Open building

At NxtGen Houses we said: “Let’s see how we can create a high-quality LEGO-like open building system which can be adjusted to changed circumstances.”

The basic ideas of open building are simple: buildings change because human activities change, and therefore we should prepare buildings for this reality. The built environment is never finished. Control or responsibility for change, of function, of use, of technology and so on, is distributed among many players, including users.

Built environments that have sustained themselves have always exhibited some kind of a balance between change and stability, between individual and collective design decisions. Change has become a constant factor. Population movements; changes of use; forces of nature which destroy and require rebuilding rapidly. There is a need to create a new kind of building that’s more capable of responding to change quickly.

An open building is constructed as a whole, but is designed in such a way that in the future, the various systems and modules, such as outer walls, kitchens, bathes and toilets, can be adjusted without disturbing any other dwelling or the common infrastructure. The building skeleton, the exterior cladding, the interior finishes and the mechanical systems are treated as separate building subsystems. The main system uses subsystems and parts that are readily available on the market such as wall systems, doors and door frames, various finishes, hot water heating equipment, kitchen and bathroom fixtures and equipment. The built environment can be seen as having a hierarchical structure in which higher levels serve as the setting and context in which lower levels operate.

The basic principles of Open Building are aligned exactly with the goals of sustainability in the built environment: manufacture and design for assembly, disassembly, and reuse. Open Building methods support the development of “click-together” components whose reuse values are high. Product manufacturers make products compatible with other products having tight interfaces, and in some cases, these products are compatible among manufacturers, true “open” products such as light bulbs that can be used in the sockets manufactured by many companies.

Long-term asset value
Open Building helps the long-term and short-term cycles of value in residential architecture. The idea that investments should consider long-term asset value is also forcing all parties to learn to make buildings, especially but not limited to multi-occupant buildings, that can adjust as technologies, social patterns, and preferences, both individual and community, continue to evolve.

In the technical arena, we know now that it’s important to disentangle the technical subsystems that are expected to have a long and useful life from the parts that are expected to change. The idea of separating the long-term parts from the short-term parts is a key part of an open building strategy. When buildings are energy-efficient, adaptable, and lovable, they’re going to be good investments because they’ll last longer.

N. John Habraken – Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing, 1961 (Dutch), 1972 (English)
N. John Habraken – The uses of levels, 1988/2002 (Dutch), 1972 (English)
Stephen Kendall – Open Building: An Approach to Sustainable Architecture, 1999
Stephen Kendall and John R. Dale – Open Building: Creating Resilient, Adaptive Learning Environments