Open source architecture
Illustration: Michael Kirkham

In 2016, Alejandro Aravena, winner of that year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize, placed the plans of four housing projects that he had designed for construction in his native Chile on his firm’s website for anyone to download. “From now on they are public knowledge, an open source,” Aravena and his firm, Elemental, stated when they released the designs. “We hope [this] will be able to rule out one more excuse for why markets and governments don’t move in this direction to tackle the challenge of massive rapid urbanization.”

Open source architecture—or a “citizen-centered design movement” that aims to democratize the power of design—has been gaining traction over the last decade, but the idea isn’t entirely new. People have been thinking about ways to take the power of design from the hands of architects and design professionals for as long as those professions have existed. In the 1972 essay “Housing as a Verb,” architect John F.C. Turner made the case that housing ought not to be a static unit that is packaged and handed over to people, but rather it should be conceived of as an ongoing project wherein the residents are co-creators. In this way, the designs are constantly evolving and iterating, selecting the features that work most effectively.

However, with the rise of the internet, open source architecture became easier than ever to explore and execute. Modeling itself on the success of open source software that anyone can build upon and share, open source architecture—its advocates hope—has the potential to radically disrupt the relationship between architects, developers, and consumers while at the same time addressing the housing crisis that is already emerging as the world develops more rapidly.

“You have tools for collaborative design that [have] never existed before, and those are being democratized across people who don’t have, necessarily, an M.Arch. degree or know how to read blueprints,” says Matthew Claudel, co-author of the 2015 book Open Source Architecture.

This is seen as a boon in a world with a swiftly growing population, and a corresponding need for shelter. “I would say that if you look at the rate of urbanization between now and 2050, it’s the equivalent of building a city the size of New York every five weeks for the next 33 years,” says Alastair Parvin, co-founder of WikiHouse, a London-based nonprofit company working on open source innovation and R&D for the built environment.

“We have fundamental building challenges that we face in this century,” Parvin continues, “and the current design industry just isn’t going to be able to do it.”

Of course, architecture is already seen by some as a luxury the type of which not everyone can take advantage.

“The engine of architecture has become geared toward the privileged few: Today, buildings designed by architects account for no more than 2 percent of global construction,” Claudel and co-author Carlo Ratti, both of MIT, wrote in Open Source Architecture. By democratizing the design process used by skilled and credentialed architects, Ratti and Claudel hope, architecture can be used to meet the needs of consumers, and not the needs that developers imagine consumers will have.

The reality, of course, is a little more difficult. “We will know for sure [if it works] if some enterprising investor or development agency picks up the idea, runs with it, and makes it work in the real, unfortunate world,” renowned architecture critic John Bentley Mays wrote of the idea in Toronto’s Globe and Mail in 2014.

Claudel, however, sees the monopoly of development agencies on the design and building process as a symptom of the much larger malaise that open source architecture seeks to address. With open source architecture, he argues, there’s much more room for discussion about whose needs a building should meet.

“The book ends with the idea of architects creating frameworks—processes, not buildings—and the occupants creating ‘infill’—a kind of ‘choral’ design discovery that implicates architects and the public,” he says. “We called it the ‘choral architect.’ ”

The “choral architect” idea is manifested in projects like WikiHouse, which bills itself as “representative of the next industrial revolution in the way we make homes.” The brainchild of Parvin and co-founder Nick Ierodiaconou, both formerly with Architecture 00, WikiHouse uses an online platform that hosts downloadable blueprints that can be made on CNC (computer numerical control) machines that automatically cut and label the components (in this case, from wood), following a digital pattern to make customizable shelter available to whomever has the means of building it. The idea is that people with limited knowledge of construction can fit the fabricated pieces together like a Lego set.

“We were really interested in this question of how we could empower, how we could distribute the power to build,” Parvin says. “That’s kind of what we called the idea: the right to build.”

So what does all of this mean in the real world? The WikiHouse concepts are being developed by more than 30 teams worldwide, and its main online hub features a community forum currently hosted on GitHub. But the supply chain technology available for the project—which WikiHouse has started to develop—has yet to catch up. Skeptics of the concept point out that most homes aren’t going to be plywood in the future, to which Parvin says, “Of course not.”

“The vast majority of people saying, ‘It won’t work,’ are coming from that, and it’s basically because they’re taking what they can currently see,” Parvin says. Parvin is confident that the technology for enhanced versions of WikiHouse will eventually be developed.

The plans that Aravena and Elemental released in 2016 were for a “half-house” public housing model that’s already been implemented in Chile: Governments provide half of a move-in-ready house to those in need, with space for expansion on the other side when occupants acquire the means. This idea embodies a tenet central to open source architecture: Residents should build only what they can afford to at any given time, thus reducing—or possibly even eliminating—the cost of borrowing.

While work like Aravena’s is currently the exception, not the rule, Claudel thinks that the model is something that architects, designers, and anyone interested in open source architecture can learn from.

“I think something that’s hinted at in Aravena’s work—and which is expressed in city-making over time—has been the process of exploring and learning by doing, which is how biological evolution works,” he says. “There is a mutation, and if it’s a good one it sticks. And that’s something that doesn’t really exist so much in formal architecture.”