"Open Source" is a bit of a buzz word in architecture at the moment. Architects generally don't like to share, my observation is that their competitive nature and the percieved value of private personal knowledge is too great to consider sharing. However some designers are starting to realise something that software developers have known for years, helping others helps yourself.
Although the idea of open source has been around since the mid 1900s, in the form of shared industrial design blueprints, it was the arrival of the internet that mobilised an entire movement around the sharing and collaboration on open software.
According to Wikipedia "Open-source software is software whose source code is published and made available to the public, enabling anyone to copy, modify and redistribute the source code without paying royalties or fees." http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_source
PC World have previously explained the benefits of open source in detail but in short the reasons cover improved security, quality, customisability, freedom, flexibility, interoperability, auditability, support community, lower cost, and create the ability to trial before buying.
The concept of open source has moved into hardware as the web generation have turned their attention from as Neil Gershwin puts it "bits to atoms". Electronics, fashion, robotics, medicine, science and engineering all have open source movements but it has only started to emerge in Architecture in recent years. The highest profile open source projects around at the moment are WikiHouse and OpenDesk both by London based Architectural practice 00
In both cases their open source credentials partly exist in the ability to share digital files via the web, facilitating digital fabrication of furniture and in wikihhouse a er.. house. In the case of Open Desk a selection of designs are available from a select number of internationally based designers. The supplied digital files provide 2d cut out templates to be translated by a CNC Router, if you have the time and inclination you could assemble the object in digital space, customise, then reduce back down to a template for cutting.
This is where the open source credentials stop however as the site is set up on what appears to be a freemium model where designers can eventually sell their designs via the Open Desk market place. This approach is a wolf in sheep's clothing using "Open Source" as a marketing hook rather than a design ideology.
To keep the animal analogies going WikiHouse on the other hand is the Lazy Fox that aims to evolve building solutions through incremental improvements of freely available designs. It is an open source construction set that the public can download and use, while an associated community developes the enabling hardware and software. In their words "WikiHouse is being developed collaboratively by a small – but growing – community of people all around the world. There is no fixed design 'team' or 'studio', but a steadily growing community of designers from all disciplines who share in common the belief that developing freely available design solutions which are affordable, sustainable, and adaptive to differing needs is a worthwhile aim."
The principles behind the movement are very interesting. It looks beyond building a domestic scaled shelter from digitally fabricated parts and is trying to encourage inventors, designers and engineers to tackle physical and virtual integrated systems. An open development in smart home sensors and thermal, water, plant, electrical systems can leverage those who by day are engaged in other professions but by night can bring their skills to the architectural field.
In terms of achieving the open source ideology software developers imagined wiki house is open, it offers access to its "commons" where files of work in development are held (using google drive). I haven't managed to get access yet so I'm unable to say how open the community really is, but a recent addition to the website makes me suspicious. The "catalogue" is currently offering a studio for the open source price of 14,000 UK pounds,it appeared as though the wiki house was now more of a commercial product. This is not strictly untrue but after further investigation and downloading of the documents this price is for the final built object based on material costs. However you can enquire to buy and this is where I get cynical, perhaps unjustly as money has to be made somewhere for a project to exist but I can't help thinking about
Andrew Keens book "The internet is not the answer" that identifies that a lot of "open source" labelled projects are actually marketing ploys with self serving ambitions, I hope I'm wrong.
If Architecture is to benefit from the open source approach it needs to provide access to design files, as well as the design tools with which to engage and participate. The percieved danger is that Architecture could lose its integrity as Amanda Levette recently claimed, the availability of digital modelling and fabrication tools turns everyone into a potential designer. But beyond this technophobic (and frankly generational) view I believe Architecture only sets to benefit from a disruption created by other cultures, skillsets, knowledge bases and design fields.
The WikiHouse is an open construction set, but does it construct anything good, and does it produce innovative architecture? I will be exploring this in a later post..