Why Open Building

Ordinary built environment has come into existence and transformed without much fanfare for millennia. Sustainability was never debated. This was possible because cultural aspirations for stability and coherence in buildings and urban fields were balanced by individuals and organizations taking responsibility for and transforming the spaces they occupied. This dynamic changed in the early 20th century, with the advent of centrally controlled large-scale developments exceeding almost anything previously built, guided by the principles of functionalism. The agency of the occupant/user in environmental transformation was called into question in the name of efficiency – particularly in the increasingly large and dense urban building types. The result by-and-large was increased rigidity and uniformity of the building stock. The result has been that the longevity of built assets – their sustainability - is no longer assured.

This imbalance had its most pernicious effects in the residential building stock in situations where powerful central governments and large corporations had sway, and individual agency was largely eliminated. Examples abound and now absorb huge resources to correct the mistakes. For a number or reasons, the United States largely escaped these pathologies. In any case, gradually, in different places, responses to the negative impacts of the centralization of control (euphemistically called “integration”) are being implemented, especially in the housing arena. But power gained is not easily given up. The most pressing issues in residential environment resilience and sustainability today therefore involve efforts to make variety (user agency) efficient, and legally and financially realistic.

In contrast, office and retail developments have largely avoided the rigidities that characterized centrally controlled residential development. The same can be said for laboratories. It became unthinkable to initiate the design of these projects with specific floor plans. Instead, architects and their clients adopted an infrastructure model of design and development in which decisions are decoupled and sequenced according to the expected lifespans: base buildings were expected to outlast the changing occupant fit-out and equipment. The way in which office buildings, retail assets and laboratories around the world are built and behave is now so straightforward and implicit now that no one questions this mode of operation.

Now, the principles of infrastructure planning are catching on in housing and healthcare facility acquisition. Clients of educational facilities – at all levels - are also looking for strategies to make their assets have longer useful lives, and good examples to learn from. Open Building is part of this story – it’s is a name adopted some years ago by an international research network by which to recognize, discuss and improve upon the cultivation of a sustainable building stock.

While most of the literature on Open Building so far – in many languages - has focused on liberating the housing process from the strictures of rigid functionalism and “integrated” control, it is equally important now to pay attention to the extent to which “Open Building” is relevant to the building stock as a whole.