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The Open Architecture Network and the Future of Design
Alex Steffen, 1 Feb 07
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Some demographers call it the largest migration in human history: the movement of hundreds of millions of poor rural people to the emerging megacities where they believe they can build themselves a better future. Overall, the urbanization of the planet is a good thing, helping people struggle out of absolute poverty, increasing access to essential services like health care and education, and raising the status of (and opportunities available to) young women (and thus helping to bring down birth rates and stabilize population growth). But the sheer magnitude of urban growth -- by some estimates, two-thirds of the cityscapes that will exist by mid-century have not even been built yet -- presents dire challenges as well. Already, over a billion people make their homes in urban squatter settlements: how do we build communities to house the two billion more who are expected to live in slums by the middle of the century?

"By the middle of the century, one in three people on the planet will be living in inadequate, often illegal housing," says Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity. "I mean, think about that! The formal architectural profession does not have anything like the capacity to meet people's needs on that scale. Worse, many of the people working in this space are unaware of each other's work. There's a vast replication of effort, not only the same successes, but the same failures. We need millions of solutions, and we need to share them all across the world."

But how do help billions of people share millions of solutions in a useful manner? Cameron thinks he has the answer: The Open Architecture Network. [Full disclosure: Cameron contributes to this site, and edited the refugee section of our book. We've also worked together on disaster relief, and I consider him a close friend.]

The Open Architecture Network is a collaborative database which Architecture for Humanity hopes will make it easy for architects, designers and engineers from around the world to freely share their work, evaluate and modify existing solutions, and collaborate around new approaches. Think of it as the Wikipedia of humanitarian design, the first big step towards open source design.

With a coalition of sponsors and partners, including Sun, Architecture for Humanity built and is starting to test a system designed to be not just a repository of good ideas, but a tool for collaboration and research. Users will be able, Cameron says, to search existing ideas based on a number of criteria (such as, say, "housing, affordable, tropical, community-designed, passive solar, bamboo materials) and the ratings of other users.

This is no elitist playground, either. "We're not defining an architect as someone who's been through 7 years of education," Cameron says. "If this thing isn't useful to informal community designers living in favelas, it'll fail. We aim to prove that you don't need $15,000 worth of CAD programs to come up with design solutions. You can participate with a napkin sketch, a borrowed scanner and a public Internet connection." (However, it should be noted that the site will be available initially only in English, which will further limit its utility to barefoot architects.)

The Network will also provide insight not only into what people have built elsewhere, but how they built it: "It's not just designs, it goes all the way through to implementation -- it will have not just innovative abstract solutions, but actual projects and built buildings."

The seed stock for the database will come from Architecture for Humanity itself. They plan to include some of the ideas from their book, Design Like You Give a Damn, as well as as many of the 1,200 entries to their previous architectural competitions as possible.

Indeed, Cameron would like to see humanitarian architecture and design competitions change the way they operate in light of the Network's possibilities. "What if design competitions were based around a particular set of criteria, but at the end, you made the good thinking in all the designs open and available to everyone? Imagine if all the great new ideas remained available. For that matter, why should the project end? Once the competition is over, some of the designers might look at other people's work and have a realization about how to make their projects much better. Just because there was a prize awarded shouldn't mean that you stop trying to show your idea to the world and keep refining it in conversation with others."

The legal framework which will allow such collaboration is the Creative Commons Developing Nations License, which gives designers the ability to charge those who can pay for their work, while sharing that same work freely with others who can't afford to pay. It might, in addition, create a mechanism for the new generation of informal designers in emerging megacities to find a market for their leapback solutions. "If the system works, it's a call to action: all that community and humanitarian design work that you said you wanted to do but couldn't -- well, here is the system for doing that. It'll be interesting to see if the design community rises to the challenge."

"This will involve the design community changing how it sees itself," Cameron says at the end of our conversation. "Are designers ready to see themselves not as lone geniuses but as partners in a movement? Can they respond to a need in a distant place -- say a community center in Senegal -- and rally around and share ideas and talk about, given the resources and the needs, what solutions can be suggested and how the community can actually make use of them?"

If the site really takes off, Cameron hopes it will create an entire, constantly-evolving body of solutions. "Imagine that someone comes up with a model for building affordable housing in China, and that it is clever and sustainable, and it can be downloaded and changed and altered for different situations, so next you get fifteen different 'children' of that design and then each of those iterates with other influences elsewhere, until you rapidly get a biodiversity of design, a whole family tree of innovation."

It's a great vision, a worldchanging vision, because, as Cameron says right before we ring off, "If you really want to make change in the world, you can't hoard the tools for making it."

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This is a wonderful development, but is the embrace of world urbanization necessary? It's definitely happening but I think we too easily laud a phenomenon largely driven by corruption and brutality.

Posted by: donald on 1 Feb 07

That's an interesting statement, Donald. Can you provide any citations for your contention that the hundreds of millions of people who are choosing to move to cities are part of a "phenomenon largely driven by corruption and brutality"?

Most of what I've heard, read and seen suggests that people are moving to cities because they really, really want to, for all the problems megacities present.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 2 Feb 07

Architecture for Humanity should be hitting hard at US attitudes towards natural building - houses made of straw bale, cob, wattle, etc. This type of building requires little in the way of schooled skills and uses the free materials right under your feet. Natural houses are warm, clean and safe, and don't require lots of factory-packaged building materials. Inspectors need to be educated to approve more natural builders, because right now it's virtually impossible to get them to even consider it because it's something they don't have experience with.

For the cost of one year's rent where I live now, I could easily afford to put up a large yurt or build a cob house. But there's not a building inspector in the country that would let me do it, even though it's safe and clean. Cob houses have stood undamaged in all parts of the world for hundreds of years. That's a lifespan that current architectural standards can't hope to compete with. Natural building is tragically misunderstood and underappreciated, which is sad because it's housing that can be build by just about anyone. That would truly put power in the hands of those who need homes.

It doesn't help me to search through housing plans; it would help me to be allowed to built the inexpensive and environmentally aware house that I want. Would like to see the organization put efforts into changing laws and attitudes towards self-built natural houses! Great project, I'm excited to read about it.

Posted by: Verena on 2 Feb 07

Help from the WC community is needed if we are to design an "open design" mask for pandemic flu. Please follow the link on my username.

Before you go there: SIP means "shelter in place".

The World Health Organisation's experts said (sept 2006) that the next pandemic virus may emerge via mutation or reassortment. If it's a reassortant virus, then case-fatality-rate (CFR) will probably go down from the present 60+%. If it's a mutant strain, it needs not go down.

We need good and appropriate masks everywhere if we want to reach both contradictory goals (slow down the waves while we keep societies functioning) - and also the BOP networks to take them there as soon as they are needed.

There's at least one human case of H5N1 flu in Nigeria (confirmed a couple of days ago). So maybe those masks could be used now that there's no pandemic?

WC, please lend a hand!

Posted by: lugon on 2 Feb 07

as the comments here so far call for, hopefully the open architecture network wont focus itself on simply providing certain specific types of solutions. id like to see the site act also as a dynamic interactive forum, maybe a wiki, so it can generate discussion concerning the multitude of intertwining issues concerning not just architecture but all types of social, economic, political, technological issues relating to sustainability. since sustainability has such a plurality of definitions, so should this open network

Posted by: dzahsh on 2 Feb 07

This is extremely interesting and could be a great example of using collective intelligence to solve complex problems in design. Scientists collaborate successfully like this, there's no reason architects cannot do the same.

Posted by: grad student on 2 Feb 07


I am not sure about the corruption and brutality part, but a lot of people in a place like India move to the city, leaving family behind, because they think they have no other options and no opportunities in rural areas. I doubt if more than 50% of them really want to be there.

Developing countries would be better served by not equating cities with opportunity. Rather, they could help develop rural areas, not by converting them into cities, but by helping educate people, providing an environment for opportunities that go beyond agriculture and helping those in rural settings build and foster their own rural economies. Unfortunately, too much power is in the hands of a few landowners, corrupt politicians, etc, you don't want a more mobile rural populace, one with education and options.

Posted by: Deepak on 3 Feb 07

Greetings from Lagos, Nigeria, where I'll be living for the coming three months.

This is a fine idea...but...

Unless we take on the twin issues of land tenure and political rights, designing better bungalows will not provide a real way forward for the squatters and shanty dwellers of the world.

People in these communities often know that their homes are precarious, that they can be evicted at any time, with no discussion, no relocation and no compensation. While low cost innovative architecture can provide a hint of stability, it will not interest or benefit people if their homes can still be demolished at any time.

I hope the Open Architecture Network is not just seeking sketches and planning scenarios, but is willing to take a hard look at the community organizing and political involvement that is needed to get these communities to the point where design has any relevance.

Posted by: Robert Neuwirth on 4 Feb 07


Not what I expected from you but I know the point you are trying to make. You've heard me speak on Architecture for Humanity twice, Pop!Tech 05 and TED 06, and know that our organization has been involved in the construction of projects through a collaborative community design process. You also know that i speak about Architecture as a political act and that in order to build you must take on some of the issues brought up in your post.

Take a look at the book Design Like You Give A Damn, where incidentally your work is referenced, the case studies will give you an idea of how the system will be set up. However rather than static studies the OAN will allow it to be as fluid as the projects themselves.

Naturally in terms of design the OAN is not only have sketches but ALL stages of building from idea to implementation. Additionally we are not just seeking great projects but also failures - it is easy to learn from others successes but as important to learn how things did not work. Don't think of the OAN as a repository of ideas, it is built as a mechanism to get those ideas off the drawing board.

In time it will have a growing resources area that discusses things like land tenure and political rights and how these can be addressed and tackled. Please take into consideration it would be extremely hard to build a site right off the bat that would tackle every aspect of what it takes to allow for local innovation and entrepreneurship to the needs of a majority of people in urban settlements. With a beta version of a system that has only been in development from the past 6 months - that is not going to happen and I'm certainly not going to come out and say that. But for the global community design community we need to get something out...

So think of the launch in March as the rough draft to a book on this issue. However instead of a publisher editing out things they don't think will sell, the readers can contribute and shape the story so as it address their needs. We are setting up the framework and it is the community that will push the issues that they feel is important.

Therefore I challenge you and others to participate. I come from a family that had a motto 'there is nothing worse than being all mouth and no trousers'. If we as a community want to seek change, you must be willing to be apart of it.


Ps. I recommended you for talks in Italy and the UAE... perhaps we will meet there or if I come to Nigeria this year.

Posted by: Cameron Sinclair on 4 Feb 07

pps. sorry for the typos -- it's pre-coffee here in SF.

Posted by: Cameron Sinclair on 4 Feb 07

Alex, this looks like a wonderful effort. As I was Sterling's latest Viridian Note, a thought occurred to me: "Next step, the cities." Perhaps one reason why Donald and others are dubious of urbanization is that auto-driven urbanization, the predominant form in the US, is likewise unsustainable.

It is, of course, interlaced with climate change. Will forward movement in one part of the system make it easier to catalyse movement in another? At what point will healing our built world become as urgent as climate has finally become? Soon enough to make a difference? We must proceed as if we know this is so. "It turns out the frog always jumps."

The reason a healing of the build world is crucial is that, no, in their present forms, few cities are compact enough and interwoven enough to truly sustain whole lives. As we lose the cars, we must perforce regain the neighborhoods; and the sooner we are aware of the tools at hand and have overcome our differences regarding them, the better we'll be as catalysts.

There is one crucial, even 'legacy', resource whose absence from the Open Architecture Network's budding resource guide I see as an oversight (under 'People We Like'). To my eyes, the pioneering work of Christopher Alexander and the Center for Environmental Structure should be present. Not only the well-known and rightly influential 'A Pattern Language', but also the more recent distillation of its original principles into four books which simplify the unfolding process needed to repair through creation of physical space; 'The Nature of Order'.

Some have argued that the stylistic 'roughness', the Wabi-Sabi, even the spirituality, of Alexander's work is unsuited to our hypermodern and postmodern sensibilities. But, unless I miss my guess, one crucial piece of the problem when fixing the way our urban environments perform will come down to how they make use feel when we're immersed in them. simply creating larger and larger 'machines for living' will, imho, only escalate the suffering which comes from rejection of the machine by the human.

I have come to agree with Alexander's hypothesis that, insofar as they make us feel alive, we will thrive in them, and insofar as they don't, we won't. Seemingly quite subjective, this question of 'aliveness' is the main focus of 'The Nature of Order', and includes a startlingly consistent method for litmus-testing this aspect of a candidate design.

Anyway, cliffhangers are better than boredom. :) I'll leave the discovery of that method to the reader. And now, the refs.

'A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction' - C. Alexander, Oxford University Press, 1977

'A New Theory of Urban Design' - C. Alexander, Oxford University Press, 1987 (far lesser known, it is a step along the path towards The Nature of Order, and details a tentative process for city-creation through adaptive accretion.)

'The Nature of Order (four volumes)' - C. Alexander, publisher The Center for Environmental Structure, 2001-2004

Also consider, however tainted by commercial concerns, New Urbanism and particularly 'The Next American Metropolis' by Peter Calthorpe.

Only connect,

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 4 Feb 07

The 'people we like' page appears on the architecture for humanity site not the Open Architecture Network. I haven't really updated that page in about a year but perhaps after the OAN launches I will.


Posted by: Cameron Sinclair on 4 Feb 07


Touchy, touchy. I write as a loyal oppositionist. I support the power of your vision and will definitely participate in the conversation. But, in my view, design of houses is one of the later stages of squatter mobilization. First we must partner with groups to encourage organizing on the ground--even if that organizing does not lead to design of homes.

Yes, architecture is a political act....for us. But the folks who live in these communities are often going to have to start on much more basic ground. The very fact of getting together with neighbors, of articulating a community viewpoint, and presenting it to seemingly distant and all-powerful officials is, in many countries, almost a revolutionary act.

When you spoke at pop!tech, one of the examples you cited was an architect who journeyed to an African country (was it South Africa?) to help a community design a football field. You may recall my somewhat impertinent question: why do you need an architect to design a football field?

It's still something I'm not clear on.

In sum: I support your effort and intend to participate as much as I can. But I will continue to bring up what I consider to be the tough issues, the ways in which our outside/expert perspectives may not be particularly meaningful to people living in the world's shantytowns.

All best!


Posted by: Robert Neuwirth on 5 Feb 07

Cameron: Ah; in the article, the live link at "Cameron thinks he has the answer: The Open Architecture Network. [Full disclosure.." links to

Either way, I (we) look forward to any updates, and definitely hope you all take a look at the work done by C.A. and the Center for Environmental Structure over the decades!

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 5 Feb 07


Not touchy just willing to challenge. sketches and scenarios seemed a dig, so I went for it.

For the Siyathemba project the initiative was to develop not only a football facility but an HIV/AIDS outreach facility. The field is used as a catalyst to engage youth in the area. The role of the architect is not as 'designer' but more as a community activist who brings together differing groups in order to develop, refine and build projects. The architects on the project are a partnership between a local firm and Swee Hong Ng from Singapore.

more info - About Siyathemba
video - Web Video

Keep on, keeping on....

Posted by: Cameron Sinclair on 5 Feb 07

I think the Open Architecture Network will be a great place to shared architectural designs among community designers, NOG's, etc, , but one should not over estimate its potential impact. For example, there are numerous progressive networks out there that address some of the larger issues others have raised here--even some of the projects Architecture for Humanity has featured in its work. Groups such as the Association for Community Design, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, the SEED Network, and the Pacific Design Network are just a few examples.

For those of you that are looking for a broader discussion about architecture in participatory democracies, I would suggest visiting It has been in existence for several years now and is the first open source international clearinghouse of its kind.

Posted by: Michael on 12 Feb 07

For those interested here is some more info on CPS.

Michael, keep up the great work.


Posted by: Cameron Sinclair on 13 Feb 07

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