February 2008

Open Architecture Network (OAN)

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The Open Architecture Network, a website that Cameron Sinclair co-founded applies the principles behind open-source software to the construction of the material world, is working toward that sweeping global goal. The author reflects on the online sharing and collaborative exercises…

Open architecture

An architecture whose specifications are public. This includes officially approved standards as well as privately designed architectures whose specifications are made public by the designers. The opposite of open is closed or proprietary (http://www.webopedia.com/TERM/O/open_architecture.html). It's amazing how the ideas from Free Software (or Open Source) have spread to various other fields,  beyond just software. Ideals connected to building knowledge in a collaborative (and often sharable) way are surfacing in diverse fields. Parallel ideas are taking root in fields as diverse as open law, open source biology, MIT's   OpenCourseWare, Project Gutenberg and Books Online (that distributes e-Texts free online), free dictionaries and encyclopedias, and the open music movement. Even the IITs are putting out their lectures on You Tube.

Recently, I ran into this idea called 'open architecture'. On the web, 'open architecture' is defined in the manner done at the start of the article. Interestingly, this terminology (of 'open architecture') has long been used to refer to computer software, or even hardware. That's another context altogether. But now, it's more than clear that the ideas of FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) are actually spreading smartly to the world of actual brick-and-motar architecture. Comments the Wikipedia, itself the online volunteer-crafted and collaboratively-created encyclopedia: 'Open architecure is also beginning to be pushed to extend into the context of Architectural Design of Buildings by the group Architecture for Humanity.

The group has developed a project called the Open Architecture Network (OAN) which aims to bring the discipline of Architecture away from the closed format which is promoted by firms that choose not to share their work.'

It adds: 'Open architecture allows potential users to see inside all or parts of the architecture without any proprietary constraints.  Typically, an open architecture publishes all or parts of its architecture that the developer or integrator wants to share. The open business processes involved with an open architecture may require some license agreements between entities sharing the architecture  information.' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_architecture). 

Architecture for humanity

Architecture for Humanity (http://www.architectureforhumanity.org/) describes itself as a group that 'provides a range of services to community groups, NGOs and others seeking architecture and design services.' In addition it also says that it provides support to designers seeking to provide pro bono services to community groups through our design fellowship programme and fiscal sponsorship.

Open Architecture Network (OAN) group argues that one billion people live in abject poverty. Four billion live in fragile but growing economies. One in seven people live in slum settlements. By 2020 it will be one in three. It says: 'We don't need to choose between architecture or revolution. What we need is an architectural revolution.'Recently, some write-ups on the net highlighted an innovative venture of how architectural skills could help 'improve the living standards of five billion people'. The Open Architecture Network (http://www.openarchitecturenetwork.org/) follows the FLOSS model to create and share networks and solutions for those who need it. It already has some 1266 architectural projects, available to be shared and used. It asks: 'How do you improve the living standards of five billion people?' And then, the Open Architecture Network goes on to say, 'With 100 million solutions. Your solutions.

The situation is bleak. The grandiloquently-announced U.N. Millennium Development Goals aim to 'achieve improvement in the lives of 100 million slum dwellers by the year 2015.' But reaching this goal will require a profoundly new approach to improving the built environment. So where does the OAN fit in? The Open Architecture Network calls itself 'an online, open source community dedicated to improving living conditions through innovative and sustainable design.'

Using OAN

There are very many advantages of using Open Architecture Network. Like in the Free Software model, here designers of all persuasions can:

  • Share their ideas, designs and plans
  • View and review designs posted by others
  • Collaborate with each other, people in other professions and community leaders to address specific design challenges
  • Manage design projects from concept to implementation
  • Communicate easily amongst team members
  • Protect their intellectual property rights using the Creative Commons 'some rights reserved' licensing system and be shielded from unwarranted liability
  • Build a more sustainable future

OAN's experience

OAN grew out of Architecture for Humanity and designers who volunteer and through the local chapters. 'It grew out of our collective frustration in sharing ideas and trying to work together to address shelter needs after disaster, in informal settlements and in our own communities,' says the OAN's site.

Architecture for Humanity is itself a US-registered charitable organisation that seeks 'architectural solutions to humanitarian crises and brings design services to communities in need.OAN began in Spring 2006, when Architecture for Humanity won the prestigious TED Prize, given to three individuals who have positively impacted life on this planet. Winners get a chance to make one wish to change the world. OAN's wish: 'To build on our success creating opportunities for architects to help communities in crises. We envisioned a truly collaborative online community and gathering place for those dedicated to improving the built environment. Sun Microsystems, Hot Studio, Creative Commons, AMD and other partners joined Architecture for Humanity in getting closer to this goal, resulting in the launch of the Open Architecture Network. OAN hopes to 'serve' architects, designers, engineers and anyone else involved in the building trades is welcome to share their ideas on the network.But, it says, the network is not just for professionals. Community leaders, nonprofit groups, volunteer organisations, government agencies, technology partners, healthcare workers, educators and others are also invited to collaborate on projects and share their expertise. After all if we're to meaningfully address the challenges of building a sustainable future, we'll need (a lot of) help from people of all walks of life,' it says.

What is the Open Architecture Network's goal anyway?

'Far from replacing the traditional architect, the goal of the network is to allow designers to work together in a whole new way, a way that enables five billion potential clients to access their skills and expertise. The network's mission: to generate not one idea but the hundreds of thousands of design ideas needed to improve living conditions for all,' says the group.

OAN offers various initiatives. 'Own the Day' is a scheme using which, the group says, it wishes to provide 365 days of pro bono design services around the world — one day at a time — by donating one day's worth of your (an architect's) salary. Since architects tend to be very busy and find doing pro bono work difficult, they're given the choice of donating 'one day of your salary instead'. Other initiatives are cropping up. Open Source Architecture promises an 'egoless, cooperative and evolutionary practice of architecture' (http://www.suite75.net/blog/maze/). On the other hand, Open Source Architecture for Africa is another venture at (http://www.osafa.org/english/Home).

Other initiatives

This project Osafa.org has been working towards a Wikipedia-like platform where the 'source code' of construction projects, i.e. floor plans, building descriptions, drafts/photos and commercials calculations would be shared under an open licence, ready to be reused or adapted, without licence fees. In an article titled 'The house that social networking built', Elsa Wenzel wrote in News.com: “Forget about showy 'starchitecture' from the likes of Frank Gehry. Architect Cameron Sinclair sees the future of his field in the slums, where the United Nations projects that one-third of the world's population will dwell by 2030.”

“Sinclair insists that nothing short of a design revolution is needed to construct innovative housing solutions from the ground up. The Open Architecture Network, a website he co-founded that applies the principles behind open-source software to the construction of the material world, is working toward that sweeping global goal.” Wenzel noted that the project is an offshoot of Architecture for Humanity, founded in 1999 by Sinclair and his wife, Kate Stohr. In the article, the writer pointed out that the nonprofit has worked to provide affordable housing in the tsunami-Trampled Indian Ocean region and post-Hurricane Katrina U.S. Gulf Coast, as well as HIV clinics and soccer fields in sub-Saharan Africa. Its call to arms serves as the title of Architecture for Humanity's 2006 book Design Like You Give a Damn (http://news.zdnet.com/2100)

Working solutions


OAN's Challenge is asking designers to come up with solutions for the real world, and that too, for the poor and the deprived who need it most badly. One such contest says: 'Enable families in a remote rural area of Nepal where there is only one doctor for a population of 250,000 to access healthcare from top physicians and medical professionals all over the world by building a tele-medicine center.' These are all hot ideas, have no doubt about it. What's better than doing work that makes you feel that your skills are serving a great social purpose, and you're very much wanted on the planet?  

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