5 Initiatives That Show the Rise of Open Source Architecture

In architecture, perhaps the most remarkable change heralded by the 20th was the radical rethinking of housing provision which it brought, driven by a worldwide population explosion and the devastation of two world wars. Of course, Modernism’s reappraisal of the design and construction of housing was one part of this trajectory, but still Modernism was underpinned by a traditional process, needing clients, designers and contractors. Arguably more radical were a small number of fringe developments, such as mail-order houses in the US and Walter Segal’s DIY home designs in the UK. These initiatives sought to turn the traditional construction process on its head, empowering people to construct their own homes by providing materials and designs as cheaply as possible.

In the 21st century, the spirit of these fringe movements is alive and well, but the parameters have changed somewhat: with a rise in individualism, and new technologies sparking the “maker movement,” the focus has shifted away from providing people with the materials to construct a fixed design, and towards improving access to intellectual property, allowing more people to take advantage of cheap and effective designs. The past decade has seen a number of initiatives aimed at spreading open source architectural design--read on to find out about five of them.

ELEMENTAL Releases Social Housing Designs into the Public Domain

The 4 designs which ELEMENTAL released to the public in 2016

When he was awarded the Pritzker Prize earlier this year, Alejandro Aravena was praised by the jury for his part in the construction of over 2,500 units of social housing. However, for Aravena this number was clearly not enough to solve the housing crises taking place worldwide, and he used the platform of the award ceremony to announce that his firm ELEMENTAL was releasing four of its signature “half a house” designs to the public via its website, allowing people to use and adapt their ideas for other contexts around the world. This unprecedented move for a Pritzker Laureate undoubtedly raised the profile of open source architecture.

Cameron Sinclair’s Open Architecture Network

Design for a Sustainable Portable Classroom originally shared on the Open Architecture Network. Image © Drexel University Design Charrette via Wikimedia licensed under CC BY 3.0

After winning the prestigious TED Prize in 2006, Cameron Sinclair, of Architecture for Humanity fame, got the chance to realize his wish of an online network for humanitarian architecture, where those involved in bringing architecture to the world’s most disadvantaged communities would be able to share their work, strategies and designs. The initiative was the first major attempt to bring open source principles to architectural design, and while the idea unfortunately didn’t gain the momentum required to sustain itself after Sinclair moved on to other ideas--the website is now defunct--the initiative was unquestionably a huge, high profile step forward for open source architecture which inspired many to follow in Sinclair’s footsteps.


A 2-story WikiHouse design constructed in 2014 for the London Design Festival. Image © Margaux Carron www.margauxcarron.com

The concept behind WikiHouse taps in deeply to the recent advances made in digital manufacture. Using a construction system that requires only a CNC machine and timber sheets such as plywood or OSB, buildings can be constructed by just about anybody. With this construction system, WikiHouse pairs a website on which users can share and adapt designs for a variety of purposes. Since it was founded, the concept of WikiHouse has expanded, with co-founder Alistair Parvin taking to the TED stage to explain how the concept could become a “Wikipedia for stuff,” offering blueprints for everything from off-grid energy solutions right down to a mallet constructed from plywood to build WikiHouse structures.


Tatiana Bilbao S.C.'s design for Paperhouses, The Module House. Image Courtesy of Paperhouses

While many developments in open source architecture have focused on designs for people at the low end of the economic spectrum, Paperhouses focuses on a slightly different mission. Central to its mission is bringing world-class design to middle-class people who would otherwise probably end up with mediocre houses. In a result that would surprise some, Paperhouses has found a number of internationally-renowned architects willing to release their work via the platform; as founder Joana Pacheco has said, while some architects consider their designs as irreproducible works of art, there are many others who “embrace this idea of the participation of the people, of a collaboration between user and architect that can bring about different and interesting results.”


Sstudiomm's parametric patterned brick facade, which inspired their open source initiative. Image Courtesy of Sstudiomm

But the greatest sign of the rise of open source architecture will not be in a small number of high-profile programs, but in a groundswell of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of grassroots operations, of architects sharing their work simply for the benefit of humanity. Such is the case with Sstudiomm. After designing a low-tech way to construct a parametric patterned brick facade in Iran, they initially released the templates they used to create that facade to the public. Now, recognizing that their simple parametric process could be used to create all manner of other patterns, they have released details of the design process and founded a blog known as Bricksource, where they hope other like-minded designers will share variations on their original design. Announced without the fanfare of a Pritzker Prize ceremony or a TED Talk, this low-key approach to sharing design ideas may be where the future of open source architecture.

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Cite: Rory Stott. "5 Initiatives That Show the Rise of Open Source Architecture" 24 Sep 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/795959/5-initiatives-that-show-the-rise-of-open-source-architecture> ISSN 0719-8884

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