Open-source architecture

Open-source architecture

Open-source architecture (OSArc) is an emerging paradigm[citation needed]describing new procedures for the design, construction and operation of buildings, infrastructure and spaces. Drawing from references as diverse as open-source culture, avant-garde architectural theory, science fiction, language theory, and others, it describes an inclusive approach to spatial design, a collaborative use of design software and a transparent operation throughout the course of a building and city's life-cycle.

Cooking is often hailed as an early form of open-source; vernacular architecture – producing recipes for everyday buildings – is another form of early lo-fi open-source culture, openly sharing and optimising technologies for building. A contemporary form of open-source vernacular is the Open Architecture Network launched by Architecture for Humanity, which replaces traditional copyright restrictions with Creative Commons licensing and allows open access to blueprints. Wider OSAarc relies on a digital commons and the shared spaces of the World Wide Web to enable instantaneous collaboration beyond more established regimes of competition and profit. Traditional architectural tools like drawings and plans are supplemented and increasingly replaced by interactive software applications using relational data and parametric connectivity.

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 sort of feedback loop that can ground – or unmoor – a project's intention and ultimately becomes part of it. 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, life over plans. Its purpose is to transform architecture from a top-down immutable delivery mechanism to a transparent, inclusive, and [[Top–down and bottom–up design|bottom–up ecological system – even if it still includes top–down mechanisms.

Open-source architecture revolutionises every step of the traditional building process[citation needed], from brief-building to demolition, programming to adaptive re-use, including the following:



New economic models, exemplified by incremental microdonations and crowd-funding strategies like Sponsume and Kickstarter, offer new modes of project initiation and development, destabilising the traditionally feudal hierarchy of client/architect/occupant. Financing of private projects increasingly moves to the public domain, offering mass rather than singular ownership, whereas funding of public projects can be derived from more flexible, responsive frameworks than simple levies or taxation. OSArc should have particular appeal for builders entirely outside the mainstream economy, such as squatters, refugees and the military.


OSArc relies upon amateurs as much as experienced professionals, the genius of the mass as much as that of the individual[citation needed], eroding the binary distinction between author and audience. Like social software, it recognises the core role of multiple users at every stage of the propose – 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 range from stealth authoritarianism to communitarian consensualism.

Traditional developments require engagement programmes in which the 'community' is 'consulted' with respect to incoming developments, often with blunt tools such as focus groups, which often result in lack of representation and input, or at worst can result in NIMBYism. With crowd-funded models, forms of engagement are built into the process, enabling a kind of emergent urbanism, in which use of space is optimised on terms set by its users. This reclamation of people's power can be seen as a soft, spatial version of Hacktivism. OSArc is likely to suffer some of the organizational drawbacks of open-source software, such as forking of projects, abandoned projects, the emergence of cliques and incompatibility with the installed base of buildings. Organized campaigns of fear, uncertainty and doubt are probable.


An important aspect of OSArc is the emergence of standards of collaboration. The establishment of common, open, modular standards (such as the grid proposed by the OpenStructures project) addresses the problem of hardware compatibility and the interface between components, allowing collaborative efforts across networks in which everyone designs for everyone. The establishment of universal standards also encourages the growth of networks of non-monetary exchange (knowledge, parts, components, ideas) and remote collaboration.


Mass customisation replaces standardisation as algorithms enable the generation of related but differentiated species of design objects. Parametric design tools like Grasshopper, GenerativeComponents, Revit and Digital Project enable new user groups to interact with, navigate and modify the virtual designs, and to test and experience arrays of options at unprecedented low cost – recognizing laypeople as design decision making agents rather than just consumers. Open-source codes and scripts enable design communities to share and compare information and to collectively optimise production through modular components, accelerating the historical accumulation of shared knowledge. BIM (Building Information Modelling) and related collaboration tools and practices enable cross-disciplinary co-location of design information and integration of a range of platforms and timescales. Rapid prototyping and other 3D printing technologies enable instant production of physical artefacts, both representational and functional, even at an architectural scale, to an ever-wider audience.

There are severe criticisms of the use of currently popular design software, however, because of the impossibility of future residents and users to access them. P2P Urbanism promotes low-tech design solutions that collect traditionally-derived design knowledge and makes it available on an open-source web platform. This focus instead promotes traditional local materials and building techniques in vernacular_architecture and is entirely distinct from that of the virtual design groups focusing upon the extremely expensive parametric design. The proponents of P2P Urbanism also philosophically oppose what they see as "fashionable" design approaches because of a link to unsustainable products, strong commercial interests, and total control by only a few participants -- which is the opposite of opening up design to the whole population. The point of open-source design should be to facilitate users designing and building their own dwellings, not to continue promoting a design elite that includes current starchitects.


The burgeoning open-source hardware movement enables sharing of and collaboration on the hardware involved in architecting kinetic or smart environments that tightly integrate software, hardware, and mechanisms. Through these various tools, informed by sensor data, design becomes an ongoing, evolutionary process, as opposed to the one-off, disjointed fire-and-forget methodology of traditional architecture. This is an acknowledgement of the fact that design has always been an unending process, as well as a collaboration between users and designers. Operating systems for the design, construction and occupancy phases become possible, created as open platforms stimulating a rich ecosystem of 'apps'. Various practices jostle to become the Linux, Facebook or iTunes of architectural software, engaging in 'platform plays' at different scales rather than delivery of plans and sections. Embedded sensing and computing increasingly mesh all materials within the larger "Internet of things", evolving ever closer towards Bruce Sterling's vision of a world of Spimes. Materials communicate their position and state during fabrication and construction, aiding positioning, fixing and verification, and continue to communicate with distributed databases for the extent of their lifetime.


Today’s OSArc enables inhabitants to control and shape their personal environment – “to Inhabit is to Design”, as John Habraken put it. This aspect is enhanced by today’s fully sentient networked spaces, constantly communicating their various properties, states and attributes – often through decentralised and devolved systems. Crucial system feedback is supplied by a wide range of users and occupants, often either by miniature electronic devices or mobile phones – crowdsourcing (like crowd-funding) large volumes of small data feeds to provide accurate and expansive real-time information. Personalisation replaces standardisation as spaces 'intelligently' recognise and respond to individual occupants. Representations of spaces become as vital after construction as they are before; real-time monitoring, feedback and ambient display become integral elements to the ongoing life of spaces and objects. Maintenance and operations become extended inseparable phases of the construction process; a building is never "complete" in OSArc's world of growth and change.

If tomorrow’s buildings and cities will be like "computers to live in" (apologies to Le Corbusier) OSArch provides an open, collaborative framework for writing their operating software.

See also


Various authors, Open Source Architecture, Domus 948 (June 2011)

Sterling, B. ‘Beyond the Beyond’ Blog on Wired Magazine,

Habraken, J. 1972, Supports – An Alternative to Mass Housing, London (The Architectural Press)

Leadbeater, C. 2008, We-think: The Power of Mass Creativity, London (Profile Books)

Botson, R. and Rogers, R. 2010, What's Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, New York City (HarperCollins)

P2P Urbanism, webpage at the Peer-to-Peer Foundation,

Salingaros, N. A. 2010, "P2P Urbanism",

Shepard, M. (editor), 2011, Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space, Boston (MIT Press)

Price, C., Banham, R., Barker, P. and Hall, P., 1969, 'Non Plan: an experiment in freedom' in New Society (338)

Kelly, K. 1994, Out of Control: the rise of neo-biological civilization, New York City (Perseus Books)

Open Building Network – Working Commission W104 ‘Open Building Implementation’ of the CIB – The International Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction (meets in a different country every year since its first meeting in Tokyo in 1994),

Nettime mailing lists: mailing lists for networked cultures, politics, and tactics,

Kaspori, D. 2003, ‘A Communism of Ideas: towards an architectural open source practice’ in Archis,

Haque, U. 2003–05 Open Source Architecture Experiment,

Fuller, M. and Haque, U. 2008, ‘Urban Versioning System 1.0’ in Situated Technologies Pamphlet Series, New York City (Architectural League of New York),

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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