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The Flat-Packed Plywood Utopia

An Interview with Vinay Gupta, inventor of the Hexayurt
By Tony "Tonx" Konecny|
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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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When you started on this did you feel like design and appropriate technology was the bottleneck more than politics? 

The bottleneck here comes in two parts: the first is just plain old human evil. I use the word evil advisedly. For example, the UN had half of one member of staff doing shelter research, and an annual shelter spend of $160 million dollars a year about ten years ago. In that sort of environment they’re not using innovation as a way of meeting client needs, they’re just doing the same thing they did yesterday over and over again and that is very difficult to square with the idea that their job is to do the right thing. They’re not aggressively looking at how to change the world in such a way as their target populations are well cared for. What they’re doing is they’re holding on to best practices that literally date back to WWII, and that’s because the people inside the agencies who are spending the money to support the refugees are not remotely client-facing or entrepreneurial. I went to endless meetings on refugee shelter and nobody ever invited a single refugee. I only ever saw one refugee at a meeting about refugee shelter, it was a doctor from Canada who had grown up in a refugee camp in Africa. She had become quite a senior doctor and when she came in it was like an axe murder. She was unbelievably angry, and she literally just called out every single thing the speaker said that wasn’t true. “I grew up in one of your camps. Let me tell you what happened to the food supply. Let me tell you how much was stolen before it reached us. Let me tell you how inaccessible the people in Geneva were when we tried to complain about our conditions.” Watching the total exclusion of refugees from these processes tells you everything you need to know about the integrity of these processes. UNHCR should be run by former refugees. If there was an intention for these agencies to succeed, this is what they’d be doing. 

Meanwhile at Burning Man, the Hexayurt has become a dominant from of construction out there. That wasn’t exactly your target audience. 

Well, I went into this with a pretty strong awareness that change is complicated. I’ve watched things like the evolution of the cell phone, I was in the middle of the evolution of the internet, and I saw both what changed and what didn’t. There was this dawning awareness that the internet was going to be about Amazon shopping, not some large-scale social transformation; so I went into it a bit pre-jaded. So we took the first Hexayurt to Burning Man in 2003, and I knew that we were not going to be able to get this thing done at the scale we wanted if we didn’t get the high-value fashion market first. The things that are made for poor people, poor people hate. The things become stigmatized and there’s no people so poor that they don’t shit on the people who are poorer than they are. If you go out there with a government cheese-type product it just turns out that you’re never going to get it to scale because people won’t touch it with an oar—even if it’s great. That’s a problem, but it’s just a cultural problem—human beings are monkeys and we just have to work with it. I looked at the cell phone, and realized the cell phone got to the villages more effectively than anything else has off movie directors in L.A. paying six bucks a minute for car phone calls. And also there was the ethical testing issue: figuring out how you test new technology for refugees that doesn’t treat them like guinea pigs is really difficult. That’s a huge problem in the humanitarian innovation sector because just getting somebody to take responsibility for sticking people into new technology is very hard. In medicine we do this using a medical ethics board, who signs off on an experiment and assumes responsibility in case anything goes wrong. There’s no equivalent of the Medical Ethics Board for refugees. So, I looked at the Burning Man crew as volunteer testers, they’re rich people with plenty of options, and if they wanted to prove that the Hexayurt works for them, I’ll be way more comfortable putting refugees in it because at the end of the day, if it works for rich people it’s probably going to work pretty well for poor people. 

hexayurt

I get the impression from a lot of Buckminster Fuller fans that deep down they’re optimists, but I don’t get that impression from reading your work.

No. It helps to have spent a bit of time homeless. Back when I was working with the military a lot, I swore a vow that I wouldn’t do anything for money that I wasn’t willing to do for free. And that was extremely useful in terms of keeping me clear on what my moral priorities were. It was a nice, clean edge that helped me separate where my line was; but it also made me poor enough to be basically homeless from time to time. You very quickly realize how the world works when you’re homeless. It becomes very clear that the only difference between you and the people around you is possession of magic pieces of paper and if you don’t have those magic pieces of paper then nobody feels like your problem is their problem. But if you do have the magic pieces of paper then everybody wants to help you. 

The fear that they had was the the Hexayurts were too cheap and they lasted too long.

There’s just no way around the fact that the thing that we call human evil—non-compassionate evolutionary traits—aren’t going anywhere. I’ve become disenchanted with the idea of global transformation of consciousness, I’ve become disenfranchised from most politics, I just think that we have to deal with the fact that human beings are largely unequal to the challenge. And then inside of that there are the areas where we get spectacular, unexpected success. Wikipedia is far better than we had any right to hope for. Wikipedia is positively utopian—it’s like something out of New Atlantis (1627) by Sir Francis Bacon—completely realized, essentially flawless. Same thing with the whole Linux system. Seventy percent of the world’s computers are running free software. Can you imagine if we never had free software? How screwed we’d be in terms of intellectual freedom?

So in the areas where you win, you win big. Total liberation of all human knowledge? Achieved—except for scientific publishing. So my expectation is that we’re unequal to the challenge, but when we get it right we’re pretty good about scaling it. We only need to get it right on poverty two or three times and it’s job done. If we get vaccination, water filtration, and a couple of things at about that level of complexity done, a huge swath of people will be dramatically better off. 

 

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