architecture design

Open Source approaches in architecture

Last week I wrote about how open source approaches are being used in the automotive industry, helping to accelerate innovation. Today I wanted to mention that a handful of people are trying something similar in architecture.

Generally speaking architecture is bespoke, expensive, and often elitist. Most of us live in fairly standard boxes. Really good houses, whether they are aesthetically or technologically excellent, tend to be for the wealthy. That’s not necessarily a problem on the aesthetics side. Not everyone wants to live in an ‘interesting’ house, or live opposite one for that matter. But in an age of climate change, it would be great if the most sustainable designs were widely available for more of us to build.

One group working on this is the Open Building Institute. They are developing a library of designs for housing elements which all fit together in a modular system – things like windows, doors, greenhouses, insulated panels. The aim is to keep them simple and accessible, so that people could feasibly build them themselves and then combine them into one of their off the shelf buildings, or a design of their own.

The project is based out of Factor E Farm, home to Open Source Ecology. New buildings are developed by a community of designers and engineers, and then built on the farm as a demonstration. This one is the HabLab, a residential unit for volunteers that was built mainly out of mud bricks made on site.

Another group working on Open Source architecture is WikiHouse, which I’ve described before. Their plan is to build a community of makers sharing designs for structures that can be CNC milled and then assembled like a big kit. So far there has been a lot of talk and very few demonstration projects, so I need a bit more convincing on WikiHouse, but I like the philosophy.

Both of those are going for community generated designs, so it’s not led by the architecture profession. But some architects are using Open Source. The best known is Alejandro Aravena, the creator of the ‘half-house’. He’s a high profile architect who specialises in social housing, and who wants to build great homes for the disadvantaged. His Elemental architecture practice has given away some of its famous social housing designs, so that anyone can learn from them, adapt them, and build them.

Other architects have designed specific homes and given away the designs, hosted on a website called Paperhouses. Homes, structures and furniture are also featured on Bricks, a hub for open source architecture and a good place to start.

It feels to me like this movement is in its infancy, with little participation from the wider construction industry at this point. But when you consider the housing needs of a growing global population, and the huge need for affordable and efficient homes, it’s a movement with important work to do. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.


  1. This is exciting news. I’m impressed by your research. Would you mind if I reblogged (if you allow it)?

  2. “Open source” in architecture has very little value for architects in comparison to the technological industries. While the “free software” movement stated because of the aggressive use of copyright to capitalize from innovation in the software industry – in architecture innovation is shared freely.

    Architecture is an old discipline, that is based on services in a similar way to the business models of the open-source software industry, so in a way, architecture was always “open source”.

    It seems that “open source architecture” is “Free DIY construction”.

    Some notes about the porjects:
    Aravena’s work isn’t distributed with a license.
    Paperhouses’ license isn’t open source at all!

    Wikihouse and OBI might have potential as they develop new construction technologies.

    1. I agree that open sourcing thinking operates very differently, and much better, in the software world. No doubt about it. You’ll never get the same kind of collaborative dynamic with something as slow moving as construction. So it’s more ‘inspired by’ open source than entirely true to the definition.

      Not sure that it’s just ‘free DIY construction’ though. I think it will be more than that if and when projects like WikiHouse and OBI get going. As I say, the whole idea is in its infancy. We’re going to have to wait and see whether it develops into anything useful, or whether it remains an interesting but unfulfilled idea.

  3. Building techniques are tangential to the difficulties that people experience in providing themselves with a livelihood and a roof over their heads.

    If there is restricted to land, then they are locked out of work and have nowhere to put so much as a cardboard box.

  4. “Generally speaking architecture is bespoke, expensive, and often elitist”

    In of my blog post, I tried touching on this subject and how the architects of today need to think differently. I think what you’ve written here needs to be said more often and by more people. Kudos to you!

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