Kit of Parts

The open-source model has begun to make inroads into the world of industrial design. Now an innovative new program attempts to bring that ethos to the scale of buildings.

The open-source movement is no longer just about software. The collaborative, nonproprietary approach to writing computer code is now being used to create everything from MP3 players and cell phones to electric guitars. Companies publish all diagrams and instructions online but also sell the physical products (at a markup) as self-assembly kits. Now, the Belgian designer Thomas Lommée is building a central database of plans that, at least theoretically, could be tapped to construct just about anything—even full-scale architecture.

Called OpenStructures, or OS, Lommée’s initiative began in 2007 as a postgraduate project in green design at Toronto’s Institute Without Boundaries. One of the fundamentals of sustainability, he concluded, was modularity: if an object is made of standard parts, and one of those parts breaks, it should be easily replaced. Likewise, the product should be modified according to changing needs. “We thought, What if we made a modular system that is designed by everybody who uses it?”

OS invites designers from all over the world to upload 3-D drawings of basic parts to an online warehouse, where anyone can access them. From those plans, users then build components (a sink, for instance), join components to form a system (a kitchen), and assemble systems into structures (a house). For all the pieces to fit together like Lego bricks, they must conform to a standard geometrical template, a 4 x 4–centimeter grid that acts as a common language or “open-source code.”

Unlike other open-hardware endeavors, the OS designs aren’t for sale (yet), but Lommée does have a concrete plan in the works: a proposed community center in the outskirts of Lubumbashi, the second-largest city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It would provide residential quarters, a school, a hospital, and a marketplace for 300 people living under one rainwater-collecting roof. Designed in collaboration with the Brussels Cooperation, an architects’ collective, the structure is made of components that follow the OS grid, including a universal joint that secures any available construction material—wood, bamboo, or steel—regardless of its shape. In addition to the core building, the scheme calls for a public workshop where tinkerers can assemble additional structures, also using the grid. “The center is an open puzzle,” Lommée says. “The bearing structure is given, but the infill will be designed and built by the community.”

The larger goal of OS is to stimulate a shift in how we regard the stuff around us. Rather than seeing products as defined objects, Lommée hopes, designers will begin to think of them as iterations. “Designers tend to look at an object and judge it for what it is—we like it or we don’t like it,” Lommée says. “In an open system, we look at an object and imagine what it could become, how we could make it better by adding, subtracting, replacing components.” That’s a tall order in a society based on planned obsolescence. But he’s encouraged by what he has seen in the classroom, where two of his students used the same parts to construct a sunscreen and then a desk lamp. “We see an object not as an end result,” he says, “but as a version.”

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