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Thanks to a new online effort, you know longer need a contractor to build a house. Advances in technology and a bit of architectural activism have lead to something called the WikiHouse project. It makes digital blueprints available to anyone for free online and amateur builders use computer cut plywood pieces that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Jon Kalish reports the results can be a livable home.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Last fall, New York City saw something akin to an old fashioned barn raising.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, hang on, hang on, hang on, hang on. Let me grab that.

KALISH: It happened at Maker Faire, an annual event that celebrates the do-it-yourself aesthetic in general and digital fabrication in particular. Using wooden mallets that were cut out of plywood, a crew of eight banged together the slotted framed members of the WikiHouse with a single nail. The WikiHouse project was founded in London a little more than two years ago by Alastair Parvin.

ALASTAIR PARVIN: Now we're on the roll, it goes very quickly. It's always like that. Some days it starts to look like a house for the first time.

KALISH: The WikiHouse team assembled two houses at Maker Faire. This one was 12 feet wide, 26 feet long and nearly 10 feet high. Nick Ierodiaconou is an architect who's part of the London WikiHouse team.

NICK IERODIACONOU: It took eight people two days to put this thing up. No one, I would say, here is a professional builder of buildings. And also when everyone came together at the beginning of this process, no one knew the system. They'd never done it before.

KALISH: They use 3-D modeling software to design the houses and direct the robotic power tool called a CNC router to cut parts out of sheets of plywood. The free designs can be customized with computer-aided design, or CAD software. Some CAD software has a rather steep learning curve but SketchUp, a program popular with woodworkers and architects, is simple enough for kids to learn, says SketchUp's product manager, John Bacus.

JOHN BACUS: I teach it to third-graders and they do just great. They make models of dog houses and forts they want to build in the backyard and all that kind of stuff.

KALISH: Two slightly older students in Denver, Colorado, used 3-D modeling software to design their WikiHouse.

LACY WILLIAMS: For an architecture student, I really believe you need to know how to build something.

KALISH: Lacy Williams is a third year architecture student at the University of Colorado. She and her boyfriend spent $5,000 building a WikiHouse to live in during a semester-long field project in Utah.

WILLIAMS: And for us to be able to learn this alternative style of building, it was invaluable.

KALISH: Williams and her partner built a 150-square-foot shelter they call the FOUNDhouse. They used discarded building material and bought sheets of plywood they cut on a CNC router. It took more than an hour to cut each sheet.

WILLIAMS: It's a 3-D puzzle. It's a little more difficult than a jigsaw puzzle obviously, but it's definitely something that with enough time, you can figure it out.

KALISH: There's a long history of ordinary people building their own homes. In the first half of the 20th century, Sears, Montgomery Ward and other companies sold more than a quarter-million kit homes.

ROSEMARY THORNTON: It was the average man and woman who put these homes together and they'd often invite friends and family, not unlike a barn-raising. Sears promised that a man of average abilities could have one of these houses built in about 90 days.

KALISH: Rosemary Thornton, who wrote a book about the Sears kit homes.

THORNTON: Each kit home had about 12,000 pieces of house and came with a 75-page instruction book and the mortgage application was just two questions. One, do you own the lot on which you intend to build and two, do you have a vocation? It didn't matter what color or race or creed you were. It didn't matter what your last name was, you got a mortgage. It was just such an opportunity for people that didn't have opportunity. It really did change the face of America.

KALISH: The WikiHouse may not become the kit home of the 21st century, but it is filling a need. In Christchurch, New Zealand, the scene of a devastating earthquake in 2011, the WikiHouse team is designing a structure that is earthquake resistant. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the slums, known as favelas, are crowded and land is at a premium, another WikiHouse group is gearing up to build two- and three-story homes.

WikiHouse founder Alastair Parvin says that's just what he hoped for.

PARVIN: The aim is to make it possible for anybody to get access to design knowledge, even if they don't have a lot of construction skills, don't have an awful lot of money and get a house which is actually suited to where they are and not just a kind of one-size-fits-all house.

KALISH: For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.

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