Architects without Borders (Tech Trends Feature)31 May, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong
Cross-cultural collaboration realized with the Open Architecture Network.
In April, Lira Luis, AIA (American Institute of Architects), got a call from a relief organization based in British Columbia. The caller had found out about her design of a portable transient shelter pod. Luis was asked if the modular structure, originally intended for the tsunami victims of Thailand and Indonesia, could be used in the Solomon Islands, which had just been hit by a similar disaster. He told her he discovered the pod on a Web site. But Luis hadn't published the design on her Web site. So which site was he talking about? That was when Luis recalled that she'd created a project page with the description of the design and her contact information on OAN (Open Architecture Network) (figure 1).
Figure 1. The number of projects hosted on Open Architecture Network (OAN), an open-source community launched in April, is rapidly growing.
Jeffrey O'Brien, president of Minnesota-based Archigen-esis, had planned to use Google Groups to build a network of local and global contributors to the project. As a member of the local chapter of Architecture for Humanity, O'Brien and a team of volunteers had been partnering with the nonprofit Rural Integrated Development Program of Africa to provide a schematic design for the Ubwari Medical Center. But he found the Google Groups interface less adaptable to their needs, so he uploaded a new project page on OAN (figure 2). He hopes to use it to distribute information about the construction site (maps, flora and fauna and available construction materials), solicit feedback from the local people and collaborate with others around the world.
Figure 2. Jeffrey O'Brien and other volunteers from Architecture for Humanity will use their Ubwari Medical Center project page on OAN to collaborate with others in East Congo.
OAN is a fledging architectural portal, still in beta and barely a month old. Nevertheless, along with Luis' pod and O'Brien's hospital, the site currently hosts a total of 189 projects scattered all over the world. They include a women's center in East Timor, a library in Egypt, a health clinic in Israel and a youth center in South Africa. Here, commercial and residential projects are outnumbered by those targeted at the underprivileged population: the displaced, the refu-gees and the poor from the developing regions. The ideas in the collective portfolio are zany (an HIV/AIDS airship and clinic), creative (a playground roofed with FedEx packages), affordable (a portable fabric-domed gazebo for $2,000) and pragmatic (baled straw cabins) (figure 3). Perhaps most amazing of all, OAN is an open-source community that serves as a repository of reusable designs.
Figure 3. OAN members envision (top) a FedEx Pak playground (design by Takayu Onishi, REDEX, Thailand) and (bottom) a mobile HIV/AIDS health clinic (design by Jeff Alan Gard, San Francisco).
Improving the Lives of Five Billion
In late 2005, Cameron Sinclair, the founder and executive director of Architecture for Humanity, received a call from the organizers of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference. "What is your world-changing wish?" they asked. And Sinclair, who transformed the building design profession into a humanitarian discipline, replied that he wished to "improve the living standards of five billion people"—essentially three-quarters of the global population.
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Describing its mission, OAN challenged the legendary French architect Le Corbusier, who famously declared, "Architecture or revolution. Revolution can be avoided." Well, Le Corbusier was wrong, said OAN. "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. We don't need to choose between architecture or revolution. What we need is an architectural revolution."
As a winner of the Spring 2006 TED Prize, Sinclair can draw on the resources and talent of TED community members. "We envisioned a truly collaborative online community and gathering place for those dedicated to improving the built environment," he declared. When word got around, AMD offered to host the site and Sun Microsystems donated the servers needed. And OAN was born.
Creative Commons Licenses in Plain English
On March 30, just weeks after its debut, OAN was already 3,400-members strong. The birth of OAN is a project page unto itself, titled "Making of the Open Architecture Network." Here, Sinclair chronicled, "Many meetings were held, countless cups of coffee were drunk and many late nights were spent. Along the way many other partners came on board, collaborating to realize this ambitious undertaking and create this incredible resource."
Communal Design, a Few Restrictions
The project files on the Open Architecture Network are distributed under Creative Commons licenses (see the "Creative Commons Licenses in Plain English" sidebar), a model that's less restrictive than the usual all-rights-reserved approach. Katy Frankel from Creative Commons said, "While the licenses are more prevalently used in music, photos, and videos, they're fairly new for the architectural industry; however, [they're] just as applicable. This some-rights-reserved model is a new dissemination method for copyrightable materials, quite suitable for the digital medium that enables new and expedient forms of sharing, similarly aligned with the objectives of the OAN. That's why OAN and Creative Commons joined forces. The idea behind the OAN is to share the design, so if someone built a hurricane-resistant structure in India, now it can be reused anywhere there's a similar need, pursuant to the freedoms of the selected license without the fear of infringement."
Because architecture by its very nature constantly faces issues of liability, Frankel pointed out, "Creative Common licenses don't come with any warranties." In other words, the person uploading the design file doesn't make any promises. (For more information, read Frankel's article titled "Copyright Protection for Architectural Works: How Can Creative Commons Encourage Collaboration Amongst Socially Responsible Architects?" SciTech Lawyer, Section of Science & Technology, American Bar Association, vol. 3, issue 4, Spring 2007).
A New Attitude
Jeffrey O'Brien believes that OAN has its own built-in culture that discourages commercial exploitations. "If you look at the projects, most of them are beautifully conceived, simple one-story structures that can be easily constructed by the local trades people using indigenous techniques," he pointed out. "They're not the kind of projects that encroach on the commercial world." Because of these inherent characteristics, he doesn't think OAN is about to become a hunting ground for revenue-seeking licensed professionals.
Lira Luis uploaded the design of the transient shelter pod to solicit feedback from the target demographics—the Southeast Asian coastal villagers (figure 4). "They're the potential users," she said. "There are social, construction and climate issues that are very specific to these areas. So I want to know if they'll be receptive to the design." She has no qualms about uploading her Archicad model of the pod for people to conduct a walkthrough (or a crouch in), if such a feature were to become available on OAN.
Figure 4. Lira Luis' portable transient shelter pod design, which was originally intended for the tsunami victims of Southeast Asia, may also be adapted for other disaster-stricken regions such as the Solomon Islands.
O'Brien, a 3ds Max expert now delving into Revit, said, "Our vision for the Ubwari hospital is to simply provide an affordable design the locals can benefit from. Our Architecture for Humanity team members are all volunteers. Most of the project's benefactors, up until this point, have not had access to thoughtful design. It's about serving those in need, not about the money." He said he would gladly post a 3D model on OAN. "If someone wants to take our conceptual design work and use it for good, that's fine with us," he said with a chuckle.
Kenneth Wong is a former editor of Cadence magazine. As a freelance writer, he explores innovative usage of technology and its implications. E-mail him at Kennethwongsf at earthlink.net.