The Flat-Packed Plywood Utopia
An Interview with Vinay Gupta, inventor of the Hexayurt
The open-source Hexayurt is a minimum-viable dwelling that has proven to be too-viable. Take a dozen standard 4×8 sheets of plywood, or similar commodity building material, cut six of them in half on the diagonal, and you’ve got all the wall and roof panels for a structure that’s surprisingly sturdy, weather resistant, and adaptable.
The Hexayurt is the brainchild of Vinay Gupta, who I first became acquainted with in the forgotten ’90s heydays of lively online intentional communities. Vinay was the sort of the frustratingly brilliant thinker who could be both exhilarating and exhausting to debate with over email, grinding your arguments into atoms (even when you were dead certain he was wrong).
Vinay’s Hexayurt revelation accelerated him on an iconoclastic path that has taken him everywhere from the Pentagon to Burning Man, from exile status to his current lofty position as one of the clearest voices on the real potentials and pitfalls of blockchain technology. TechCrunch called his smart-contracts company Mattereum “perhaps the world’s weirdest and most daring startup.” I caught up with Vinay over video chat from his home in London to talk about the impetus behind the Hexayurt project and the larger poverty puzzle that it plays a part in.
Tony: Do you want to give us the basic Hexayurt origin story?
Vinay: So it goes back to The Farm in Tennessee. I came to America in 1995 and, pretty much, The Farm is the first place I went. Stephen Gaskin’s farm. The Farm had been the largest of the hippie communes. It was 1,500 people at peak, all joint property, and they basically went bankrupt in a series of steps, by the 1980s they were fully bankrupt, and the whole place had basically gone to hell in a handbasket. So, I went there to see what happened to the sixties—not knowing any of the story—and got pretty much all of the youthful idealism in my body sucked out over the course of a week and a half. There was a huge project at The Farm that required a lot of low-cost construction, you name it, they did it at one time or another, including of course, geodesic domes. They had a dome company that was closely associated with the farm, and the domes didn’t work. Every time they built one they ended up with 25%-40% waste from the sheet materials, and The Farm folks were dirt poor, so you finished building the dome and you were left with a pile of weirdly shaped bits of plywood scrap, and they were really unhappy about it. When I got there they said, Vinay, you know geometry, right? Can you figure out how to make a Geodesic dome with 4×8 sheets and no waste? I spent six months on it in ’95 and made fuckall progress on it because we couldn’t break from the idea that all the points on the surface of the dome had to hit the hemisphere, and there’s no way you can get a perfect hemisphere out of a bunch of rectangles.
So, I gave up on the project and went back to working on software. In that time period, in 2002, there was a thing called the Sustainable Settlements Charrette, and it’s a workshop in Colorado about refugee housing. The folks that I was working with came back from that workshop and asked me if I could make a refugee shelter that can be flat packed on the back of a truck. Almost all the value in this story is two great questions: can we make a dome without waste? No we can’t do that. Can we make a shelter that can be flat packed on the back of a truck? I remember sitting down one afternoon and drawing a sheet of plywood on a piece of paper—literally on the back of an envelope—and dividing it into some triangles that you can easily make and saying, What can I make out of these triangles? What came out of that is the first Hexayurt—in literally fifteen minutes.
Now when you hit upon that, did you assume that somebody else had probably already figured it out?
I still expect to find some patent from 1976 that will have the whole thing there. When we did the search on that we found a fishing shelter that was roughly the same shape as a Hexayurt that had been patented in the mid-eighties. It was an ancient-looking thing and it was all funny-looking aluminum gaskets and serious double-glazed window engineering. And it was exactly the same shape but had a more pointed roof and custom lengths—they hadn’t cracked the whole 4×8 flat pack thing yet. So once we had it, I remember looking at it, being like “oh my god” and then we figured out very quickly that you could make them bigger or smaller and still have the zero-waste property, and that was the point where I figured out that I was completely screwed, because once you invent something like that you’re going to have to do something with it, you can’t just leave it sitting on the shelf, and that was the point where I had this really heavy feeling where I just thought: there goes the next thirty years. And that’s been how it’s gone, it’s been a very, very slow process, but I knew that in the beginning.
I remember when you first started evangelizing for this as an idea, and it seemed like it was going to have this huge impact, but then you met with resistance from the NGO sector.
The shit that I saw coming out of people’s mouths on this. I remember going to an event in the Netherlands, and Netherlands Red Cross lied to me to my face about getting a Hexayurt to the demonstration. They wanted me there for my technical expertise, they said that they’d have all the material for a Hexayurt there, and when I turned up there were no materials. I rummaged around in a scrap heap and found a Hexayurt prototype that we built two years before that had been sitting in a pile of rubble, dragged it out and put it up with the help of some students—it took about fifteen minutes—and had the boss lady from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) come around to inspect the shelters refuse to set foot inside of it. She was fucking furious that one had been built there. The fear that they had was the the Hexayurts were too cheap and they lasted too long. They were afraid that what was going to happen was that every place that they built them the locals were going to look at them and say That’s actually pretty good, and start building them themselves. And I’m just like, Does that not solve the fucking problem? Is that not what we want—local resilience? The more you find out about how these systems run the worse the expectation gets. It’s very messy.
Did you anticipate any of that going into this?
Well, I was already pretty politically turned on at that point. I’d had the Buckminster Fuller thing land on me pretty hard; I was at Rocky Mountain Institute, which was the Ark of the Covenant for Buckminster Fuller’s work. So, I was pretty clear on what we were doing, which was systemic reduction of waste due to inefficient engineering, etc. All of that stuff was pretty apparent to me, but I also had exposure to the idea of the structure of scientific revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn, which basically says that physics proceeds by a series of funerals. It takes an enormously long time for paradigms to shift because, basically, nobody over thirty ever changes their mind and nobody under forty-five has any structural power. I’d been raised on that stuff because my father was a scientist, and I knew that it was going to take us fifteen years to get the first prototype into a refugee camp, and I knew it was going to take another fifteen years to develop a mature global capacity, so I went into this expecting it to be a thirty year project and we’ve pretty much hit the deadline.
It takes an enormously long time for paradigms to shift because, basically, nobody over thirty ever changes their mind and nobody under forty-five has any structural power.
That intergenerational struggle perspective is both political and cultural. We know that culture takes a long time to change and then it gets into the whole question of what is a refugee? The existing refugee model comes from WWII Europe: you’ve got a couple million people displaced, the cities are trashed, they’ve got tons of army surplus kicking around, you park the people in the army surplus and have some people who are former military organize the camps and then you rebuild the cities and move the people back into their houses as they become available. Very straightforward. And that’s not a bad way of doing things as long as your population is going home again, but the problem we have increasingly with the modern refugees is that they’re leaving places because those places have become uninhabitable. They’ve gotten roiled up in guerilla wars which are not going to stop for decades; or the climate has changed and their fields are now inundated with salt water, and it’s fifty degrees Celsius [122 degrees Fahrenheit]. When you’re dealing with populations that are never going home again they’re not exactly refugees. Now you have weird stuff going on in refugee states like Jordan where they have enormous numbers of refugees relative to their own population, and the odds of these folks going back home are slim; it’s going to take a really long time before Iraq is a better place to live than a refugee camp for a lot of people. At that point you start to say, It’s wrong to think of these people as migrants because they’re involuntary migrants, but it’s not quite right to say that they are refugees. So I think we need a paradigmatic change in how we approach the refugee question, but that’s not happening today.
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