Could open source architecture be the moderniser of construction?
Is intellectual property the curse of construction, the immovable obstacle that stops the industry modernising like others? Could the cure be an ‘open source architecture’ where designs are shared so that industry can standardise and achieve design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) at real volume?
The ‘why redesign the wheel’ argument is more likely to be heard from clients and contractors than architects protective of their bespoke designs. Many architects will be surprised to learn that Bryden Wood not only publishes details of its work but insists in its contracts that designs should be openly available and not vested in the client.
Bryden Wood is not your average practice. It offers ‘operations consulting’, ‘process facility design’, M&E services and more alongside architecture and has a twenty-year history of designing complex operational facilities such as behind-the-scenes operations at airports.
‘We do a lot of data gathering and evidence-based design such as improving patient flows in hospitals, where the design objective is to achieve optimal operational effectiveness,’ says Director and Head of Global Systems Jamie Johnston.
The practice has a history of designing kits of parts for what are still bespoke buildings, such as classrooms for primary and secondary schools, hospitals – its Pebble Mill project in Birmingham for Circle Health is the largest private healthcare project in the UK – and pharmaceutical facilities for the likes of GSK, and Bryden Wood has made them all open source.
‘GSK wants to keep patents on its molecules but is quite happy for us to share our facility-in-a-box approach to design and manufacturing facilities. They in turn benefit from our experience on previous projects,’ explains Johnston.
Standardisation is the key to DfMA at scale, but intellectual property rights hold it back in construction, the only industry still waiting for a major disruptive shift to transform it.
Johnston points to the investment now flowing into offsite facilities for modular homes, with each design slightly different from the next, a situation that can only result in competing and conflicting systems.
Real volume production, which can raise quality at the same time as driving down costs, needs common construction details that everyone can use, such as the connection between a beam and a column.
In the automotive industry, manufacturers work together to solve major technical problems and share supply chains without sacrificing design and the distinctiveness of their brands. Smartphone manufacturers and apps developers share chips and open source software modules, and the quality of phones on offer continues to rise.
With interoperability, designers get more time to spend on the creative side of projects, Johnston argues. In architecture that might mean dealing with site constraints and massing of buildings.
There have been many calls to modernise construction. Johnston points to the Latham Report, which prompted many of the same arguments 25 years ago. This time around we have BIM, however, which is very DfMA-friendly and could be the precursor of real change.
Jamie Johnston will present ‘How can architects contribute to a more productive construction sector?’ at the RIBA’s 2018 Smart Practice Conference on ‘Value-Added: Making Design Quality Count’ in Cambridge on 4 October 2018.
Thanks to Jamie Johnston, Director and Head of Global Systems, Bryden Wood.
By Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas
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