs and technology and in the production of kits for some of the most complex artifacts and/or their more difficult-to-make components. ideally, the community would be self-supporting in this production but, most likely, early on residents may need to rely on more conventional employment with the income of this activity more supplemental.

One of the key aspects of the community would be its reliance on a P2P architecture employing a plug-in structural technology whose components the community itself can fabricate -and which may also become one of the key ‘products’ of the community as its use of the system would result in a steady production of open source designs associated with it. This plug-in structural system would be modular, fully demountable, and spontaneously adaptable with a minimum of human labor, allowing the community architecture to evolve freely and easily with its inhabitants’ needs and desires. This establishes the very practical nature of the community’s local industrial capability. It’s foundation is the construction, maintenance, and evolution of its own habitat.

Many characteristics of the community would mirror those of other eco-communities and co-housing communities but its need to accommodate some spontaneity in its structural adaptation and its tendency to rely on a unified or conjoined community structure for environmental efficiency would require a property system that does not divide the community into ‘lots’ of any fixed location. A likely approach may be either altruistic leasing of space by a wealthy supporter with a personal interest in the community experiment or the employ of a Community Investment Corporation which is the principle landowner but which the members of the community own in turn through shares that provide them the right to a given amount of space but not to any particular location -the latter being negotiated by the group as needs evolve. (this would also reserve the community’s option to evict individuals they find disruptive and then buy out their shares)

As an eco-community, Vajra would also pursue the use of renewable energy, recycling, living machine processing, and intensive farming, taking a predominately Eco-Tech approach to this. Though it certainly could achieve functional self-sufficiency in energy and food, it would not be focused on this as a specific and absolute goal given the limits of contemporary technology. It would simply pursue the advance of these technologies where possible and practical, with the emphasis on what is practical without some idealistic self-sacrifice in standard of living.

The aesthetic of the community would be largely defined by the technology employed by its inhabitants, used to create its architecture, and combined with its employ of ‘green’ technology and the extensive local cultivation of plants. Given the nature of the architecture proposed, it is likely to bear strong resemblance to Asian and Polynesian villages with a distinctive Modernist and high-tech slant.

Vajra – Architecture:

The architecture of Vajra would be based on a plug-in structural system called Utilihab -an open source version of the aluminum T-slot profile based system currently being developed by Jeriko House. Utilihab is essentially a post-and-beam framing system producing free-standing rectilinear pavilions with a 1 meter floor, ceiling, and deck grid and a maximum basic span of about 4 meters but with larger spans possible employing hybrid truss beams. Only a single hex-key tool is needed for assembly of most standard components. Being T-slot profiles, all the frame members in the structure feature one or more attachment slots on the faces of the frame members as well as one or more internal channels which can be used for plumbing, cable runs, or -as originally designed- as pneumatic supply lines. Thus the frame functions as a ‘backplane’ like that of an industrial computer for all the utilities infrastructure of the community and as attachment for all other structural components.

Panels for cladding, partitions, and windows can be surface mounted to the outer facing slots of a frame or mounted in-line within the interior space between frame members. Usually weatherproof cladding is surface mounted to accommodate insulation over the frame structure -as in the manner of commercial ‘hanging wall’ systems, though Jeriko House has developed propriety profiles which include thermal breaks to allow flush mounting of panels on the exterior. Interior partitions and windows are usually flush mounted, flooring surface mounted and using either planking or modular tiles akin to raised computer room flooring. Light paneling may need no tools for installation, being simply press-fit or snap-fit using spring clips. Panels may be single sided or double-sided and include insulation and any combination of utilities hardware and specialized hardware or electronics, allowing for the integration of many kinds of appliances into the panels. T-slot is the premier building system for industrial automation and the basis of many prototype robots. So the integration of active and intelligent systems is a natural. The entire community may ultimately be seen as a kind of robot. Many forms of built-in furniture are also possible thanks to easy attachment to the primary framing.

Many kinds of roofing are supported with this system but tends to impose the one limitation on the adaptability of the system, since no small scale modular roofing technology exists that allows free-adaptability. This has long been a problem for modular component architecture. Only raised seam alloy or self-interlocking alloy SIP roofing comes close to allowing easy demountability. Overcoming the limits of roofing will be one of the first design engineering challenges for the community.

Many kinds of foundation systems can be used, but to maintain maximum adaptability the community would most likely employ pier foundations, possibly in the form of Pin Pier Foundation blocks as commonly employed in the Park Service for the easy construction of buildings, bridges, and walkways in locations beyond the reach of construction vehicles.

Adapted ISO containers may also feature in the community design, used for the transport of components for the community’s basic structure and then repurposed for use as workshop, storage, and refrigerated storage space. Insulated containers are the easiest to adapt thanks to their SIP-like composition. Additions are easily attached to the inner stainless steel skins with ‘rivkels’ (rivets that create a resusable bolt socket) while corrugated wall frames would be outfit by attachment of T-slot profiles to welded mounting points.

The general aesthetic of the community based on this structural system is likely to be Modernist with strong Asian influences owing to the free mix of open and enclosed spaces under shared roofing structures and the use of raised deck walkways integrating the entire community. Innumerable community layouts are possible but I anticipate the use of an organization based on at least four functional ‘clusters’ centered on, surrounding, and conjoined to a community garden with the option of being enclosed in a dome or tefzel tension structure. The basic clusters would include the Hab, Fab, Green, and Com Clusters.

Central Garden:

The most physically central feature of the community and its primary aesthetic feature, the central garden would also function as a visual screen between the four surrounding clusters and a noise filter. It would provide a much-needed center of tranquility for the sometimes bustling and industrious community. Relying largely on containerized growing beds integrated into the standard modular deck system, it would be as freely adaptable as the rest of the community structure but would tend to mostly expand in area with community growth. Most plants here would be primarily ornamental, the Green cluster handling food production, and the garden would feature a variety of decorative features such as ponds, fountains, and locally produced sculptures as well as lounge seating and gazebos. When using an overhead enclosure, the garden could function as a key solar thermal collector for the community, providing a tropical climate in the midst of winter. In the summer, a translucent cover could keep the community cool combined with leaf cover and the transpiration of the plants.

Hab Cluster:

The Hab or Habitat cluster would be the location of most residences, most consisting of a complex of 4 meter square rooms no more than three storeys high -and likely only one story for the early community- with a screened private terrace area on the outer-facing side and a more public ‘front porch’ facing the central garden. With flat roof systems additional deck space may be employed atop the roof. Community lifestyle would focus on the use of the Com or Community cluster for what, in the west, would commonly be private amenities so early Hab residences may need no more than a few 4 meter rooms. Within the boundaries of their dwelling space and outward from the center, residents would be free -and encouraged- to customize and adapt their dwellings. Most such adaptation would be readily handled by a solitary individual. P2P negotiation would be needed to plan more complex adaptation or changes in dwelling location and size. Generally, community planning would try to keep community expansion proportional, the center garden growing in perimeter with community growth. But the Hab cluster could evolve into a series of small ‘squares’ facing the center garden and which would tend to spill-over into it, hosting smaller lounging areas, playground equipment, and the like. The Hab cluster is likely to flank the Com cluster for ready access to it shared community facilities.

Fab Cluster:

The Fab or Fabrication cluster would be the communal industrial facility and would take the form of an outwardly extending wing or branch with a wide central corridor flanked by ‘shop module’ sheds, many based on single or paired-conjoined ISO containers. A shop module would be a single room dedicated to single or related group of tools, usually following a ‘U’ configuration of equipment and work benches. They would also be used for storage, each dedicated to a particular type of commodity such as flat stock, electronics parts, etc. At the end of the wing would be a truck loading dock for support of larger shipping trucks as may be used for bulk materials shipping. Vajra would seek to employ as broad a spectrum of small scale in-community fabrication as possible and to employ open source designs for these tools as much as possible. Thus many of the machine tools used would be T-slot based. A likely collection of tools would include the conventional hand and bench wood and metalworking tools, welding and painting stations, electronics benches, CNC and milling machines, laser and hydrocutters, rapid prototype systems and other early fabbers, laser etchers, sign cutters, laminators, flat bed specialty ink-jet printers, aluminum and FRP extruders, compact injection molders for thermoplastic and glass-alloys, rotomolder rig, vacuum forming rigs, compact foundry and kilns (possibly solar powered) for cast metal, ceramics, and glass working, pottery wheel, loom, spinning, sewing, digital embroidery, and flat-bed sewing systems, and a digital print/copy shop with small run bindery equipment. Smaller work facilities needing smaller and less expensive tools would tend to be created in residents homes and would include such things as computer programming, jewelry making and lapidary, small article textiles, electronics, graphic arts, and the like.

The Fab cluster would also contain the primary power systems of the community. The community would run on a combination of renewable energy sources -photovoltaic, solar-dynamic, wind, methane reactor, biodiesel, plasma waste conversion, and gas turbine or fuel cell generators with co-generation. Many systems, like solar arrays, would be distributed around the community but a primary energy repository along with generator plants (in ISO containers) would be located here. Conventional gel-cell battery arrays may be initially used with the community but it may also experiment with more advanced systems like Vanadium redox or hydrogen storage which would allow the community to stockpile energy on a seasonal basis and provide power for electric vehicles. (a communal parking space is likely to be located between Hab and Fab clusters and could employ the primary solar and wind systems integrated into a vehicle shelter)

The Fab cluster would likely flank the Green cluster as it would be sourcing materials from it and providing the most repair/maintenance activity to it.

Green Cluster:

The Green cluster would have a similar organization to the Fab cluster, consisting of a wing or branch radiating outward from the center garden with a truck dock at its end. However, it would feature both shop modules and a large collection of greenhouse structures fanning off like the veins of a leaf. The two main activities of the green cluster would be water and organic waste recycling using living machine systems, and farming. Total food self-sufficiency in a small community is unlikely with current technology but, using a combination of advanced hydroponics and vertical farming techniques, the Green cluster would be able to function rather like a living machine CELSS (closed environment life support system) with the benefit of producing a lot of fresh produce, fish, food-grade algae, and industrial materials like bamboo, plant dyes, and paper and textile fiber. The Green cluster would be flanked by the Fab and Com clusters, to which it direct many supplies.

Com Cluster:

The Com or Community cluster would be an elaborate community center second only to the Fab cluster for its concentration of activity. Serving as the primary public face of the community, it would also function as a gateway to the community for visitors and function as a screen to keep strangers from more private areas of the community. Potentially a few storeys high and sprawling, it would incorporate a great many facilities as the community grows, chief among these being the community lounge, kitchen and general store. The community kitchen, which might feature a solar oven, could function in the manner of community kitchen for communal meals as with co-housing communities or it could function as a ‘cooperative’ restaurant and cafe which would better suit the community’s very likely frequent hosting of visitors. Like any other ‘fab’ facility, the kitchen would seek to employ appliances fashioned by the community itself, serving as a showcase and test lab for many open domestic device designs.

The general store would be a 24 hr shop dealing in goods not stored in the Fab cluster and employing a digitally enhanced ‘honor’ payment system where people can pay for goods out of community credit accounts using a card. it would be very much like a typical convenience store or campus store in terms of goods carried but would also be the pick-up point for a community buying network where residents would pool their purchasing of routine groceries rather than wasting energy and car use shopping individually outside the community. In some cases frequently requested goods would be ordered in bulk and packaged in the community for distribution through standard size reusable glass containers. Further complimenting this tactic would be a community postal center, also in the Com cluster, combining conventional post, UPS, and FedEx shipping -and negotiating for better rates based on community population and the fuel and labor savings to these services from a central drop point.

The community store would also be an in-community trade center for a an experimental barter system called the Box Exchange Network or BEN. This program would use recyclable and reusable cubical shaped glass or folded transparent plastic containers with a mason-jar-like seal, made in the community, as a standard metric of barter. (not to mention their potential repurposing for everything from home storage containers to accent lamps, planters, and fish bowls) The basic idea is that the contents of the containers is always kept value-equivalent and where that’s not possible kept to whole units of the containers. Not intended to be entirely practical, the concept is intended as a means of virally introducing the concept of barter through novelty on a potentially global scale. BEN would work in both a passive face-to-face (or peer-to-peer when conducted over internet with pictures) trade mode or a passive mode where people leave containers in a ‘store’ for equivalent container credit. The passive mode is, of course, the more experimental because it relies on the honor of people to leave stuff they think has equivalent unit value.

Another part of the community store -or an adjacent store- would be used as a place to sell products made in the community to visitors. Most of the products the community uses for income would rely on Internet mail order distribution but as a showcase community drawing visitors from around the globe, there would be an expectation of being able to buy ‘souvenirs’. Surpluses from the Green cluster would also be potentially high in value in a near urban setting.

Other ‘practical’ functions of the Com cluster would include a laundry, an infirmary/first aid station, a community data and telecom center, a day-care center, a community conference room, and a B&B style or Capsule Hotel set of rental rooms which would accommodate visitors staying for longer periods and provide temporary housing for residents when parts of the community are undergoing reconstruction.

The Com cluster could also host a great many recreational features, though limited to keeping them in compact forms. A small fitness room and sports activity center -focused on things using a minimum of space like handball, ping-pong, pool, mini-bowling, and the like- are likely as well as such things as a community spa with sauna, baths or a swimming pool. A library and lounge are also likely as are a community deck/terrace with deployable community theater (useful for outdoor movies), galleries or displays for local art. One recreation concept unique to the community may be private theaters. Derived from the concept of private kareoke lounges common in Asia, these would be small living-room-like theaters with a sophisticated digital entertainment center combining video, kareoke, and computer gaming as well as internet access suited to use of MMOs and virtual environment platforms like Second Life. This concept taps into the contemporary trend of non-related extended families based on groups of life-long friends who maintain connections through routine group activities like movies, bowling, BBQs, camping trips, and the like. This has potential as a spin-off business for the community and could evolve into the development of immersive entertainment centers -rooms with a full-surround video display (known as a CAVE or CAVE Augmented Virtual Environment) system intended to provide the ideal casual virtual reality experience. Such things might seem extravagant but one of the key virtues of a community environment is that, just as with the Fab facility, many luxuries unaffordable to the solitary person become practical when shared by a group, affording communities a higher basic standard of living. Being able to manufacture many of these things themselves also greatly reduces their costs. It’s thus easy to understand why the writer P.M. liked to refer to his vision of Post-Industrial communities as palaces.

The Com cluster may also be host to open public seminars, likely based on repurposing its community conference and theater facilities. This would be used as part of the goal of Post-Industrial outreach and cultural dissemination, spreading the knowledge and experience of its independent industries and technologies to visitors and the regional communities around it. Quite often Vajra would function like a college campus, a great many of the users of its fab facilities not residents at all and its residents serving double-duty as teachers.

Vajra Mobile and Satellites:

The early smaller Vajra would have the option of being completely mobile in order that the community could travel to different parts of the globe and disseminate its ideas and technology while also absorbing local ideas, knowledge, and skills to add to its own. As the community grows such mobility would become untenable and so a miniature Vajra would be developed purely as a mobile satellite community. This mobile form of community would be based primarily on ISO containers -perhaps some 32-40 of them- in a simple radial cluster in four zones for the basic facilities clusters. Developing its own versions of CLT (Container Lift-Transport) modules to make its containers self-mobile and even turning containers into deployable hybrid tractor-trucks, the satellite community would function as an international traveling exposition for Post-Industrial technology and culture.

Vajra Economics:

As noted earlier, the primary means of income for the residents of the Vajra community would be the production of media associated with their artifact designs and community activities. Though the community would produce exclusively open source technology, much income potential exists in advertising on web sites and producing print and video media that showcases these designs, their recipes, design and production technique, and the like. The community would ultimately establish a brand of its own associated with its mission of cultivating and disseminating Post-Industrial culture and consumers of its products would feel a sense of personal participation in their purchase of community goods, which is a competitive advantage independent of the otherwise open designs. Many designs would have potential for the creation of marketable kits based on the pre-production of parts that demand use of more expensive tools or a higher degree of skill and talent and sometimes the production of complete end-products. The architecture of the community, based on its unique plug-in structural technology, would also have great potential for the generation of media and products ranging from parts to whole buildings. To prevent the community from turning into a mass-production factory, when demand for such products starts to demand full-time production residents would be encouraged to farm out production to other companies and this may present an opportunity for a strategic partnership with job-shops and would encourage further entrepreneurship outside the community and among other members of the global Maker community.

Also noted earlier, the community would employ a Community Investment Corporation as the basis of real estate ownership in order to maintain the freedom of evolution of its architecture while securing the personal investment of its residents through stock ownership. Likely founded as an LLC, this CIC would also be the owner of all major facilities and industrial equipment in the community, its materials stockpiles, and the publishing venture which produces its media. In effect, all residents of the community would be co-owners and business partners in the corporation. This is a simple strategy for bridging conventional Industrial Age capitalist economics to the new realities of a Post-Industrial culture. It is also a useful mechanism for the replication of the community and the spin-off of other ventures through the expansion of the holdings of the CIC itself -which, owing to the industrial capability of the community, could come at radical discount given the ability to manufacture facilities at cost. Corporations have a bad cultural reputation because of their ability to exploited as a shield for the avaricious intent of a wealthy minority. Here, however, a corporation would be used as a mechanism for social and economic equity and a shield of conventionality for what is essentially an economically subversive movement. Most of the first western frontier communities of the New World were founded as corporations. Vajra would be a community on the frontier of the future.

Vajra would be an ambitious project and difficult to initiate with just a coalition of prospective residents. It is likely to require some degree of altruistic ‘angel’ investment at the start and the gravitas of celebrity association to help suppress some of the compulsive resistance typical of urban bureaucracies that tend to characterize everything new, counter-cultural, or foreign as a threat.

Vajra Lifestyle:

Obviously, the lifestyle of the residents of Vajra would revolve around making, inventing, and communicating what they make and invent to the world. But aside from this activity, residents would enjoy a home with the physical ambiance of an Edo-era Japanese village and the camaraderie -and sometimes social challenges- of a tribal group -especially early on when there are only a dozen households in the community. Certainly, this would not be a setting for people with a need for great privacy but it would be a community that encourages self-expression and values ideas. It would also be a community with purpose, focused on a shared vision of future culture it is attempting to cultivate and disseminate on a global scale and for the particular benefit of people in the developing world for whom open source tools and products are the only viable shot at an improved life and the breaking of the shackles of colonial economics and despotic regimes. Vajra residents would also, thanks to the Internet, enjoy a sense of being at the nexus of a global cultural movement. They would live in and embody the epitome of Industrial Reformation and be the first to enjoy the benefits of it as the technology progresses and whittles-away at their cash dependencies and loss of time to other people’s profit. Most residents would be entrepreneurs and some may turn their stay in Vajra and the knowledge and skill they absorb there into vast new businesses spreading far beyond the community itself. There is great economic potential in independent industrial technology. These people may leave the community for what they see as greener pastures, or they may return this dividend to the community, expanding or replicating it enormously.

Conclusions:

Vajra would be a grand experiment on many levels; socially, architecturally, and technologically. It would be the first attempt to physically grasp for an imminent and positive future that many now visualize in bits and pieces but few have put together in any one picture. Perhaps assembling that picture have been the missing catalyst for global change. Even if Vajra is ultimately a short-lived adventure, it could have impact spanning generations.” (email August 2008)

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