Open Source Architecture

Avant-garde architecture mag Domus asked Carlo Ratti, director of MIT's Senseable City Lab, to write an op-ed on the notion of "open source architecture." Ratti seeded a Wikipedia page and asked folks like of Paola Antonelli, Bruce Sterling, John Maeda, Nicholas Negroponte, and others to chime in. Domus published this Open Source Architecture (OSArc) manifesto as it appeared on 11 May 2011, but of course it's still subject to evolution on Wikipedia. From Domus (Wikimedia commons ilustration):
530Px-Arch Illustration OSArc is not only involved with production; reception to a given project–critical, public, client, peer-related–can often form part of the project itself, creating a feedback loop that can ground–or unmoor–a project's intention and ultimately becomes part of it, with both positive and negative consequences. OSArc supersedes architectures of static geometrical form with the introduction of dynamic and participatory processes, networks, and systems. Its proponents see it as distinguished by code over mass, relationships over compositions, networks over structures, adaptation over stasis. Its purpose is to transform architecture from a top-down immutable delivery mechanism into a transparent, inclusive and bottom-up ecological system– even if it still includes top-down mechanisms.

OSArc relies upon amateurs as much as experienced professionals–the genius of the mass as much as that of the individual–eroding the binary distinction between author and audience. Like social software, it recognises the core role of multiple users at every stage of the process–whether as clients or communities, designers or occupants; at its best, it harnesses powerful network effects to scale systems effectively. It is typically democratic, enshrining principles of open access and participation, though political variations may range from stealth authoritarianism to communitarian consensualism.

Open Source Architecture (Domus, thanks Alan Rapp!)

Open Source Architecture (Wikipedia)


  1. Holy cow- you just gave away the secret of the keystone arch, the very core of the Masons’ wealth and power for thousands of years! Good luck surviving the next 24 hours…

  2. I’m looking forward to the open source liability that goes along with this leveling of the design field. This ought to be good.

    1. I don’t think anyone is suggesting open source building codes. (At least I hope not.)

  3. I’ve been playing with this idea a bit myself, but in a different form to what is laid out in the article. For one thing, architecture is a very complex balance of relationships between code, structure, proportions, space, function, etc. Furthermore, the tools mentioned, such as Revit, are not “laypeople friendly”, you can’t just jump in and go without a LOT of work getting up to speed, and it is all too easy to screw things up if you don’t know what you are doing. Multiple users is a pain, even in a single office. A little pull there can equal a heck of a lot of re-detailing and re-engineering.
    So what I propose is more along these lines:
    Tear down the secrecy wall between professionals. We jealously guard our details and favorite products, and hard won experience and laugh as other architects make the same mistakes we did. Why not have a Wikipedia of sorts where editorial membership is limited to licensed professionals, and we can collate information, review builders and suppliers and products, etc. Generally share our knowledge with each other and further the cause toward better buildings for all.

    1. Plans submitted for permit are in the public record – “secret” details and all. Getting access to them is the nut, not taking away secrecy. There are no secrets when you build.

  4. @ Bluebottle: I thoroughly agree that the process of building is inherently very complex and not very accessible to someone without construction experience. Its complexity doesn’t lend itself, in my experience, to leaving time to communicate in a meaningful way to others regarding the topics you mentioned. Part of it is because of artistic hubris (I labored over this signature detail, why should I give it to you?), but on the other hand isn’t such an organization just like an AIA chapter?
    In regards to the Domus article, it doesn’t really offer anything new. Building Information Modeling is a paradigm that has already shifted our view of the design process. “Opensource” and “scripting” are buzzwords in architecture, but what do they mean if they still manifest themselves in a physical building? As anyone who has renovated their own house will tell you, buildings are difficult and expensive to modify. Design is an intense process that few have the time to undertake, which results in the “lack of representation” mentioned. Mass-customization is a wonderful process that enriches our spatial environment, producing designs that would be impossible without computer processing power and graphic representation, but it still goes through the same pipeline as constructions before it.

  5. One aspect of design I would really hope is being addressed by people in this movement is improving the design of all the plumbing and wiring so that it is easy to repair and tinker with a building after it has been built. I hate it that all of that stuff is hidden away in walls.

    1. Modern buildings often have handy access panels. But if you’re not trained to understand what’s there without help, then is it safe to modify things yourself? You could injure future building users, not to mention yourself.

  6. As the article says, architecture is already open source and has been since before its inception (if that makes sense).

    AFAIK there aren’t any municipalities that require details to be submitted for planning permission. So unless the detail is visible to the naked eye, the only people who’ll know how it was made are the architect, contractor, and any manufacturers or consultants involved. But, we do have many books on working details which are fantastic.

    As for open source liability… what? An architect or contractor suing an open source contributor for providing a faulty detail would be laughed out of court.

    1. All local councils in the UK require details to be submitted and are a matter of public record, also all new buildings are legally required to have an operation and maintenance manual that contains the drawn details of the buildings so that it can be maintained and altered. it also has the structural info etc.

      also many many architects publish their details in journals etc.

      1. I’ve submitted planning applications without details, are you talking about submission for building regs approval?

        1. yes, planning does not always require details, though in large schemes they will often request them.

          For building regulations details are requried to establish thermal performance etc. these documants are still available to the public though it’s a little less obvious process as there is no public consultation prior ot approval.

          O&M manuals are part of CDM regulations, though they don’t apply to small domestic projects.

          1. Ah, fascinating. I didn’t know the building regs documents were available too. So I can check out the details of any famous UK building just by visiting its local planning office?

          2. building control not planning, and there is a charge for copying documents and often they need to be requested in advance.

            mark thomas famously did this and got a copy of the plans of the MI6 building.

          3. Thanks very much!

            You don’t work for a practice that would like a talented young 5th year do you? Have experience in small office, good with AutoCAD. I’m looking for a couple of months work before the next year of my part 2 starts.

  7. As an architect i’m constantly dismayed and annoyed at architects and particualrly architectural theorists who cannot coherently explain themselves*, that article is barely readable. Obfuscated language is hardly the place to start an open-source system.

    I think the analogy between architecture and software is difficult, In the VAST majority of cases where architects are involved are custom tailored solutions, different sites, clients, regulations, orientations, contexts, climates and uses. Open source as far as i can see relies on standards.

    In the cases where architects are not creating the architecture, so standardised buildings, ‘vernacular’ work to houses, industrial sheds. etc, maybe you could open source some systems but the vernacular is already pretty open source, the devil is in co-ordinating well understood assembly types to the particular needs of the building.

    There are some areas of building technology like window design, heating systems etc where there would be some advantage, if oyu could work out a way where sytems continue to improve and develop, but this is not Architecture per say, it’s product design, or element design.

    i’ve worked in many practices where they have tried to standardise their specifications, details, and things like stair design etc. it rarely works because a few suble permeations can throw the design way off. if it can’t be done at the practice level I cant see how it can work accross a single profession in a single nation.. let alone further.

    *muphry’s law will dictate that i’ve made the same mistake in this comment

    1. You aren’t far off the mark, but note that most software standards are analogous to such architectural standards as counter height, step rise, joist spacing, etc.

      They aren’t functional requirements, they are just extremely good practices that make it easier to build something humans will want to use.

      You are welcome to code things that won’t interoperate with anything else at all, but the market will punish you (unless you are Steve Jobs).

  8. @lava @brainspore – I raised a similar concern about scaling up open source hardware projects in a talk I gave at Notacon 8. My talk was about the legal and accounting games that corporations play to get away with criminality.

    The basic issue is that no good deed goes unpunished. While open source and creative commons licenses in their current forms are great for content and software, liability takes on a whole new meaning when you start doing stuff with physical objects. Especially when those objects can adversely affect a person’s health or well being, i.e. food, transportation and housing.

    I think that in a world where BP can dump millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico and go on raking in billions, an open source project that makes the world a better place will do just fine.

  9. I also note that for a group proposing a new method of collaborative working they have completely failed to understand how wikipedia works

    They are using it to describe how a theoretical method of design could function, but discuss theory as fact.

  10. I also found article is quite hard to read, and after reviewing it a few times, I’m still not really sure what they are advocating.
    But, as an architect, I thought I’d share my experience with the idea of open source architecture, specifically with the existing Open Architecture Network run by Architecture for Humanity. We won a design competition with them several years ago, and were required to submit all our drawings to the OAN. We were concerned because we knew that what we had designed was appropriate for the site and client that we were working with, but we would get calls from people wanting to use our design for a completely different purpose in a very different climate and culture. We were happy to share our design ideas, but worried that structural details, climate strategies and programming ideas wouldn’t translate for another project, possibly resulting in a building that was at best not very pleasant to spend time in or look at, and at worst, structurally unsound. It made is nervous to have our name attached, however loosely, to something that was very much out of our control. To us, the problem seemed to be that the OAN seemed to regard architecture as a product (a building), where as I would argue that it is in fact a process that takes a skilled professional. That process involves pulling together the people, ideas, site, building codes, available construction techniques, program and many other things to create a coherent and hopefully beautiful building. I’m not sure how that process can be “open-sourced.”

  11. Great comments – I agree with many of them.
    My comment about open source “details” was less about trying to figure out how someone got that glass into there, or how is that canopy so thin – though that too is interesting – but more about just shared knowledge in general.

    Bring up the issue in a group of architects and builders of appropriate vapor barrier design for your climate, and watch the confusion. It is surprising how many professionals are not up to speed on this, and continue to build the same assemblies that are getting pulled off of buildings down the street.

    What are the performance differences between similar product offerings? Is one cladding panel better than the other? Any experience with long term durability? What about the environmental impact? Is there a good rep?

    Bring up such topics, and watch as everyone relates having the same hard won knowledge from having made the same mistakes as the next guy. Such knowledge is jealously guarded, and not shared, except among close associates.

    What is a good LED replacement bulb for an MR16? Will your ballast drive it now that the wattage is so low? You can spend days trying to get an answer to that question. Someone who has been there can share it in a second, if only you could find them (and not the salespeople who will tell you anything).

    It would be great to have a place where the best thinking on the subject can fight it out for the entry on the subject. Proof of a state registration would probably be necessary to limit the marketing…as much as I hate the idea of a walled garden.

    Probably not a workable idea, but it is not to different than Wikipedia – just more specialized. Could probably pay for itself with the product ads in the sidebar. Anyone? Anyone?

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