Emergence of Open Construction Systems

Article: The Emergence of Open Construction Systems: A Sustainable Paradigm in the Construction Sector? By Christina Priavolou. Journal of Futures Studies, December 2018, 23(2): 67–84


This paper discusses how emerging issues in housing construction could revolutionise the building industry. It focuses on commons-based networks of organisations, technologies and users that form a niche practice on the margins of the dominant paradigm. This practice can be understood as “Design Global, Manufacture Local” and is exemplified by the Hexayurt, the Open Source Ecology Microhouse and the WikiHouse. Using these descriptive case studies, light is shed on the challenges and opportunities of open construction systems with regard to technological, institutional and social perspectives. Notwithstanding the positive dynamics, certain issues need to be addressed, so that a sustainable built environment could flourish.


The DGML Approach

As a form of CBPP, the DGML approach introduces a shift from mass-produced solutions to customised ones. It describes the convergence of global digital commons with local manufacturing technologies (including 3D printers, CNC machines, laser cutters, etc.), as well as simple tools (like saws, drills, etc.). It emerged as a promising model of distributed production within the dominant capitalist system (Giotitsas & Ramos, 2017). Further, extensive discussions have triggered about the impact of DGML on culture through the idea of cosmo-localism (Ramos, 2017).

Echoing Kostakis, Latoufis Liarokapis, & Bauwens (2016a),
three genuine components of
the DGML paradigm include: the removal of planned obsolescence that
describes the deliberate production of goods with a limited lifetime
towards profit maximisation (BBC, 2017; Guiltinan, 2009); on-demand
production, considering that the manufacturing process takes place in
local makerspaces, hence transportation and environmental impacts are
expected to be lower (Kohtala & Hyysalo, 2015; Kostakis,
Fountouklis, & Drechsler, 2013); sharing practices and mutualisation
of both digital (such as software and designs) and material
infrastructures (such as makerspaces and shared machinery).

Considering recent concerns for sustainability (Taranic, Behrens,
& Topi, 2016; Whicher,
Harris, Beverley, & Swiatek, 2018), the DGML model could pave the
way for sustainable practices in the built environment. This model
entails the concept of modular design through the use of recyclable
elements that could be deconstructed without damage and reused. Hence,
repairability, recyclability, disassemblability, and upgradability of
the manufactured components can be achieved (Bonvoisin, 2016).

The DGML approach is also characterised by flexibility in the
design of objects via the use of parametric design tools. Digital 3D
designs stimulate an ongoing interaction between the participants in the
design process since they represent information easily grasped even
from amateurs (Yap, Ngwenyama, & Osei-Bryson, 2003). More
dimensions, such as financial data, material properties or energy
characteristics, can be added to the building geometry through the
concept of Building Information Modelling (BIM). The latter allows for
advanced simulations— including structural tests, energy analyses,
etc.—which enable a life-cycle management of buildings by increasing
predictability levels.”

Technological, institutional and social aspects of Open Construction Systems

The prefigurative examples of change presented through the three case studies have significant implications for the future of the construction sector and societal development. The focus is placed on the identification of opportunities and problems faced by these communities to expand the use of open construction systems. Relevant issues are analysed with regard to three interrelated aspects: technological, institutional and social.

Technological aspect

Parametric design tools can support the propagation of open
construction systems, given that one-size-fits-all solutions of housing
supply cannot work (WikiHouse, 2018a). The complexity of buildings
together with a variety of regional contexts (with regard to climate,
soil, regulations, etc.)
renders the existence of parameters indispensable. Investment in
information management through the use of BIM technology can support
long-term decision-making processes, while robust planning could address
quality and risk-related issues identified by self-build communities
(Open Source Ecology, 2018).

Furthermore, communication protocols are necessary so that
different stakeholders can address responsibility issues and cooperate
harmoniously during the construction process. To facilitate
transnational cooperation through BIM, national classification systems
should be combined in
international scale through the commitment on open standards (such as
the Industry Foundation Classes). This would enable the participation of
engineering firms in the research and development of open construction
systems by offering technical support to communities across the building
supply chain.

As far as the design part is concerned, a crucial element for the
creation of an international, collaborative puzzle of structures via
the use of open construction systems is standardisation. This
term refers to the existence of a global dimensional framework to ensure
common design guidelines (Open Structures, 2018). In this way,
dimensions of the parts that compose a structure could be chosen
according to a common global grid. These parts could then be assembled
into components, which, in turn, could be combined into flexible
structures and superstructures. The construction of a
building could, thus, be analogised to the formation of an organism
(Open Structures, 2018).

Another integral part of the process is the existence of detailed
open-source documentation, as well as its ongoing update. Architectural
data (e.g. digital drawings and calculations), construction data (e.g.
model tests and building methods), technical, chemical and biophysical
details (e.g.
weather conditions and subsoil), costs (e.g. materials and equipment)
and environmental
requirements (e.g. recycling, water and depletion) should be extensively
documented, facilitating the widespread replicability of open hardware
solutions through easy-to-follow manuals (Bonvoisin, 2016).

Experimentations with new materials could improve open
construction systems. Instead of
monolithic materials (such as plywood, cardboard, etc.) mainly used
during the introduction of these buildings, advanced materials, such as
nanotechnology, bioplastics, and composites, could also be
tested. However, given the difficulty of distinction between organic and
industrial materials included in biocomposites, special care should be
taken to ensure the recyclability of the new materials. The
goal is to attain energy savings, structural capacity, as well as higher
resistance to heat and moisture in extreme weather conditions through
the use of environmentally friendly materials towards future

Institutional aspect

Open construction systems are promising, but the regional variation
of building regulations and zoning codes is challenging. Although the
International Building Codes reflect the best practices
based on construction experience and technology, local regulations vary
from country to country and from context to context. For example, in
parts of Missouri, USA, there are no building regulations (Open Building
Institute, 2018), whereas in the UK building permissions can be evaded
as specified
by a set of laws (Knight & Williams, 2012).

The creation of simplified databases with regulation-related
documents per country is
believed to give prominence to the benefits of building open
construction systems at local levels (Open Building Institute, 2018).
Also, by taking advantage of the non-existence or ambiguity of
regulations, loopholes in building codes allow communities to operate in
a more restriction-free manner (Knight & Williams, 2012).

The embedded modularity of open construction systems allows for
the mitigation of spatial
barriers, which come from differences between strict building
regulations. In that sense, modularity enables flexibility, which, in
turn, facilitates compliance with the building codes: by replacing
specific modules with others; by substituting materials; by adding or
removing modules to meet geometric constraints. Moreover, modular design
facilitates the disassembly of a structure into
building modules, which can be modified, substituted and upgraded
independently, as well as undergo physical tests in response to varying

Despite their inability to address issues of inflated land prices
and unequal access to resources, open construction systems seem to
attract political support, like the case of the ongoing WikiHouse
project in Almere. The reason for this could be the increasing demand
for sustainable housing in
the developing world and the mounting number of low-income groups in the
developed countries.

Within oppressive austerity policies, it is possible that local
authorities will start financing open construction systems as low-cost
technological solutions. Otherwise, communities should keep struggling
to raise funds, which come from donations or other sources (e.g.,
selling manuals and
offering service-based support).

Finally, the institutionalisation of such dispersed informal
teams or individuals is vital for the expansion of these initiatives.
These groups strive to advance their initial ideas and engage
professional groups in the actualisation of their projects. As more
professionals and organisations get involved over time, institutional
constraints will be eliminated (Molitor, 1977).

Social aspect

Enabled by information technologies, open construction systems
attempt to provision housing in a creative, socialising and convivial
way. People enjoy greater potential when working within collectives,
leading to the renaissance of pre-industrial architecture through
community-based building. In this context, citizen-driven initiatives
try to provide affordable and sustainable housing.

Digital fabrication technologies may be helpful tools towards
this goal, given that they translate digital data into physical objects.
Consequently, the thresholds of skills, cost and time needed for
the construction are lowered together with the relevant transportation
and socio-environmental costs(Kostakis, Fountouklis, & Drechsler,

Moving beyond market economy systems, low-cost, adaptable and
sustainable solutions
can be produced in localised settings. The soil nourishing the shared
infrastructure of the global digital commons can continuously be
expanded by contributors around the world. Beyond that, the
availability of various building types under open-source licences
fosters experimentation and the ability to develop combinations of the
best or most appropriate elements for each situation.

The implementation of the DGML model in the construction sector
introduces a radically
different approach from that of the dominant model. In cases like the
building process, where stakeholders with various interests are
involved, conflicts are unavoidable. For instance, open construction
systems may seem as a long-term sustainable solution to global issues
for the opensource communities. On the other hand, the sharing of
infrastructures may threaten the short-term
profit-oriented goals of the construction companies.

A redefinition of roles and responsibilities of all parties
involved in the construction process—including governments, self-build
communities, engineers, and asset-owners—is required. Thus, we need to
witness behavioural change towards resource efficiency and
sustainability. For example,
supporting services and consultancy could be purchased instead of
tangible objects and systems could be developed and monitored in
collaborative environments instead of competitive ones.

Considering the newly-published information around open
construction, the scalability of such emerging initiatives and their
future ability to outcompete the dominant construction model in terms
of quality or safety may be questionable. However, the success of
open-source initiatives in the past has given prominence to the
importance of human participation. The latter may be increased by
promoting global awareness of the sustainability features of the
open-source movement, as well as
of the circular economy features embedded in the use of open
construction systems.
By empowering proactive and knowledgeable citizens globally, more
individuals, collectives, and firms would be contributing to the
improvement of open construction systems and the related policy making.
In this way, the development of flexible modular structures via a common
dimensional framework could prompt the completion of the universal
building puzzle. Yet no one could question the role of education to
prepare the participants for new building practices and build resilience
at a global scale.

Despite the efforts of these open-source communities to solve
pressing future challenges, form new business strategies and become
institutionalised, these projects remain marginal. However, their
momentum to provide affordable and sustainable housing affects many.
Their mounting social
impacts increase the chances for these innovative initiatives to evolve
into an important issue.

Especially by intensifying the testing of solutions with the aid
of a global network of contributors, these communities could be
integrated into the mainstream and challenge the status quo.

Given the current global credit crisis and sustainability
concerns, the DGML model creates new ecosystems with the potential to
grow more widely. The key systemic factors that enable this
proliferation include: the broad diffusion of low-cost ICT and internet
connectivity, the development of the relevant culture around openness
and sharing intensified by the widespread means of
information sharing, and the ecological crisis that creates higher
demand for more sustainable and circular economy-based models.

Finally, the DGML model has the flexibility to adjust to
different needs and contexts, as well as provide solutions to various
issues, which may correlate to market failures in the global North or
the inexistence of relevant infrastructure in the global South. Thus, it
may fill the gaps of marketbased solutions for sustainable housing
through the development of alternative systems of housing provision,
while providing affordable housing to the people in need.”


“This article contributes to the understanding of how individuals,
companies, and governments could come together to promote a sustainable
built environment. It represents an attempt to shed light on the
dynamics of the emerging open construction systems implemented through
approaches. The entire debate regarding open construction systems has
gained momentum in light of the growing concern about global pressing

In this context, three case studies were used to elucidate the
ways and means by which the DGML model can further sustainability in the
construction sector by sharing physical and digital infrastructures.
These case studies see the construction process as a community-driven
procedure that unfolds outside the market economy. The relevant
challenges and opportunities were elaborated upon.

It is concluded that the implementation of the DGML approach in
constructions calls for drastic changes in current practices, in the
role of various stakeholders and the scale of the processes.

Especially new business strategies surface with the involvement
of advisers, developers, business and organisational experts in
citizen-driven projects, providing expertise on all stages of the
building supply chain. The necessity for institutionalisation of the
communities involved, as well as the existence of a standard design grid
to enable large-scale constructions, could boost the potential
of open construction systems, maximising their social impact.

A limitation of this paper is that the problems and opportunities
that accompany the
implementation of the DGML model in the construction sector were
identified but not directly addressed. Technical evaluations of open
construction systems could estimate the degree of sustainability of
these structures. Hopefully, this article will prompt discussions among
industry practitioners and trigger explorations worldwide.”

More information

Contact author via

  • Christina Priavolou. Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and
    Governance, Tallinn University of Technology, Akadeemia street 3,
    12618, Tallinn, Estonia.
  • P2P Lab, Kougkiou 3A, 45221, Ioannina, Greece.

Photo by *m22
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