Adaptive Architecture, Collaborative Design, and the Evolution of Community

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Text by Eric Hunting, on the future of a p2p-based 'Adaptive Architecture'.

Title: Adaptive Architecture, Collaborative Design, and the Evolution of Community


There are many anachronisms relative to the contemporary situation perpetuated today in the practice of architecture and two of the most obvious are the delusions of permanence and perfection; the notion that the purpose of design is to realize some kind of ideal adaption relative to the topography and situation of a site and as a consequence if design is proper then the function of space need never change and structure will never go obsolete. And, of course, the higher the 'profile' of the designer the greater the tendency toward these assumptions of permanence and perfection. the design becoming inviolate relative to the designer's prestige, changing from architecture to sculpture.

In reality, we live in a world of change steadily increasing in pace and degree. A world where the works of even history's greatest and most famous architects are very routinely demolished and are lucky to survive a generation. Western society is more mobile than ever before, property value more volatile, and the structure and character of households more dynamic and complex. The environmental effects of Global Warming alone will compel a relocation of some two billion people in the coming decades. The effects of rising, and increasingly volatile, energy costs and the need for nations to reduce carbon footprints may double that number as once conventional modes of living -like conventional suburbia- become untenable and people are compelled to seriously consider the energy and carbon overheads of their daily life. Currently, real estate market bubbles are bursting all over the globe, forcing radical corrections of property value in the wake of decades of irrational finance industry practice, casting people out of their homes and compelling society to consider radical new ways of housing itself in the face of unreliable, unsafe, and increasingly userous mortgage based systems. Social trends have steadily increased the pace of home renovations. While the market increasingly favors homes of generic aspect, homeowners are increasingly demanding customization to suit a burgeoning diversity in aesthetic taste and the structure of the family itself. The nuclear family no longer defines the model household. New household models based on the return of the extended family unit and the emergence of new non-related family groups are emerging. And technology too is having its impact, altering the architectures of domestic infrastructure systems with increase frequency while producing new trends in work and leisure activity that can radically effect the organization of the home and logistics of the household. The past two decades have seen home design slowly adopt the notion of the extra bedroom as optional 'home office' predicated on the assumption that trends in home-based work favored the use of information technology. And yet we are on the verge of a revolution in independent industrial production and associated entrepreneurship that goes far beyond the limits of a home office and which remains completely unanticipated in home design even as designers themselves are leading this work trend.

Clearly, contemporary trends favor a habitat of more freely adaptive architecture and nowhere is this need more acute than in the growing number of intentional communities inspired by growing social dissatisfaction with the dysfunctions of the contemporary habitat. Attrition rates for intentional communities are typically high in the industrialized world owing mostly to social issues; to unrealistic expectations, a lack of effective social skills, sociopathic behavior patterns cultivated in the mainstream habitat's anonymity, and an essential lack of cultural knowledge for what community is and how it works. In the western world especially, generations of Industrial Age development has cultivated an essential cultural sociopathy rooted in the presumed inexorable logic of the Market. Traditional communities were systematically destroyed in favor of an isolated nuclear family unit identifying primarily with the macro-community of the nation-state. The culture of community must be relearned through trial and error and an incremental evolution, yet this is only possible in an environment conducive to that process. An environment where concepts of property and propriety are not presumed absolute and where the physical structure of the habitat is not fixed and does not get in the way of, or unnecessarily complicate, experimentation.

An important characteristic of vernacular architectures of the past was an accommodation -indeed, an anticipation- of spontaneous adaptation. Vernacular building technology is not the product of any formal development process. It is the product of cultural evolution involving the peer-to-peer negotiation between owner/builders and their community, owners and craftsman, apprentice and master-craftsman, and the habitat, time, and the environment. Together, these result in a system of building and design convention peculiar to a location and regional culture. Today, they have tended to become stratified as 'styles' in the modern era, their evolution stunted by the compulsion toward 'cultural preservation' in the face of contemporary nation-states compulsion toward sociocultural homogenization. Many of their building methods are no longer functional or practical in the contemporary context because of so many generations of stunted evolution, missed technology integration, changing economics, and environmental changes. They are mimicked for aesthetics alone. But for a long time they embodied a very organic, collaborative, human process of habitat cultivation -albeit operating at a pace measured usually in generations. Many have sought to revive vernacular building techniques in an attempt to recapture their organic collaborative qualities but long evolutionary stratification has made many of them largely anachronistic and non-functional in a contemporary context, particularly in terms of their labor overhead and thus slow possible pace of evolution. Is it possible to invent a new vernacular adapted to the contemporary situation exhibiting these same functional and social qualities and serving as a medium of community cultivation? In this article we will explore some of the new building technologies that hint at this very possibility. Spontaneously adaptable building systems with quick low-skill assembly and high technology integration that combine some of the benefits of machine production and advanced technology with a potential for the same organic cultivation of community design, now possible at an unprecedented pace of evolution more in tune with the contemporary pace of change.

Types of Adaptive Architecture:

There are basically three 'schools' of adaptive architecture; adaptive reuse, functionally generic architecture, and adaptive systems. These further break-down into more specific building systems and design approaches. Adaptive reuse is based on the repurposing of a 'found' structure -often a pre-existing piece of architecture that has become obsolete in its original purpose. This is most common in the context of commercial, municipal, and industrial structures with large span interiors that allow for easy retrofit or sometimes the erection of whole light independent structures within the shelter of the larger structure. Adaptive reuse also applies to vehicles and other industrial artifacts like ISO shipping containers and has been explored with everything from culvert pipe to the external fuel tanks of the Space Shuttle. Adaptive reuse also can apply to entirely new prefabricated structures and building systems which are simply employed to a purpose they were not originally designed for. This is common with light industrial and farm structures and their sometimes highly modular building systems.

The chief limitation of adaptive reuse as a strategy for adaptive architecture is that one is limited to the very providential adaptive potential of a found structure one has no control over the form of. Potential adaptability thus varies greatly, usually being greater the simpler the form of found structure and the larger its structural spans. In general, this approach is most often limited to discrete dwellings and does not suit community development unless the found structures are truly vast -like very large industrial, commercial, transportation, and municipal buildings. Early era industrial buildings, of course, are the basis of most 'loft' apartment conversion based on their large size, large spans, easy compartmentalization using built-up partition walls, and numerous windows. Few other types of buildings have been so comprehensively reusable. Modern industrial buildings, which are predominately based on steel frame and panel structures rather than masonry, are nowhere near as versatile in this respect and require radically different approaches to reuse.

Functionally generic architecture is based on structures intentionally designed for perpetual adaptive reuse -a level of design foresight that's rare today and typically limited to large scale commercial and industrial buildings. These are structures with no pre-determined purpose for any of their interior space -except, perhaps, in a very generalized sense relative to the environmental character of large zones of the structure. Instead, they are designed to accommodate as many uses as possible anywhere within them as necessary over time and with the aid of non-permanent retrofit that conforms to the dimensional limits of the larger structure. This concept is closely related to the notion of 'skybreak' architecture where a large independent roof or enclosure structure like a dome is used as a simple weather shelter for light independent modular, and freely adaptable structures built inside it, the elimination of the burden of weatherproofing allowing these structures that lightness and adaptability. This is how Buckminster Fuller actually intended the geodesic dome to be used for housing -as opposed to the rather tricky and unreliable wooden frame dome houses we commonly see today- and it has seen more recent interpretations in such designs as Shigeru Ban's Naked House where a greenhouse like structure provided skybreak shelter for a compound of traditional Japanese rooms put on boxes on casters like pieces of furniture.

This functionally generic design concept was once almost the exclusive province of commercial office building design, until in the wake of the Lofting movement a few residential developers realized the advantage of designing new buildings as ready-made loft apartment structures. We tend to think of buildings as being whole structures when, in practice, they actually tend to be organized into several primary and largely independent elements; superstructure (which does the work of holding the building up), foundation, roof, floor/deck, ceiling, outer enclosure, partition walls, and furnishings. In some vernacular architectures, superstructure, foundation, floor, and roof were the only substantial or 'permanent' elements of a structure. Everything else was temporary, moveable, and light. This strategy was adopted in modern times for the design of commercial office buildings where it was necessary to lease space on a square-foot basis and allow tenants the freedom to organize the internal layout of their workspace to suit their particular operational schemes and choices of amenities and equipment. This strategy became particularly important in the Information Age with the need to accommodate a rapidly evolving assortment of technology in the workplace. Though sometimes elaborate to the point of absurdity on the outside, office buildings are designed with simple post and beam superstructures of as large a span as practical and organized into simple floor levels. This superstructure defines the primary routing for a networked utilities infrastructure. Hanging or 'curtain' exterior wall systems and large glass windows provide the basic environmental enclosure. Everything else is non-load-bearing partitions of light framing or sometimes modular panel systems which are all considered temporary or disposable.

This strategy affords a building a much longer life and great economy in use over time because of how freely the interior design can be adapted to suit the needs of changing tenants and unit space demands. Within the limits of its primary structure, it anticipates change and can evolve freely to suit the needs of its inhabitants, the relationship between exterior and interior forms not especially critical and interior design more readily adaptive to any overall form, even if not always efficient in materials use.

In this strategy we see an important demarcation in architectural responsibility. The building owner is concerned primarily with the rarely changing macro-scale architecture of the building while tenants are concerned with the frequently changing interior design or micro-scale architecture. The building owner may need to be consulted on some changes to the interior space, particularly where they involve the tear-down of built-up partition walls and modifications to non-modular utilities components as incorrect changes could impact other tenants or damage the superstructure. But for such things as the rearrangement of modular office partitions and the like, the building owner need have no concern.

This notion can be expanded to larger whole-community scales where the macro-scale architecture becomes the province of community-level management or collaboration while the micro-scale in-fill architecture becomes the province of the individual household or 'building'. This can serve as an effective solution to the limitations in functional scale of wholly adaptive building systems, maintaining freedom of evolution at the discrete dwelling/facility scale even if freedom of macro-form is more limited by heavier structural systems. Thus we arrive at the concept of the conjoined or collective Community Macrostructure and the Urban Megastructure, the best example of this being Paulo Soleri's Arcology; a whole city based on a single community-managed megastructure of vast size. Though often accused of 'megalomaniaclemegabuild', the Soleri arcology is actually a functionally generic structure that is only 'designed' at the macrostructural scale. Everything else is up to the inhabitants in the form of in-fill structure, which is essentially no different from how cities already work except that it's organizing its 'backplane' in 3D. The notion of the independent building structure -and by extension independent property- is another one of those anachronisms perpetuated by contemporary architecture. Just turn any wide angle picture of a city sideways and you realize that most structures in our habitat are no more independent than the peripheral boards plugged into the backplane of a personal computer and thus real estate no less virtual than the domain name real estate of the Internet.

Now, there are much more advanced forms of functionally generic architecture that, for reasons unclear, seem to have been largely overlooked in commercial development and remain unexplored. Though designed for free adaptability, the contemporary office building or loft apartment building doesn't include any integral systems of in-fill structure interface that would actually facilitate this spontaneous adaptability with the greatest convenience through some degree of smaller scale modular component interface. With the exception of hanging ceilings and raised 'access' flooring, these buildings typically rely on very wasteful methods of interior refitting borrowed from the primitive interior finishing methods common to suburban housing. As a result, the interior refitting of these buildings incurs large and unnecessary degrees of waste in labor, time, materials, and cost and much higher degrees of wear and potential damage to the superstructure during conversion. This author has often suggested the notion that the superstructures of large buildings -and especially community scale macrostructures- should include an integral plug-in socket grid over its entire surface area derived from the formed-in-place sockets used for climbing form systems in heavy concrete construction. Spaced in a dense grid akin to a raised floor system, this would allow the simple screw-in surface-mount attachment of an endless variety of fittings allowing for easy routing of all utilities hardware, the installation of mezzanine structures and other secondary support structures, and a standardized modular panel system for all finished walls, floors, ceilings, facade cladding, window framing, and large equipment and appliances. And all of this could be quickly removed and re-arranged as necessary without wear on the superstructure itself. It would seem that, in the context of contemporary trends, this would be a logical approach even for the production of conventional suburban housing.

Adaptive systems are building systems where whole structures are freely adaptable by virtue of easily demountable and manipulated modular components. This is the ideal form of adaptive architecture, where both the micro-scale structure of the discrete dwelling and the macro-scale structure of a whole community are freely and spontaneously evolvable at potentially the same very high rate of change if necessary. These systems are also potentially useful in the context of retrofit or in-fill structure in both the adaptive reuse and functional generic architecture contexts, providing the basis of light structures that can flesh-out the interior of other larger structures.

Such systems tend to fall into two categories; unit module systems and modular component systems. Unit module systems are based on relatively large modular units comprising one or more rooms which serve as complete prefabricated, sometimes pre-finished, structures akin to appliances that can be assembled into larger complexes, either directly or with the use of an external support superstructure. One of the best and largest examples of such architecture is Moshe Safdi's Habitat 67, built for the Montreal Expo and based on large interlocking stacked concrete modules forming a vast multi-storey complex.

Modular component systems are those where structures are built from relatively small size modular components, usually in some combination of frame, panel, and fixture modules all scaled for relatively easy assembly by hand and in some rare cases designed for robotic assembly. Space frame structures are the common example of this form of structure. Both of these types systems are sometimes referred to as 'plug-in architecture', though in general the term is more appropriately applied to modular component systems based on integrated component attachment methods needing few or no tools.

The chief limitation of adaptive systems is scale. As a general rule, given a particular structural material, the bigger the building the bigger its parts. In order to keep components within a manageable size, many building systems must compromise to some degree on maximum clear spans and maximum load bearing capacity. This is particularly the case with modular component building systems intended to be assembled by hand. However, even with such limits systems based on modern materials are still impressive in performance, usually topping-out in the area of ten storey high structures with spans under 40 feet. With the advent of future nanofiber composite and diamondoid materials we may see these dimensions increase dramatically but for truly large communal structures as those in the contemporary urban environment heavier construction systems may remain necessary. In such a situation the functionally generic architecture approach would supersede but these same wholly adaptive building systems are very likely to find roles as in-fill and finishing structural systems for macrostructures built with other methods.

Contemporary technology for adaptive systems is a relatively recent phenomenon commonly associated with Modernist design, though some vernaculars have exhibited characteristics of modulariity and were often inspiration to Modernist designers -traditional Japanese architecture based on the 'ken' system of geometry derived from the dimensions of tatami mats being particularly significant. One would imagine that the many virtues of modular construction, its high adaptability, and it's potential for industrialized production would make such systems an inevitable evolutionary leader. But, in fact, while countless modular building systems have been devised across the 20th century, very few have survived to the present day or achieved any kind of broad use in the building industry. The chief reason for this seems to be the difficulty in matching the logistics of the real estate market to the logistics of Industrial Age mass production. Many modular building systems have been devised for the sake of one or a few building or home designs which their inventors/designers believed ideal in some way but which had no hope of enough market appeal to justify the cost of tooling for mass production. Early Modernist designers were particularly focused on the concept of industrializing housing as a means to making it accessible to all. But they commonly relied on a model of industrialization derived from the example of the automobile industry, regarding the house as a whole unit product like a car or appliance and seeking an idealized essential architecture for the house applicable to all housing needs akin to that of the car. (with the adoption of pressed steel welded unibody construction in the late 1930s, virtually all automobiles became manufactured in the exact same way and all car designs largely cosmetic derivatives of the same basic architecture) Many hundreds of designers across the 20th century sought the ideal universal -or at least one-size-fits-most- house architecture. They all failed. Though it may often seem as though the typical American suburbanite is subject to a habitat of tragically soul-crushing banality, sameness, and squalor little improved over the project tenement housing of urban areas, the sliding scale of economy by amenities and the spectrum of variations by climate and regional cultural aesthetics is still sufficient enough that a universal house design becomes impossible. No single contemporary prefab home design has ever sold more than a few thousand units in their entire production lifetime -not even those deliberately designed as mass production housing for the poorest and presumably least picky members of society.

Other designers/inventors more pragmatically sought to devise multi-purpose building systems rather than specific building designs -as was the case with the many developers of the various space frame building systems. But many of these designer/inventors refused to assume the personal responsibility for establishing manufacturing industries for them, assuming this to be the role of already established large companies, and putting themselves, again, in the position of having to prove the pre-existence of a sufficiently large market. Those that did assume this responsibility -because no one else would- quickly found themselves limited to the use of very high cost low volume component production for demonstrating their technology. To bootstrap production, they would then seek to focus on commercial 'glamour' architecture where the premium cost of their systems was more tolerable than in other construction markets. For most this proved to be a trap, their small businesses never able to get enough building projects to bridge them to continuous production of standardized component lines that could bring their prices down to something the mainstream market could tolerate. This was often exacerbated by a failure of these ventures to actively pursue cultivation of broad spectrums of boilerplate designs that could expand their market. Most settled into this vertical market niche, waiting for the architects and the projects to come to them, and abandoned their original ideals. Historically, most space frame manufacturers have proven business failures, either being ruined outright with shifts in architectural fashion or surviving by being absorbed into other commercial building products companies. The more successful companies have survived by going international in marketing but even the single largest and oldest space frame producer in the world -MERO-TSK -still, after nearly 70 years in business, cannot get enough work to move beyond on-demand production and now assumes, as a business policy, that it's simply not possible. Once regarded as the epitome of Industrial Age and High Tech building technology, modular space frame systems have been in existence now for almost a century yet no standardized commercially manufactured component sets currently exist (with the exception of very light systems for store display and theatrical uses) and building a modest home with them can still cost millions.

More recently, designers and inventors have begun exploring the possibilities of repurposing industrial building systems that are already in production as the basis of multi-purpose architectural building systems. Repurposing prefab modular industrial structures was common among Modernist designers throughout the 20th century but limited to discrete building designs, largely because the building systems being repurposed were themselves limited to a few kinds of structures. But the late 20th century saw the emergence of a number of industrial building systems of much more generic aspect intended for such applications as industrial automation, custom shop-floor furnishings, and prototype machine tools. Leader among these are the aluminum T-slot profiles based on extruded aluminum beams with T-shaped slots formed in their sides. Manufactured by many companies around the world, this building system has produced a huge family of standardized industrial components offering many possibilities for repurposing to architectural applications. Several companies are now developing housing based on these parts. This strategy offers the potential to overcome the problems associated with past modular building systems by virtue of the fact that the primary components are already in mass production worldwide, eliminating the need to prove the pre-existence of a market sufficient to justify tooling-up production. These new architectural uses simply present a new extension of an already existing market. However, components specialized to the architectural application are still very necessary, though thankfully limited largely to finished panels much easier to fabricate and incurring no added costs for production on demand when compared to conventional on-site building finishing -typically the most expensive and labor-intensive part of conventional construction. Also, many designers and inventors have been caught up in the current fad of repurposing the seemingly unlikely ISO modular shipping container and, though mostly employing traditional adaptive reuse to them, some are exploring them as the basis of more standardized unit module building systems based on standardized modifications. Again, the advantage here is that one is repurposing a component that is already in mass production worldwide and thus needs no pre-justification for its production.

As new digital fabrication technologies are coming on-line, the cost premium for on-demand production is beginning to drop. Minimum necessary volumes for production are steadily shrinking. designers can now employ modular and other alternative building systems at their own convenience rather than aspiring toward meeting the demands of mass production. This is one of the key forces behind the recent surge in interest in Modernist Prefab housing. It was once unthinkable for most designers and inventors to actually experiment on the scale of entire buildings. But today, this is becoming increasingly practical, resulting in a remarkable explosion in cottage-scale architectural experimentation which, in turn, is spawning new cottage-scale entrepreneurship. This has only just begun to impact modular construction technology, largely because so many of the modular building concepts of the past were forgotten and remain to be rediscovered by contemporary designers/inventors and because, for the most part, they continue to operate largely in isolation of each other because of professional competitiveness. But its clear the virtues of modularity are coming through in these new designs and we may soon find ourselves in the midst of a new modular building technology boom. In the immediate future, production of sophisticated modular building systems will be as practical for owner-builders as other more conventional building methods and may become the basis of significant development movements. We are already seeing hints of this with the T-slot technology.

The role of adaptive architecture in collaborate community development:

Adaptive architecture offers the potential to radically alter the logistics of habitat compared to common contemporary development methods, expanding personal and social control over development and shifting things back to a mode of habitat more akin to that of pre-industrial times. It does this by reducing or eliminating the barriers of cost and time in the physical adaptation of structure and by the decoupling of the value of buildings from land, fundamentally altering the perspective of property. The wholly demountable building is an astoundingly disruptive technology when you think about it. Traditionally, the value of land has been interdependent with how it is used -how it's 'developed'- and thus interdependent with the structures put on it. This relies on the essential non-changeability of conventional architecture -on that irrational assumption of architectural permanence. This has created the very peculiar phenomenon -or cultural delusion...- of perpetual real estate appreciation, which, as we have painfully learned in the past few years in the western world, is not sustainable. The demountable building has a value independent of land because, at any time, it can be picked up and moved whole to some other location or even sold off as parts. It can also be radically altered in value and use through a reconfiguration of components. This reduces the value of land to that based purely on demand for raw space while affording the structures on it a very independent valuation based on unit component condition and re-salability. This would not automatically mean that a building must radically depreciate like an automobile or mobile home. Their depreciation is based on their engineered obsolescence -their deliberate design for irreparability. However, unlike a conventional building which has its value tied to land, it would depreciate according to the vicissitudes of market value on a discrete component basis, some parts wearing faster than others, some retaining market value relative to demand, some even appreciating. In other words, the relative value of the structure over time becomes akin to the values of furniture. You can buy the cheap and disposable stuff, buy stuff that lasts, or even buy antiques that appreciate in value.

Whether as part of primary cultures or later cultures, most people in the world for most of human history did not individually own land; either because they had no need to own it in any formal sense to use it or because ownership was limited to small ruling classes/castes. Though we often think of cities today as somehow a very recent advent of civilization, for most of history people have, out of simple necessity, lived at an urban density in a village-oriented habitat -even when that village was no more than a shared cave or a mobile collection of light huts or tents. The use of space in such early communities was subject largely to a peer-to-peer process of negotiation between immediate neighbors and often the whole community, initially in a very casual manner but increasingly formally as the nature of the built habitat became more sophisticated and the structures involved more substantial and dependent upon communal labor to create. Often community leaders, elders, or sometimes the ruling-class land owners or their assigned representatives assumed the role of mediator for these negotiations. All space was essentially 'free' for use but communities tended to create specific collective structures for protection, resource efficiency, and convenience, compelling one to participate in a negotiation for one's share of space and location in the community layout. In such an environment egalitarianism tended to prevail because of a very direct peer pressure for fairness and equity and a dependence on one's neighbors for building labor -if not for survival in general. As a result, most personal dwellings tended to be consistent in basic space, form, and design, though were free for elaboration, customization, and decoration within the limits of personal labor or labor one could trade for or coax free from one's neighbors in some way. One was always cognizant of the fact that one's rights to any particular space in a community were secondary to the needs of the community as a whole -or for that matter the will of the ruling lord or the like who might actually own the land and could decide at any particular time that he had better uses for it. But as a participating member of the community one was always assured that if one was compelled to move, the community would pitch-in collectively to make that move as convenient as possible and provide one with equivalence in replacement accommodations -or even some improvement as compensation for being compelled to move. And, of course, these decisions -because the labor involved could be so high- were very well deliberated and did not happen that often except where communities relied on architecture that required regular structural replacement -as in the case of buildings employing lighter organic materials.

This very social process of negotiation and deliberation over the use of space resulted in a typically very organic and evolutionary character to the architecture of early communities with a very specific hierarchy of social propriety played-out in structure in a sometimes fractal-like self-similarity of hierarchical architectural organization. This was particularly apparent in communities that developed vernacular architectures based on walled enclosures and court or atrium structures -clustered dwellings surrounding a shared open space deriving from the most efficient use of a walled enclosure- where a successive hierarchy of enclosed open spaces physically denoted the levels of social propriety in the community, as well as sometimes indicating phases of growth. The smallest of these open spaces represented the family domain, which in turn surrounded a space defining a small village, tribal, or extended family level of domain, which in turn could be organized in larger cities around massive public squares or plazas linked by primary thoroughfares and sometimes used to compartmentalize major tribal, religious, ethnic, or social class divisions and then in later periods often became the basis of organizing communities around trades and industries with trade guilds given habitat territories just like a major tribal group. (from this may derive, in modern cities, the tendency for regional commercial specialization in cities almost as if it were being organized like a gigantic department store or market bazar)

Though early dwellings were often based on high labor construction -particularly stone and earthen construction- and could sometimes withstand the elements for centuries, attitudes about their permanence and value were very different from that of dwellings today. A relatively young community would, of necessity, rely on smaller simpler dwellings that were more easily changeable based on the need for the community as a whole to work out its ultimate persistent architecture as a process of trial and error and because the net pool of labor was relatively small. As the structure of the community became more stratified with experience, it was safer for individuals to invest a lot of their own elaboration on initial structures and thus they would tend to expand in size. In situations where there was an upper-class land-owner such as a feudal lord, they generally regarded all buildings as disposable no matter what amount of labor might have gone into them. Serfs/tenants had little incentive to invest in their dwellings where their future was less certain and so would tend to keep dwellings simple unless they were in closer proximity to civil structures dictated by the ruler and which thus had a better chance of being left unmolested across generations. In some cultures all or most structures were automatically disposable because they relied on light materials that needed whole replacement on a regular basis or because religious traditions -often with a rationale in disease control- required the ritualistic destruction of a dwelling after the death of an occupant. In Japan, the cultivation of the 'ken system' and modular building vernaculars that so inspired Modernist designers was in part compelled by frequent war, earthquake, whimsical edicts by nobility, and outbreaks of fire that required a very pragmatic attitude about the long term survivability of architecture and created the need for structures that were light, potentially demountable, and easily replaced with more valuable personal possessions kept small and easily transported. It was a common practice in Japanese cities and towns prior to the Meiji Period to build communal fireproof safety vaults of heavy masonry in which residents would quickly secure valuables removed from their homes when word of an advancing fire reached them. Clearly, this modern notion of the house as a permanent repository of life-long accumulated wealth is a very recent concept that seems very dependent upon the security provided by the home insurance and banking industries, which as we have increasingly seen is incapable of coping with disaster or disruption on a regional scale.

Adaptive architecture compels a similarly pragmatic attitude about the disposition of the personal dwelling and the nature of property. By decoupling the value of structure from the value of land through demountability, new -or perhaps we should say more traditional- models of property become apparent and we return to a situation where habitat becomes a social construct rather than an economic construct. In the conventional real estate market there generally exist only two options in the disposition of dwellings owing to the strict coupling of structure to land value; total ownership and total lease. One either owns ones dwelling and its land whole or own rents a dwelling owned whole by someone else. Mobile homes have created the potential third option in the form of ownership of dwelling independent of rental of space -which was actually a common situation in earlier times- but the horrendously poor quality of mobile homes and their very rapid depreciation relative to their cost and the high cost of rental space to put them on has made this a userous option of last resort for a desperate underclass unwilling or unable to move to cities. With adaptive architecture that has a high degree of demountability (and with that perpetual incremental maintainability like conventional buildings) one can regard a building as a portable possession akin to the furniture inside it and thus a broad spectrum of options opens up between these two ownership extremes. A commercial land owner now has options to lease space much like space in an office building without a large investment in structures or can choose to build superstructures to increase density of use without a great investment in finishing. A home owner now has many possible gradations of ownership to transition between on the way to full scale home ownership with labor cost largely eliminated by modularity and industrial production of building components a home owner can easily assemble himself. They can invest in a home incrementally, relocating as necessary to obtain more more space, and choose at any time between components that are new or used/refurbished and bought on a house parts aftermarket. The scale of dwellings can freely fluctuate according to their varying use. One can add or sell off parts of a home incrementally as one's household space needs grow and shrink.

But what's most interesting here is the potential in the community context for collective land ownership with a peer-to-peer socially collaborative process of space allocation. Like these early communities, a community based on adaptive architecture can assume collective ownership of a large piece of land -perhaps through the model of a corporation- and then use any social process it desires to allocate space for its individuals with the whole habitat free to evolve at a very rapid pace to accommodate trial-and-error cultivation of experience and refinement of overall community architecture. There are many possible models to explore in this context; Kelsonian models of community investment corporations, group collectivization of discrete parcels, state ownership and granting of land as a commons under community management, and so on. These things become practical to explore because one's personal investment in structure remains independent of location and independently fungible down to the discrete component level.

Such models anticipate the situation of Post-Industrial civilization, where progressive functional failure of nation-states coupled to cultural trends of demassification and the rise of industrial independence result in communities, both physical and virtual, becoming the essential functional geopolitical and geoeconomic entities and needing to cultivate a system of property rights more akin to a global system of squatters' rights than what we are familiar with today. In this environment, very different cultural models of property are likely to emerge. Western civilization has generally adopted a rather primitive concept of property rights deriving from medieval religious notions of divine right and dominionism -god as ultimate landlord granting rights to his chosen upper-caste authorities (his will reasoned out of success in warrior conquest) for similar disbursement by grant, lease, or sale. It's a weird model that assumes that everything must be owned by someone in order to exist or be of use. In contemporary law this model persists, with bureaucratic nation-states assuming the role of earlier kings and popes and the concept of divine right rooted in the sometimes near-psuedo-religion of patriotism along with it. We really haven't progressed very far beyond the Magna Carta in the past 800 years... In primary cultures, with their commonly animistic belief systems, a much more sophisticated model tends to prevail. The earth owns itself -often being attributed with some existence as an organism or personality- which, most of the time, deigns to allow human beings to do as they please on its surface. It's up to the community to figure out how to manage this use according to the balance between the needs of individuals and the group as well as the dictates of natural order and balance. Thus property rights are a negotiable social convention limited by the willingness of a community to recognize and defend them by force where necessary. This is the actual logical/physical reality of property, this model more sophisticated -despite our common perceptions of these cultures as primitive- by virtue of that fact that it does not attempt to disguise this essential fact with mythology or religion. In the future property will increasingly be measured in terms of 'use bandwidth' over material possession -your rights to use as opposed to ownership of some measured portion- as is the case of the 'real estate' of a computer network. We can only speculate at how this cultural evolution may play out, but it is clear that the unique virtues of adaptive architecture and their impact on the conventional real estate market may play a very important role in it.

Current Adaptive Building Technology:

Let us now explore some of the specific currently available/viable or anticipated adaptive building technologies. Sadly, as noted previously most of the modular buildings systems developed in the 20th century never survived to the present day and wait to be rediscovered by contemporary designers. Still, current technology -crude as some of it may be- still offers us a vast potential for experimentation.

Pavilions, Skybreaks, Lofts, and Tectonic Architecture:

Simultaneously one of the oldest of all architectural forms and the most modern, pavilion architecture represents one of the simplest and most immediate models for adaptive architecture. A 'pavilion' is any form of structure based on a free-standing -often column-supported- large-span roof structure without load-bearing walls which is outfit for habitation based on largely free-standing furnishings and partitions. Depending on mode of use, such structures may feature no side enclosure or use any combination of non-load-bearing walls, windows, screens, shutters, or even curtains. Sometimes referred to as 'open plan design', functional areas are defined by the type and clustering of furnishings which can often be freely reconfigured on demand. Partitions and opaque enclosure walls can be used to form complete enclosures for more privacy and in some cases furnishings may be designed as free-standing self-contained rooms, as in the case of some enclosed bed and lounge designs. Long an extremely popular dwelling concept among the classic Modernists, it is perhaps best epitomized in the design of Phillip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan Connecticut, based on a steel framed glass enclosed box completely open on its interior save for a cylindrical enclosure containing a bathroom and fully functional as the architect's own home for much of his long life. Dwellings of this sort have evolved in various forms in many cultures and are the basis of many vernacular architectures, typically associated with tropical climates as glass is a relatively modern industrial material. The most advanced of these vernacular forms was realized in the traditional Japanese house, with its extremely refined traditional system of design, very sophisticated wood joinery, modular tatami mat flooring, hanging ceiling systems, and tile roofing systems. In the western tradition, pavilion structures were often the basis of temple and public architecture employing the early civilization's most advanced forms of stonework, evolving to produce many early domed buildings.

Given contemporary building technology and materials, a countless variety of pavilion structures are now possible, often using repurposed prefabricated structures. Good examples of these can be found among prefab alloy park shelters. Countless materials can now be employed, from earth block to the most high-tech high performance materials, though the concept still favors lighter structures or modular component buildings systems. The ability to define space through free-standing furnishings offers incredible potential for design creativity in furnishings and appliances and can readily make use of Living Structures and their various building systems. However, it remains little used outside of the context of Modernist Minimalist homes in relatively remote locations, largely because of the limitations on privacy imposed by open plan design and the use of large window expanses that demand landscaping for privacy or the use of walled enclosures. These were not such limiting issues in earlier times and in non-European cultures but today many households think it necessary to compartmentalize homes to the point where even every child has a self-contained apartment of their own. Still, there is great potential in this simple form of structure in larger sizes or large compounds as the basis of communal habitats developed through collaborative design, This approach would treat a very large pavilion structure or pavilion complex as a public and communal structure freely and dynamically organized internally by employing various forms of free-standing public and personal structures with as little or as much enclosure and privacy as individuals might want. In such a structure private space becomes defined by furniture -or to put it another way, furniture rises to the level of entire specialized modular rooms within the larger communal space, the chief trade-off being that the more privacy you employ by tighter enclosure of these spaces the less access you have to the ambient light of the overall communal environment. Consider, for instance, a community habitat based on rooms akin to the 'capsules' of a Japanese capsule hotel elaborated into much more fully-featured room modules in a large variety of functions. A number of Modernist designers explored this 'room as appliance' concept in the 1960s.

This brings us to the concept of the Skybreak mentioned earlier; a large clear-span weather-shelter enclosure for a whole habitat composed of lighter structures. The Skybreak is an evolution of the concept of pavilion architecture and was first devised by students of Buckminster Fuller as the ultimate approach to the use of the geodesic dome in a residential role. Typical 'dome homes' employ an inefficient strategy of trying to partition the interior of a dome structure in the manner of a conventional house. The end-result is overcomplicated carpentry and odd shapes that never suit conventional furnishings. The more effective approach is to treat the dome as a largely independent structure -like a pavilion- and outfit its volume for habitation with similarly independent structures. The Skybreak employs this on a very large scale, the idea being to use a transparent dome as a weather barrier over an entire large piece of property then landscaping the interior to one's tastes and erecting largely independent but light structures -ideally of modular component composition- to make the space habitable. The skybreak structure itself is not intended as a perfect climate control enclosure. It just creates a barrier against the major elements; rain, snow, wind, and intense sun. The smaller interior structures can be heated and cooled independently. This may seem inefficient but, in fact, is much more efficient in that one is not attempting climate control of the whole structure and can more effectively exploit and control the solar gain or reflectivity over the whole structure. In Buckminster Fuller's time it was never possible to cost-effectively realize a transparent skybreak dome as he envisioned due to limitations in materials. Today, however, we not only have the means to do this using geodesic domes, there are a vast assortment of large span structures based on rigid framing, tension roof systems, and pneumatic structures as well as new material such as teflon impregnated fiberglass cloth and Texlon membrane that allow for the creation of skybreaks in an endless variety of forms. With such structures one can take the concept of the communal pavilion to a much larger scale, employing its same approach to the collaborative creation of an interior habitat based on Living Structure style construction for an entire village community and including extensive interior open spaces and gardens. Skybreak designs at the scale of the individual dwelling have already been explored by a number of designers in recent times. This large scale use, however, remains to be explored outside of the context of commercial buildings employing tension roof covers but seems increasingly likely as we continue to break new records in the construction of large greenhouse and zoo enclosures.

Though such grand demonstrations of communal pavilion architecture remain in the future, there is one form where it has been well demonstrated; lofting. As we discussed earlier, the conversion of older industrial and commercial buildings into loft apartment buildings is a very common, practical, and commercially very successful demonstration of the principles of adaptive reuse. It also represents another variation of the concept of pavilion architecture, these old and functionally generic structures adapted to habitation in essentially the same way and thus being akin to pavilions with multiple floors. The key difference is the employ of much more substantial demising walls in what is intended to be a largely unchangeable division of space. And as we also mentioned earlier, the commercial success of loft apartments has also resulted in new buildings being built specifically for this for of use. Such buildings have already been used as the basis of co-housing communities and so their potential as the basis of community architecture is well demonstrated. However, this concept remains very crudely implemented to date because, curiously, few professional architects have shown much interest in the potential of functionally generic structures, even though most commercial buildings are exactly that in practice. The basic 'wedding cake' structural form common to commercial buildings and earlier industrial buildings is an exceptionally versatile form -as well demonstrated by the vast diversity of forms among contemporary commercial buildings and their remarkable ability to physically adapt to sometimes peculiar urban property boundaries. This offers unexplored potential in the context of community design based on the concept of functionally generic communal structures of large size -in effect, taking that notion of the communal pavilion to the level of multi-story complexes that could comprise not just an entire community but an entire city. This is much the same concept as Paulo Soleri's arcology, which is exactly this kind of functionally generic structure taken to extreme scales.

This brings us to the concept of tectonic architecture; macrostructural systems that mimic and integrate into natural landscape. The term 'tectonic architecture' has been used in a variety of ways but this author chooses to use it to refer to architecture that mimics natural landscape through the use of large conjoined terraced superstructures where the individual terraces are sculpted into organic profiles akin to the lines on a topographical map or terraced farming as seen in Asia and topped with gardens to create a naturalistic appearance. Based on the usual 'wedding cake' structures of large commercial buildings, terrace edges become the primary basis of habitation, serving as loft space for any variety of uses. Such structures can blend easily into pre-existing landscapes and can employ a variety of facade treatments and smaller scale convex or concave articulation in order to highlight or conceal different areas and accommodate variations in unit dwelling configuration -creating, for instance, more private atriums or more free-standing protrusions. With structures such as this, based on conventional commercial construction methods using predominately reinforces concrete, it would become possible to explore collaborative community design on a truly vast scale -essentially, as the basis of a form of arcology.

Living Structures:

the term 'Living Structures' was coined by designer Ken Isaacs in the the 1960s for the series of freely adaptive indoor structures he developed bridging furniture and architecture and based on his simply DIY Matrix construction system, later to become Box Beam and today known as Grid Beam. Here we use the term in a bit more general sense to denote a now large variety of indoor and occasionally small outdoor structures similarly bridging furniture to architecture and often based on a large variety modular and other building methods. Examples include such 'furnitecture' as the many forms of canopy or enclosed beds employed in pre-industrial times and recently seeing a revival in modern times as 'pod' beds. The many forms of 'pod furniture' experimented with by designers in the 1960s. Andrea Zittel's 'Raugh' Furniture, Comfort Units and Living Units, Cellular Compartment Units, indoor Escape Vehicles, and outdoor Wagon Stations. ( N55's various space frame based structures. ( The Z-Box designed by Dan Hisel. ( The similar but more elaborate Pod Living system devised by Jade Jagger. ( And, of course, the many forms of Capsule Hotel units employed in Japan. Though many of these examples are fixed structure objects whose adaptability is based on their collective arrangement in a living space, the term is more appropriate in terms of structures whose forms are user-adaptive by virtue of some modular building system and can potentially be combined or conjoined on demand, thus representing a kind of indoor building system.

Isacs first devised Living Structures as a simple means of maximizing the utility of limited space with structures one could build with little carpentry skill. A way one could better use the volume of the space through a volumetric furniture structure rather than relying on the 2D area alone and a way of circumventing the hegemony of factory-produced furnishings by eliminating the barrier of skill overhead associated with traditional carpentry. Many of his designs were based on creating multiple levels of space within the usual single floor space. But what intrigued people most about this designs was the way they were built, and its potential s a DIY building system. This inspired a brief wave of creativity and ingenuity among some designers who not only experimented with Matrix but also many other simple modular building systems. Isaacs himself did likewise, particularly exploring the possibilities of stressed skin box structures and the use of the pre-cursors to today's pipe-fitting building systems like Kee-Klamp. Because these were designed to be indoor structures, relying on other buildings for their full climate shelter, the limitations in weatherproofing common to simpler modular building systems was no particular problem.

A Living Structure is generally any adaptable furniture object elaborated to where it can integrate many functions of a room or several rooms and potentially provide independent enclosure like a room without being connected physically to the rest of an overall structure. The classic example is the cabinet-like enclosed bed, which developed in ancient Asia and medieval europe as a means to provide both greater privacy in homes housing extended families and greater insulation given limited climate control performance of early dwellings. This later evolved into the curtain-enclosed canopy bed intended to provide greater privacy for the nobility who often kept attendants in their bedrooms almost continually. Across the 20th century many designers experimented with the concept of evolving major pieces of room-function-defining furniture into appliances; turning sofas into lounge units complete with built-in TVs, kitchen or dining room tables into dining machines, shower stalls into all-in-one 'ensuite' bathroom modules, and so on. The notion persists to this day with various kinds of all-in-one lounges and meeting pods, personal computer workstation pods, serenity pods intended as personal relaxation escape capsules, and the most sophisticated of all, the CAVE or CAVE Automated Virtual Environment; a room using displays as an enclosure projecting a computer-generated virtual environment.

Employing modular building systems, Living Structures are capable of being integrated into large freely adaptable interconnected complexes that can be perpetually customized and rearranged to suit personal tastes and varying needs. This allows simple large span structures to be organized into freely adaptive functional and personal space without physically modifying that larger structure. Thus this is an effective strategy for the use of pavilion and skybreak architecture and the adaptive reuse of large structures. In the future we may see this tactic employed in space, with orbital habitats based on larger generic pressure enclosures outfit by smaller retrofit structures and large sealed excavated spaces below the surface of the Moon or Mars made habitable by similar modular retrofit structures. This author has previously proposed that very realistic mock-ups of such habitats are quite feasible today using such facilities as the Kansas City Subtopolis complex as a host for a large Living Structure habitat.

Today, a huge variety of light modular buildings system are available for repurposing to Living Structure use in addition to Grid Beam, T-slot, and Kee-Klamp -far more than exist in general construction because it is so much easier to manufacture and market such light and often application-specific systems. There are now various scaffolding systems, modular electronic enclosure systems, many kinds of aluminum profile extrusions, light space frame systems used for store and trade show displays, DIY space frames such as N55's. modular theatrical truss systems, modular industrial shelving and mezzanine systems, tension or tensegrity truss systems, pultruded fiber reinforced plastic profiles, increasingly sophisticated office partition, access flooring, and suspended ceiling systems all of which have Living Structure potential. There are also many interesting new materials and new ways to use very traditional and simple materials. New means of attaching textiles to structures such as the famous Grip Clip ( New textiles made of bamboo, hemp, and other more renewable fibers. High-tech textiles made of alloy, glass, and carbon fibers. Extruded interlocking clay, gypsum, and cast stone panels and planking. Weatboard and strawboard made of compressed wheat straw. Aluminum foam panel, cast stone panel, various kinds of structural insulated panels, fiber-cement panels. Elastomeric membranes more transparent than glass and far stronger. New kinds of insulation made of mineral and glass foams, cotton, and wool. Paints with microencapsulates offering insulating or phase-change properties. Many kinds of industrial and shipping containers, from marine and air shipping containers to various forms of roto-molded polyethylene tanks, offer adaptive reuse prospects. There are also many new kinds of prefabricated products that can suit Living Structure use schemes such as the small wood pavilions made by Tony's T-Houses (, new sophisticated tent and geodesic dome structures such as those by Shelter Systems ( and Pacific Domes (, and various pod-like kitchen systems and the various pieces of current pod furniture. Still, the simple systems, like Grid Beam and T-slot, offer the best and cheapest prospects of diverse experimentation with the concept.

Living Structures present a very convenient and low cost way to explore the possibilities of adaptive architecture and still remains little-explored by contemporary designers, presenting a wide-open field for innovation and product development. Though the concept is old, we've hardly scratched the surface of its potential. Ken Isaacs' work with this provided a bridge to the pursuit of adaptive architecture systems that were fully capable of independent weatherproof building on their own, without another larger shelter structure. The experimenters of Suntools did likewise with Box Beam. Though these earlier building systems proved less capable for this, T-slot has now made the move to a full architectural building system.

Unit Module Systems:

As was noted earlier, unit module systems are one of the major forms of modular construction and were very popular among Modernist designers of the past. However, none of these systems have survived to the present day and, though reemerging among the designers riding the current Modernist prefab craze of the present, no systems of the type are currently in production. Their chief problem is scale.

Unit module systems are based on the use of modules containing an entire room, often with most of their appliances and furniture included as built-in fixtures. They interface through portals which plug-together as a direct rigid connection between modules or by use of modular corridor units. This is largely an elaboration of the idea of pod furniture, where a pod unit is expanded to a size and made of such materials that it can withstand the elements alone, standing on its own foundation system. However, they need not necessarily be designed to withstand the full environment and can be employed as a variation of Living Structure. They also don't necessarily need to be interconnected, being used in the manner of 'compound' architecture where a series of small self-contained buildings house separate parts of a complete home linked by walkways, a courtyard, or partial free-standing roof structure. Not an uncommon approach in milder climate areas and once characteristic of traditional Mission Style architecture.

Because these modules comprise at least one entire room in a more-or-less monolithic self-contained structure, they tend to be rather large units to fabricate and move around whole, which has severely limited their ease of prototyping and limited the number of designers able to explore the concept. And their aesthetics is entirely dictated by the module design standard, which for this sort of structure typically results in something akin to the NASA design for a lunar habitat, radically removed from anything people are normally familiar with in dwellings. Thus their mass production prospects are very poor despite their appliance-like characteristics. However, today we can work with materials like fiber reinforced composites, steel frame systems, and polyurethane structural foams with far greater ease than in the past which should result in far more experimentation with this concept in the future, particularly where designs keep individual modules to a smaller size.

A typical system of the type can be visualized by imagining a Japanese Capsule Hotel unit elaborated into a small self-contained weatherproof cabin of rigid composite outer shell construction, a fireproof mineral foam core, and semi-rigid soft interior foams with a combination of rigid, soft plastic, and textile-covered surfaces inside with marine-style windows, perhaps its own miniature heating and cooling system, some entertainment electronics, and possibly even solar power and wireless communications all standing on the ground on simple legs. This is a notion this author explored himself for the design of long-duration vacation cabins suited to winter climates that could be towed by small ATV or by hand. Now imagine units like this fashioned for each of the different functions of a dwelling; an all-in-one bathroom akin to Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Bathroom, a lounge composed of a built-in circular conversation pit with built-in TV and alcohol mini-fireplace, a dining room composed of a circular booth and table, a kitchen fashioned like a single multi-functional appliance, an office/workstation composed of integrated desks and cabinets with built-in computer fixtures, and any number of other specialized room modules functional or fanciful, from walk-in closets or greenhouses to playrooms and hot tubs. Each of these modules would have at least one standardized 'portal' interface that plugs into those of other modules and connects with a tool-less quick-connection, such as built-in screws or key locks. These portals would also include utilities interfaces with the utilities 'bus' designed for external maintenance access. The overall structure might be mounted on concrete pilings, pre-cast piers, or steel screw pilings that lock to their support legs. These legs would also allow for the attachment of large wheel casters, somewhat aiding the movement and positioning of these units. And external frame structure might also be included to allow for multiple storey combinations. Though the size and shape of the individual modules would vary along with the number and position of their portals, they would freely allow any combination of modules to be linked together, sprawling in either 2D or 3D complexes. These individual room modules would be swapped-out whole when worn out, severely damaged, or made obsolete in design or resident's needs just like an appliance, their quick-connect design making this easy, though sometimes requiring multiple modules to be dismantled. Likewise, the dwelling could freely expand or reconfigure its shape and at any time be disassembled and transported whole to other locations. A very good model for adaptive architecture, albeit that one is dealing with individual 'parts' that may be at least 3 meters cubed and weigh as much as a compact car.

Container Module:

Container modules systems are a particular variant of the concept of a unit module system that is based on the repurposing of ISO marine shipping containers to create the unit modules. As we noted, no unit module systems are currently in production. However, repurposed container architecture has become a particular obsession for many contemporary designers, owing to its recycling aspect and the very low cost of containers as an extremely durable raw material. Many commercial developers have also seen the potential in the container and a number of companies now purposefully manufacture containers for modular building construction, such as the German Erge Corp. (

Container module systems are typically less specialized in their module design, since the same basic structure is being repurposed for every type of room. Combination modules are common, where two or more containers are used in sectional series to form a single larger room. Owing to the often inordinately high costs of container mod metalworking in places like the US, it is best to employ the simplest approaches to modification as possible -though in general few architects working with these prescribe to that rule. Interfacing containers together is more complex than one would have with a dedicated quick-connect portal system and so container combinations often rely on less demountable forms of interface. Using containers as the basis of compound architecture -where each container is a self-contained free-standing room/building that needs no direct interface to others- is the easiest, cheapest, and most freely adaptive of approaches but limited in where in can be employed.

Ironically, despite their huge popularity among designers today, little progress has actually been made in developing tools and devices to facilitate easier handling of the containers by fewer numbers of people. In most cases heavy fork lifts, cranes, and large trucks are employed at great expense even though the militaries of the world have advanced to the use of more sophisticated container handling devices such as the Container Lift-Transport; a modular wheeled hydraulic driven unit that attaches directly to containers turning them into trailers or letting them be self-propelled at low speed -all installed and controlled by a solitary operator.

Modular Post-And-Beam Systems:

This is the most traditional class of modular component building systems -perhaps the first form of modular construction ever developed. Though often regarded as obsolesced by contemporary stick frame wood composite construction, it remains the much more sophisticated technology and today has seen great advance with the introduction of concealed steel plate joinery systems such as the Kure-tec system featured in the Volkshaus housing concept ( and sophisticated modular kit products such as the Bali-T manufactured in Bali. ( With such technology free demountability, and hence adaptability, of structures become possible, though with some limitations compared to more high-tech materials. The chief limitations of post and beam construction is the weight of wood, larger span structures demanding progressively heavier and larger individual components that quickly become too much for the solitary individual to handle. Thus the most flexible deliberately adaptable systems model themselves after traditional Japanese framing using beams of about 15-20 centimeters with room spans of no more than 3-4 meters and structures no more than two storeys high. They may also employ many other elements similar to traditional Japanese architecture such as sliding screens/windows, suspended ceiling systems, and modular mat flooring -if not tatami mat- which aid in quick assembly and demountability.

As modular as post and beam construction is itself, very rarely is it used today in modular architecture owing to the complication of roofing systems, which remains the single-most problematic area in the design and engineering of modular component building systems for true full-scale building use. Truly weatherproof and demountable roofing technology remains a difficult engineering problem. Though much alleviated by the advent of modular alloy panel roofing systems, these remain incapable of free planar expansion, leaving the roof of a modular building the least adaptable part of the structure. Usually one can freely expand in one planar axis but then remain incapable of expansion in the opposing axis without replacing a whole roof or employing some complex layering or terracing contrivance. This is a problem faced for many centuries by builders using post and beam construction and which has never been definitively solved.

T-Slot Building Systems:

Technically a derivative of post and beam building systems. T-Slot building systems are based on the use of large scale versions of the same aluminum profiles commonly used in industrial automation and laboratory structures and relies on repurposing many of the accessory components originally developed for uses in those areas. Three companies currently pursue development of housing products based on this; Tomahouse in Bali (, TK Architecture in California with the iT House (, and the Jeriko House company in Louisiana. ( These companies products represent the current state of the art for this technology and modular component building systems for housing in general. Other aluminum profile building systems have also been developed, but using proprietary profile and interface designs that have drastically limited their potential production and doomed most to the same demise as modular building systems of the past.

Originally developed as a solution to the problem of rapid obsolescence of industrial automation technology, resulting in frequent and large capital investment losses when adopting automation, T-Slot framing's virtues over other modular building systems have made it a good solution for modular architecture -though this potential has only just recently been recognized. (T-slot component manufacturers, for cultural reasons, generally remain oblivious to the full and remarkable range of applications their customers put the technology to...) T-slot profiles feature one or more T-shaped slots on the sides of their profiles which allow for an assortment of quick-connect joint fittings and gusset plates usually installed with a simple hex-key. A huge assortment of accessories also attach to these slots. channels within the hollow profiles serving as cable runs and also designed to be used as pressurized distribution lines for pneumatics and hydraulics, making T-slot useful as the basis of robot and machine tool construction. It is commonly used for prototyping most new machine tools today. Housing scale profiles, usually in the 160-200mm profile width range, offer tremendous strength to weight performance compared to wood and can readily integrate housing utilities infrastructure inside their channels and unused slot spaces as well as along their faces, thus allowing the primary structure of a home to function as its 'backplane' like that of a personal computer. Using a typical module span of about 4 meters (much more when profiles are combined with truss web plates that fit into the slots) in simple post and beam structures with flush-in-line floor deck grids of cross beam joists, enclosure is provided by systems of standard panels which can attach to the structure in a variety of ways such as; surface mounting to the outer profile face, flush mounting to attachments on the inner profile face, and simple press-fit or spring-clip mounting using slots alone, without screws or locking mechanisms, to hold a panel in place. Virtually any materials can be employed in these panels, allowing for a huge diversity of pre-finished components that take no particular skill to install. Integration of appliances into panels is also possible and particularly well suited to heating and cooling, home entertainment, computing and lighting. Though current designers often employ the exposed aluminum post and beams as an architectural feature, innumerable surrounds and concealment panels are possible to hide or disguise the aluminum framing. Tomahouse commonly employs this to make their structures appear indistinguishable from wooden post and beam. Anodized and backed enamel finishes can also be applied to the aluminum, making it appear like other metals such as brass or gold or giving it any desired color. And since these same components are commonly employed for automation, it becomes possible to literally design an entire house or building that functions as a robot with any number of integral active mechanisms and electronics! This could be employed in medical and workshop applications as well as for disability and elder assistance. And, of course, it all comes apart and can be reconfigured on demand.

Like traditional post and beam structures, the chief limitation on adaptability is roofing which, as we noted, remains limited in its adaptability with current materials and technology. T-Slot buildings can employ any style of roof desired, from thatched and tension roofs to traditional shingle or flat composite roofs, but maintaining demountability tends to limit one to the use of alloy panel products in long fixed lengths. Some T-Slot housing designs employ a variation on the skybreak concept by using a pitched and easily swapped-out fabric or membrane tension roof over flat modular insulated panels, retaining more adaptability but requiting whole replacement of the membrane or some kind of 'fish scale' layering of tension roof sections. Though less durable and problematic in its tendency to create nesting spaces for unwanted animals, this remains the most freely demountable and adaptable form of roofing in existence today.

Even with three companies currently pursuing this technology, only the surface has been scratched in the potential of this building system and though not capable of truly massive community structures, it is far superior to wooden post and beam with potential for structures up to ten storeys -more than enough for any village scale projects. There is also great potential in this technology for the cultivation of an industrial ecology, where many small to large businesses are producing standardized components for these structures. The entrepreneurial potential is vast and since this standards for T-slot components are basically public domain, this is well suited to an open source design and development program.

Plug-In Building Systems:

True plug-in building systems represent the most advanced form of modular component building systems and perhaps the most advanced form of modular architecture in general. They differ from other modular component building systems in that the components are designed as more sophisticated units that quick interface to each other without any tools through integrated mechanisms and which will also link-up pre-installed utilities busses. They may also be designed for assembly by robots using special robot handling points and active communication of their identity and status with electronic assembly management systems. Integration of appliances and fixtures into major components is another common characteristic. Sadly, though long speculated, no true plug-in building systems currently exist, though they are more possible to develop today than ever and they are very likely to evolve from T-Slot building systems.

Typical speculative plug-in building system concepts are based on three basic elements; a deck system that serves as floor, ceiling, and roofing and serves as the primary backplane for all other components and utilities, plug-ins which plug into both ceiling and floor, may or may not be load bearing, and take the forms of panels, columns, and other forms like cabinets and pods, and fixtures which surface-attach freely to the other two types of parts where they have plug-in space. Plug-ins can freely integrate furnishings and appliances or be whole pieces of furniture or appliances and rely entirely on their plug-in interface for utilities connection. Often, concepts call for all components in the system to have a kind of distributed intelligence such that the house as a whole represents a simple computer that is aware of the status of all its parts the way a personal computer is aware of all it's peripherals and can track structural integrity so that it can tell you when parts are failing or if you try to unplug something that is critical to holding the roof up, for instance, it will automatically warn you that you can't do that unless you put up temporary column jacks or the like first to take the load.

Though still speculative in design, there really are no technical or engineering obstacles to the development of these systems save that same problem of roofing which effects all modular component building systems and which can at least be circumvented in the near term in the same manners. There is simply no interest in the concept in the mainstream building industry itself -which, left to its own devices, would continue using current centuries old technology forever- and, aside from very occasional experiments by places like MIT, no current designers have proven technically sophisticated enough to pursue it. However, there have been some very interesting designs that approach this concept, albeit indirectly. One of the best examples are the 'furniture house' designs of architect Shigeru Ban. ( Observing the marked difference in quality and robustness between contemporary Japanese furniture manufacture and housing construction (like most places in the westernized world where costs tend to be keyed to labor, mainstream housing construction often tends toward the quick and shoddy), Shigeru Ban developed a series of houses based on simple pavilion designs where a strong modular cabinet system served as the basic load bearing structures. ( Though this system was not designed to allow for spontaneous adaptability, here we see the basic principles of a plug-in architecture system well demonstrated even though it is not employing the kind of sophisticated demountable component interfacing such a system would ideally employ. We can also see how various kinds of Living Structures can potentially evolve into this concept as well though pavilion architecture by the shifting of an infrastructure backplane to ceiling and floor and the assumption of a load-bearing structural role.

Intelligent Block Systems:

Another variation of the plug-in architecture concept that has seen a little more experimentation in recent times, this concept is inspired largely by the famous Lego building toy and is based on the notion of very small modular elements of uniform shape that feature some kind of built-in locking multi-axis interface that is also mortarless and may be waterproof/air-tight. Obviously, the technology for making a hermetic seal between so many discrete interfaces over a large area does not exist and may remain an insurmountable problem until solved by some nanotechnology means well into the Diamond Age, but this has not hampered the modest interest in this concept. The concept also calls for distributed intelligence in blocks and the use of more specialized blocks for utilities integration and to accommodate various architectural features. These too have proven a bit beyond any current technology and so most experiments remain concerned with the issue of the mechanical interface and the design of robotic systems to manipulate these modules.

The more speculative technology aside, the basic idea of small mechanically interfaced bricks or blocks as a tool-less building system has potential. It has a definite advantage over other plug-in architecture systems where individual components may still end up being several meters in width and weigh hundreds of pounds, making them very difficult for the solitary person to handle. And, of course, the smaller the components the easier and more efficiently they pack for shipping. But the concept faces the problem that such numerous small components are difficult to mass produce economically if they are mechanically intricate and they present a vast number of potential failure points for a structure.

Intelligent Foam Systems:

Though we commonly envision such things today in the context of nanotechnology, the idea of 'intelligent foam' goes back at least as far as the early 1960s where speculative designers such as Rudolph Doernach envisioned future polymer chemistry producing a plastic foam capable of behaving like a simple organism and growing, through molecular self-assembly, into any form desired when directed by some electronic or computer-based means. Doernach envisioned entire large scale buildings, cities, and artificial islands cultured whole with such foam, their inhabitants directing the material to form internal caves and caverns for their homes much as envisioned by later free-form organic designers. This would represent the ultimate in modular component building systems -a system where the modular components are molecular in scale. It may be quite a long time yet before even nanotechnology affords us a material with that remarkable capability, but currently we do have the potential to realize a kind of 'intelligent foam' based on foamed masonry materials that can exhibit the much simpler and more attainable properties of variable density, direct recycling, and free bonding. This combination of properties would result in a material with which one can construct whole monolithic structures by mounding up or form-casting large rough volumes of foam material then milling out their final shapes and surface, perhaps with the aid of simple robotic milling systems, the waste material collected and immediately recycled on-site for the production of more foam. The process could be performed in layers, allowing for foam of different density to be employed internally for different physical and thermal characteristics and to allow for the creation of concealed inclusions for utilities. Later, when the structure required adaptation, the same process would be employed, some older features milled-away as new foam is added to accommodate new features. A computer model might be maintained for the structure at all times, allowing its structural integrity to be continually analyzed and to allow the whole structure to be demolished and recreated on demand in new places. Such a material would be the ideal structural material for the use of free-form organic design and would afford this field of design the potential for structural evolution it's more common ferro-cement materials are not capable of.

Though no such material currently exists on the market, it is technically feasible with known chemistry and many forms of geopolymers or ceramics may be suited to this. It remains, however, a largely unexplored concept.

Robotic Self-Assembly Systems:

This concept is based on the notion of modular components that incorporate not only built-in tool-less interface mechanisms but also active powered mechanisms which allow the components in the system to traverse their own structural surface in some way, allowing them to collectively self-assemble themselves into a whole structure. The point to this is to eliminate the human labor involved in construction (and allow construction in places where human beings cannot readily go), to afford a structure the means to self-evolve in form in response to different needs and environmental conditions, and allow it to perform self-repair. Again, though no actual off-the-shelf products exist for such systems, the concept has seen extensive experimentation and speculation. One of the most promising concepts is the Trigon Self-Assembly concept developed by industrial designer, teacher, and aerospace industry consultant Scott Howe ( who has focused especially on automated assembly technology. The Trigon system is a plate space frame system -a space frame where, instead of struts connecting at nodal joints, one uses plates connecting along their sides- where the individual plate modules incorporate motorized locking hinge mechanisms that allow the plates to climb end-over-end over the surface of one another to find their positions and then lock into place edge-to-edge. Intended primarily for space applications, this scheme allows for a frame structures components to be tightly stacked and self-interlocked for shipments and then can deploy itself for form any shape within its geometry, both triangular and box space frames having been explored. With all the necessary mechanisms and structural elements of the frame concentrated at the perimeter of the plates, their interstitial space is left open like other space frames or can host other active components of a structure like sensor and antenna arrays, solar panels, fans, radiators, lights and display, electronic and computer systems and their control panels, and so on. Ideally, one would design these as a plug-in backplane for other types of components mounting to their faces. Already prototyped in simple demonstration forms, this is something very well suited to fabrication with Fab Lab tools and so is open for further experimentation.

With such a system, one could simply place stacks of these mass produced components on the ground and, with a personal computer modeling their ultimate structural shape, direct them to self-assemble into any desired form within the limits of their geometry. Likewise, one could direct them to change shape at any time later. However, they have the same limitation as most space frame systems that they have no means of their own to provide a weather-tight enclosure and it remains an open question how practical and cost-effective incorporating such active systems into parts that are otherwise stationary once deployed would actually be. For applications in space, where the costs of sending humans there outweighs the cost of robotics, this makes sense. Also in the case of structures based on very large and heavy components where this would eliminate both large amounts of human labor and the use of heavy construction equipment. And also nomadic structures which must rapidly deploy and disassemble quickly and which are moved and changed very frequently. Clearly, this is probably not practical for general building or housing applications today as the costs of these active components is simply too high. But its a concept with much promise and a novelty that compels further experimentation. Even if not practical for housing any time soon, one can readily imagine many other practical uses for it and even deliberately impractical one -such as toys.


There is clearly great potential in adaptive architecture, not only in terms of collaborative community development but also in terms of discrete architecture and housing. Though most of the cultural knowledge associated with traditional community development has been lost across the Industrial Age, we see that some of the adaptive characteristics of past vernacular building technologies has been retained or rediscovered in some contemporary building systems, thanks largely to Modernists obsessions with modularity and -ironically- the dream of industrialized housing. There are definitely very important functional limitations in the contemporary technology of adaptive architecture but in many ways they far surpass older vernaculars in the ease and speed of potential evolution. Though many of the possible technologies still remain too underdeveloped for practical use, what we have at-hand today does seem suited to potentially supporting three different scales of experimentation and exploration of peer-to-peer community development. With Pavilion Architecture and Living Structures we have the possibility for very low cost community experiments at a co-habitation scale based on communal pavilion structures or repurposing a variety of commercial and industrial buildings. With Container Module systems and perhaps rudimentary purpose-built Modular Unit Architecture as well as contemporary wood Post and Beam and T-Slot structures we can explore this at a co-housing or village scale. And with purpose built Functionally Generic Architecture based on conventional commercial construction, we can, in combination again with the Living Structure approach, take this to a truly urban scale with 'microcities' or prototype arcologies. It would seem the only practical obstacle to such experiments is people, given that the true start of any such project is accumulating enough people with the necessary skills and freedom of mobility to attempt such projects.

Of course, one could argue that many such experiments are already underway around the world, being imposed by situation onto the various communities of refugees and destitute of the world compelled into creating communities ad-hoc without the benefit of any of these more sophisticated technologies. It would seem, then, that there is great value in such purposeful experiments not only as a means of exploring the social science of collaborative community development but also in the cultivation of methods and technologies that can be be shared with these new accidental communities, giving them means of improving the odds of survival and quality of life for those forced into such experiments by fate and social indifference/injustice.

We have the means, even with so much knowledge lost and with such nascent recent technology, to recapture much of the cultural skill set of community we once sacrificed for the transient benefits of the Industrial Age. The real technology for is the software we carry with us in our minds and cultures. It has only been waiting to be re-expressed in new physical mediums. The Modernists may have never dreamed of such things as they explored what they thought was a future of modular technological building efficiency but which was, in reality, a rediscovery of a mode of living most ancient and very, fundamentally, human.


Eric Hunting, at erichunting at