Open-source opens up architecture for the poor

Copyright: Flickr/Boston Public Library

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  • The website hosts freely available designs, including those appropriate for developing countries
  • Designs include floating houses, and schools made from local materials
  • Further efforts should aim to also get governments and private sector onboard

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Architects and community leaders are combining forces to lead the way in creating many types of innovative housing in developing nations as part of an open-source collaboration.

“Countries in need deserve good design, no matter what their income.”

Karl Johnson

In 2011 the non-profit design company Architecture for Humanity, which finds architectural solutions to humanitarian crises, merged its Open Architecture Network with Worldchanging, a website featuring green solutions to improve inadequate housing.
The outcome of the merger was a unique online repository making sustainable design ideas freely available to communities in need.

The website can be accessed from anywhere in the world and allows people to see projects progress in real time from design to construction.

"Countries in need deserve good design, no matter what their income," says Karl Johnson, a representative for Architecture for Humanity.

"Architects are armed with the tools to solve sophisticated problems," he adds, and architectural ideas to solve common challenges in low-income countries can be shared globally.

For example, designs for a flood-proof house for Bangladesh were shared on the Open Architecture Network.

The bamboo house has a central tower which collects and recycles rainwater, with two buoyant sections on either side: one with a floor made from used plastic bottles, the other with a floor made from a hollow mesh of cement and steel. It was originally built in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Now the Bogotá chapter of Architecture for Humanity in Colombia is building one hundred of the houses in Hatillo de Loba, Colombia — where 10,000 residents experience regular flooding.

Other designs featured on the network include: a school made entirely from local materials and replicated many times in Africa; a temporary water- and fire-resistant home made from recycled corrugated cardboard for emergency shelter in Grenada after an earthquake; and a telemedicine clinic in Nepal inspired by local traditional architecture.

The schools have been built, the shelters in Grenada have been shipped there after fundraising efforts, and the telemedicine clinic is still at the planning stage.

Ricardo Daza, an architect at the Bogotá chapter of Architecture for Humanity, tells SciDev.Net that communities needing to rebuild their homes often lack the tools and knowledge to create designs, meaning they cannot get funding from governments or aid agencies.

"The idea of our activities is to bring architectural knowledge to communities, so that they can create their own designs. Community leaders are involved from day one," says Daza.

The architectural blueprints are listed under a creative commons licensing system to ensure intellectual property rights are protected from commercial exploitation.

Johnson tells SciDev.Net that Architecture for Humanity plans to add ratings for sustainability and innovation, and launch a new version of the website by the end of the year. The new site will curate and highlight good design and have better tools for evaluating or rating sustainable projects.

They are also discussing implementing a certification scheme to evaluate and rate designs on the site.

Peter Williams, founder and executive director of the charity Architecture for Health in Vulnerable Environments, says that within the open-source architecture community there needs to be "a framework that ensures people are building with the right materials under a correctly specified system".

Williams says that rating scales and additional measures for attribution, responsibility and accountability will help ensure that the designs on the Open Architecture Network are achievable in the communities they are intended for.

He adds that the opportunity for collaboration between architects and community leaders "needs to be done in an environment where the government and private sector support this approach".

See below for a TED video about open-source architecture: