The Wikitecture Revolution in AEC

19 Mar, 2008 By: Heather Livingston

Architects are using open source solutions to try to solve humanitarian crises.

For those of us with an interest in technology, Web 2.0 is an often heard buzzword, but what does it mean? Is it a new operating system or a global update to the World Wide Web? Tim O'Reilly, technology writer and founder of O'Reilly Media coined the term "Web 2.0" at a conference in 2004. His "short" definition is this:

Web 2.0 is the network as platform, spanning all connected devices; Web 2.0 applications are those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform: delivering software as a continually updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an "architecture of participation," and going beyond the page metaphor of Web 1.0 to deliver rich user experiences.

Whether you knew O'Reilly's definition or not, you're already using Web 2.0 applications through Web sites like Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, and Flikr. What Web 2.0 provides is true interactivity between user and provider because all users can upload data as well as download, without owning proprietary software. How does this relate to the realm of AEC? I'm glad you asked, but first, we need a primer in 2.0 lingo.

Wikipedia defines a wiki as "software that allows users to easily create, edit, and link pages together." Wikis are used to create and power collaborative community Web sites such as Wikipedia and others that are based on user-provided content. Open source is defined as "a set of principles and practices on how to write software, the most important of which is that the source code is openly available." In addition, the source code should not only be available, but anyone should also have the right to use it. For example, at YouTube, anyone can upload video and anyone can view it. The site is merely a platform for content. It doesn't generate content -- the user does. Likewise, for open source architecture.

The Beginning
I first became aware of open source architecture, also sometimes called wikitecture, and its potential through a discussion with Kate Stohr, cofounder of Architecture for Humanity (AFH). In 2006, Stohr's husband, AFH cofounder Cameron Sinclair, was the recipient of the prestigious TED prize, an award program that was created to launch inspiration, ideas, and resources from the conceptual to the tangible. At the annual conference that brings together innovators from technology, entertainment, and design (hence the name TED), winners receive a prize of $100,000 and are granted the opportunity to fulfill a wish that could change the world. Sinclair's wish was to "create a community that actively embraces open source design to generate innovative and sustainable living standards for all."

AFH worked with Sun Microsystems, Hot Studio, Creative Commons, and AMD to bring Sinclair's wish to fruition. On March 8, 2007, the Open Architecture Network was launched. On its first day, more than 25,000 people visited the site, and dozens of building designs were uploaded. Today the site boasts nearly 1,500 projects posted and more than 10,000 active members.

AFH was founded to provide architectural solutions to humanitarian crises. According to Stohr, she and Sinclair launched AFH in response to the refugee crisis in Kosovo in the late 1990s. Since then, the organization has held competitions to design a soccer pitch in Africa, a learning center in Nepal, housing in Biloxi, Mississippi, and a community center in India, among many others.

"We have projects all over the world, and [before launching the Open Architecture Network] it would be six months before we saw pictures of them," Stohr said. "How do you make funding decisions when information is getting to you so late?" Stohr added that they were frustrated and impeded by their inability to send designs via email to inquiring community groups because of the large file sizes.

Designed by Brett Zamore for AFH's Biloxi Model Home program, this reinterpretation of the traditional shotgun house was posted on the Open Architecture Network where it can be viewed, adapted, and shared by all yet is still protected by a Creative Commons license.

"To me, [open sourcing design] is really revolutionary because in the past, architecture was the purview of the affluent, and not necessarily by choice of the architect," she said. "A lot of the work was in proprietary software. It was difficult to share it with clients or even with partners who were working with the project. This makes it so much easier, and it allows architects to share their work while maintaining their intellectual property."

The Present
That's where Wikitecture has the most potential: in its ability to create true interoperability among all players in a design project. Whereas proprietary software causes significant confusion and delay when passed between the architect, engineer, consultant, and contractor -- all of whom are using different project management software -- Wikitecture presents project information in an accessible, user-generated knowledge receptacle. Project information is uploaded in near-real time, so anyone on the design team can view the status of a project from contracts to permitting to site work to supply orders.

AFH's Open Architecture Network is intended to be "a gathering place for community designers and all those interested in improving the built environment." True to the principles of open source, at Open Architecture Network site members can

  • upload their own projects
  • manage a project from concept to reality
  • collaborate with other AEC professionals and community leaders to solve problems
  • browse and review the work of other members
  • communicate with team members (no more Inbox problems)
  • contribute to shared resources.

Work posted on the site is protected by a Creative Commons licensing system that enables designers to share their work freely, while still protecting intellectual property rights.

In his essay A Communism of Ideas: Towards an Architectural Open Source Practice, Dennis Kaspori suggests that adoption of an open source practice mandates a "shake-up" of how we encourage and interpret innovation, socially and economically. "Open source provides an organization model for the collective development of solutions for spatial issues involving housing, mobility, greenspace, urban renewal, and so on. These are all complex issues that presuppose an interdisciplinary approach; in fact they can only be solved with cooperation. Open source presupposes that these ideas are disclosed and made available to others, who in turn can improve on them. In this way, design changes from a one-off action into a kind of evolutionary process."

The Future
Although common adoption of open source architecture may still be years away, there are already signs that the movement is gaining ground. Over the past year or so, Studio Wikitecture has used the online 3D virtual world Second Life to experiment with wikitecture protocols and procedures in order to harness the design team's collective intelligence. "In much the same way Wikipedia enables a loose, self-organizing network of contributors to collaborate on content creation, the Studio Wikitecture group has been using these experiments to work out the manner by which a group of geographically dispersed individuals can come together to share ideas, edit the contributions of others, and to vote on the success or failure of proposed design iterations," according to the group's Web site.

In addition, Open Source Architecture for Africa (Osafa), begun in 2006, is working toward improving building conditions in rural Africa. Founder Helge Fahrnberger said, "We want to apply the success factors of Open Source Software to the intellectual wisdom of African architecture."

What this makes clear is that if you're not already Web 2.0 savvy, it's time to get in the ballgame. The next revolution is already under way.

For more information on Studio Wikitecture's 3D experiment, view the YouTube video.

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