Aravena’s Small Step, Open Source’s Big Leap

Could Alejandro Aravena’s decision to put his housing projects online push open source design into the mainstream?

When Alejandro Aravena was awarded the Pritzker Prize earlier this month, he made a remarkable and significant announcement: he had published the plans of four of his social housing projects on his website, for anyone and every one to study and use.

Through the work of his firm Elemental, Aravena is known for his interest in incremental, participatory housing design: a common-sense way of working within financial restraints and a cornerstone of Elemental’s studio work. The moto—focus first on what is most difficult to achieve, what cannot be done individually, and what will guarantee the common good in the future—resulted in a “half a house.” First introduced over a decade ago, the model consists of an expandable 40 square-meter (431 square-feet) container with basic infrastructure (partitions, structural and firewalls, bathroom, kitchen, stairs, a roof) built-in and added to over time. It is not only an achievement from a conceptual and project management standpoint, but also an aesthetically open and diverse project. From this one idea stemmed 100 variations.

Much has been written about participatory design as a way to face the challenges of unprecedented urbanization and urban poverty, but little has been written about the way information-sharing can be a positive disruptor in the construction industry. The idea of open source need not be restricted to social housing for those nations most gravely afflicted by urban poverty. In fact, housing is the main financial burden on the middle-class in developed countries. According to the Federal Reserve Board and Bureau of Economic Analysis, the debt-to-income ratio of American families in 1945 was 17%, and home mortgage represented three-quarters of the total. In 1950 it was 31%; in 1960 55%; in 2001, 100%. Although it peaked at 122% in 2005, the debt-to-income ratio of American families is still above 100% today, and housing represents between 70–75% of the total. Housing-related debt dwarfs debt of any other kind.

The clash of the real and the speculative value of housing triggered the financial meltdown of 2009, whose repercussions are still being felt across all sectors. This recent event should urge us to collectively think about ways to bring down cost and improve housing stock.

Housing economics is a matter of supply and demand, where the demand is made up of all buyers and renters, while the supply side  consists of land, labor, and building materials. In America, the approximate break down of the cost of a new house is 10% land acquisition, 11% site improvement and infrastructure, 26% labor, 31% materials, 3% financing, and 19% administrative and marketing fees. Architectural services can add as much as another 8-15% to this total, driving the majority of people, already burdened by a 40/60 balance of tangibles versus services, away from quality design. Moreover, these costs prevent the middle class from growing and diversifying its investments in a better future.

Aravena’s recent initiative to open-source his housing projects goes a long way to promoting the public and social benefits of collaboration and information-sharing.

Ignoring, for the moment, the issues of material scarcity and security of supply, and focusing only on these numbers, we can see that labor amounts to about a third of the cost of a house, while services (administrative, financing, marketing, architectural and engineering) represent another third.  If we can simultaneously increase the role of technology and share information freely on all parts of a project, from design to manufacturing, we can develop not only much cheaper housing but also much better housing.

This idea is, of course, deeply disruptive for those invested in the building sector.

Two years ago, when Nick Dangerfield and I created Paperhouses, an online platform that makes unique house plans, models. and images from young and award-winning architects freely accessible to the public, we wanted to bring the idea of open source to the “drawing board”. We were certain that it was the only viable answer to this vast problem facing architecture. Open source allows design concepts to branch out and multiply, driving innovation without any limits to speed or scale.

However, my assumption was that no one would ever join—after all, the notion of open in design is not simple. Recognition and authenticity are undeniably at the center of the designer’s concerns. They are the flags of a struggle for survival and significance, powerful and bleak and the same time. I could just see the designers’ shock, maybe horror, at the suggestion that their architectural works could be pieces of clay that any one could mold. Yet it was too beautiful and powerful an idea to leave behind. To my surprise, many talented people came on board: Rintala-Eggertsson architects, recipients of the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture; Panorama Arquitectos, nominated as part of the 20 Top Young Architectural Talents by Wallpaper magazine 2013; Sporaarchitects, nominated for the Mies van der Rohe award in 2015; and Tatiana Bilbao, Berlin Art Prize 2012, among others whose houses will soon be available through Paperhouses.

Aravena’s recent initiative to open-source four of his built projects goes a long way to promoting the public and social benefits of collaboration and information-sharing. He deliberately gave up exclusive rights of use, which means giving up all the income associated with the implementation of those designs. In doing so, he recognized that the most important role of these projects is to inspire others and facilitate solutions to the housing issues facing our rapidly urbanizing world. To be able to grant work a life of its own—unbiased, uncontrolled, and unafraid—is an outstanding example for the architectural community. The latest bold move by Aravena makes me ever more confident that open source will become a mainstream initiative that will liberate design, and revolutionize home-building in the process.

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