Michael Plummer—OAA Guild Medal & RAIC Honour Roll

About the Award

 Awarded to a student who has achieved overall academic excellence in graduate studies.

Open Architecture

There is a dynamic relationship between the built environment and those who dwell within it. Dwellers both influence, and are influenced by the everyday environment they inhabit. For architecture to make meaningful contributions to these environments, it must privilege the input and energy of the dweller. This calls for an architecture that is open to participation throughout its planning, design and building process; an open architecture. Conversely, closed architecture is focused on individual object-making. Pure form and aesthetics are prioritized over participation. Personal modification over time individualizes the sculptural vision of the artist-architect. Using emerging open-source and fabrication technology, open architecture establishes the natural relationship between dweller and dwelling. The dweller; and their unique needs and insights, is included within the architectural process. This results in a personalized dwelling that remains flexible, resilient and sustainable.

The New Wood Open Architecture Library is an open-source parametric modular construction system that allows dwellers to participate in the design, fabrication and building process. Rhino V6 and Grasshopper are used to digitally represent the modular components of the library. The components are parametrized to allow dwellers to more easily engage with the design process. Parameters; like wall height, opening size & location are flexible to a specific dweller’s context and needs. As dwelling needs change, the construction system is responsive and expands to facility more uses. This expansion can occur in either the X, Y & Z direction. The components from the previous dwelling are all reused in the construction of the next dwelling. Exterior deck space is used in every iteration as an area for simple future expansion as footings and foundations are already in place.

The components are then converted to construction drawings and prefabricated off-site. After fabrication, the components are efficiently stacked onto a standard truck bed and delivered to the site for assembly. The assembly process demands participation as dwellers assemble the pieces, they designed using the design tool. Component size and weight were considered to ensure safe assembly by a small team of amateur builders. Participation at this point in the dwelling process allows the dweller to physically engage with the materials and develop an understanding of where they were sourced and their environmental impact.

The system can be used to meet a wide range of housing needs that might exist in a given neighborhood. The 2’ module is small enough to allow for fine-grain personal modification of the built environment such as, front porch renovations or deck building. While these small projects do not provide housing on their own, they are opportunities for dwellers to imprint their personal identity on the built environment they inhabit. The module is also small enough to allow for the expansion of existing dwellings to add additional space and functionality. In densely populated urban areas like Toronto, Ontario, the system can also be used to add additional housing supply through new builds. This can occur at various scales ranging from laneway suites to multi-family residential. Whether the system is used to replace a deteriorating front porch or to develop a multi-family residential building, the resulting architecture remains resilient and responsive to both the community’s and dweller’s housing needs as they change over time.

This design-build project was a valuable opportunity to test the aspects of this thesis that involve the physical sourcing, fabrication and assembly of wood materials. During the fabrication process, the simplicity and modularity of the system provided a significant advantage over a more conventional stick framing process. The majority of wood members were not cut to length prior to assembly as the modular system is based on standardized lumber dimensions. This greatly increased the efficiency of fabrication and basically eliminated any material waste.

The joint between components could be investigated further to try and improve the energy performance and air tightness of the building envelope. While the butt-joint between components provided significant advantages with respect to simplicity and ease of disassembly, it did introduce obvious challenges with respect to the moisture and air tightness of the envelope. This system prioritizes the ongoing flexibility and changeability of the building’s form, structure and spatial organization but this came at the expense of limiting the seams between interior and exterior. By using flax wool or wood fiber insulation between the components and taping the seams, a balance was struck between the system’s flexibility and its thermal performance.

The assembly process was an opportunity to verify the earlier assumptions about the size and weight of each module. This was undoubtedly one of the biggest assumptions made throughout the design process as this parameter is difficult to verify using digital models and drawings. Despite this, the 12’ floor components were light enough so that two people could safely move them a reasonable distance. The wall components are lightweight and easily positioned on the floor components below. With the addition of more components the structure gets increasingly more rigid and resistant to shear and lateral forces.

This thesis argued for the value of participation and sincere involvement in the process by which a dwelling is designed, assembled and appropriated to suit the unique needs of those who dwell within it. The New Wood Open Architecture Library uses emerging technology as a means of accomplishing this aim and this design-build project was an invaluable research exploration that tested the system at full scale. It provided me with the opportunity to physically participate and explore the meaning and value by which that participation brings to the resulting architecture.

Toronto Metropolitan Department of  Architectural Science Toronto, CA.