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Architecture in the fourth dimension

An international conference embedded in Build Boston, November 15–17, 2011

Shopping centers and office buildings exhibit the characteristics of architecture’s fourth dimension—they offer space for varied and changing occupancies. This is open building. The appearance and evolution of these building types progressed pragmatically, led by real-estate developers and business entities in response to new realities. Architects and contractors learned how to provide the needed services, often producing high-quality work. Product manufacturers began introducing suitable products, fabrication and construction methods. New standards, regulations and financing tools were developed to meet the resulting requirements. These developments are international in scope, crossing economic, political, cultural and technical boundaries. 

Housing is now adopting open-building practices. Today many public and private parties ask for residential projects to be built empty and filled efficiently with varied floor plans. This is evident in Finland, Japan and the Netherlands. In other countries, residential open building is no longer seen as particularly unusual. We see evidence of it in Russia, Switzerland, Germany, China and, to a lesser extent, the United States. New examples of housing designed to be incrementally upgraded in an informal user‐controlled process come to light constantly, whether in Chile, Mexico or South Africa.  In Finland, one of the largest real-estate companies is regularly developing open-building projects for its residential portfolio. In the Netherlands, several companies including product manufacturers, developers and architects are practicing open building by other names. Developers in Germany are asking well-known architects to build “design-ready” (essentially, empty) residential projects of significant architectural quality. San Francisco developers build “bulk” housing that is ready for individualized fit-out. Around the world, old office buildings that retain social and economic value are “gutted” and prepared for customized residential occupancy.

We also see hospitals in many countries such as the United States, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands that are under pressure from a rapidly evolving healthcare sector moving toward open building. Similar developments are undoubtedly happening elsewhere, under the radar. Hospital clients face uncertain future needs, and practices and insurance programs can no longer afford to let the short term drive facilities-procurement methods and investment decisions. They are demanding “change‐ready” facilities, assessed by their accommodation capacity over time. Major architectural firms are responding with high levels of architectural quality. 

Mainstreaming of open building is therefore a pragmatic response to the pressures, conflicts and waste caused by continued adherence to rigid functionalism—that is, designing buildings to fit predefined functions. Open building is also an answer to a state of severe technical entanglement resulting from the incremental addition of new technical systems provided by different trades over the past 50 years, whose cooperation and coordination come at a cost. These pressures are forcing all parties to reconsider procurement and investment practices, accounting methods and regulatory systems. In mass‐consumer societies, attitudes are changing in support of inhabitants controlling the making and transformation of their own dwellings and working environments, which is especially difficult in large projects where individual decision making is the first thing to be rejected. Consideration of long‐term asset value, which is achieved only if buildings are adaptable, is also forcing all parties to rethink their priorities when investing in multi-occupant buildings. This development puts open building very much in the center of the sustainability movement.

These changes in priorities are now supported by law in some instances. The Japanese parliament passed laws in 2008 mandating a 200-year housing perspective that includes accompanying tools for local building officials who have the responsibility of evaluating and approving building projects. Approved projects receive tax benefits; other incentives may be added.

Open building projects have the systemic properties of large infrastructures. They involve many decision‐making bodies and users over long time periods. As such, they present technical, economic, political and cultural questions that go far beyond the dominant architectural discourse that still tends to emphasize the special case, formal gymnastics, and aggrandizement of designer and client. Generally speaking, these developments toward open building are not taking place for their ideological purity but for pragmatic reasons.

The 2011 Open Building conference will immerse participants from the United States and around the world in lectures, seminars, paper sessions and exhibits of student competition winners and exemplary built projects. Shepley Bulfinch, and Cannon Design will host on-site charrettes. Dietmar Eberle (Baumschlager Eberle), Tedd Benson (Bensonwood Homes), Giorgio Macchi (Canton Bern, Switzerland Chief Architect), Phil Neden (ARUP), Stephen Kieran (Kieran Timberlake Architects), William Porter (Emeritus Professor MIT) and others will offer keynote speeches and seminars. 


Stephen Kendall (PhD, MIT ’90) is a registered architect and architectural educator, having authored more than 30 papers, book chapters, technical papers and books. He is joint coordinator of the CIB W104 Open Building Implementation and lectures worldwide on the subject of open building for housing and healthcare facilities.