Open Building: Creating Resilient, Adaptive Learning Environments

A conversation with Stephen Kendall (left) and John Dale

Stephen Kendall, PhD, is Emeritus Professor of Architecture for Ball State University. He has taught architectural design and urban design studios, and courses in building technology and design theory at all levels of professional curricula in several universities in the US, as well as in Taiwan, Italy, Indonesia, South Africa, Japan and China. He also has experience in guiding professional, post professional and PhD studies. His research, writing, lecturing and consulting focuses on the open building approach to planning and construction of the building stock – planning for long-term asset value, which means planning for change and resilience.

John Dale is Principal and Studio Leader, Pre K-12 + Community Education Studio for HED and a past Chair of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Committee on Architecture for Education (CAE).

The two architects first encountered each other, and the work of architect John Habraken, while at MIT. Today, they are leading the formation of a North American Council on Open Building. In this interview, they discuss open building concepts and their relevance to school projects. They will be speakers in a session on these subjects on November 28 at the upcoming Green California Schools and Community Colleges Summit. Details can be found here.

When did the concept of “open building” originate?

Stephen Kendall: The underlying principles of open building are not new. Built environments that have sustained themselves have always exhibited some kind of a balance between change and stability, between individual and collective design decisions.  These age-old qualities got lost in modern times.

That said, the term “open building” was coined at the Technical University of Delft in the 1980s in a research program studying the practical implementation of the work pioneered by Dutch architect and educator John Habraken in the decades before that. Habraken had made observations and criticisms of what he called “mass housing.” He thought that housing that did not include a clear and direct role for  inhabitants would be rigid, uniform and unsustainable. The TU Delft research group, led by Professor van Randen, coined the term “open building” in its examination of technical and regulatory issues that would need to be solved if inhabitants of large housing projects would in fact be able to control their own “fit-out” – everything behind their front doors.

John Dale: One of my favorite examples of open building is the Georgian parts of  the new town of Edinburgh, which goes back to the late 18th and early 19th century. It’s essentially a series of townhouses that are continuous rows of buildings, each with their own direct entrance on the street. Over time some of the buildings have evolved into flats, some are still townhouses, some have become offices and separate houses have been interconnected in different ways. The fundamentals of the way in which these buildings were conceived and built, the fact that they are more casual at the back than they are at the front, built in all sorts of inherent  spatial hierarchies, yielded a kind of flexibility that allowed the buildings to continuously evolve over the centuries.

What are the basic elements of open building?

Stephen Kendall: The basic ideas of open building are really simple: buildings change because human activities change, and therefore we should prepare buildings for  this reality. But permanence is also important. A base building is relatively permanent precisely because the interior fit-out – related to changing activities – can change. The interesting thing is that control or responsibility for change, of function, of use, of technology and so on, is distributed among many players, including users.

For example, in an urban design, the design of the urban fabric constrains or dominates the individual buildings that come and go over time. That means that an urban fabric, like the Georgian fabric of Edinburgh, will remain and maintain coherence, but individual buildings can be taken out or added without undermining the  stability and sense of place of the urban scheme itself.

John and I both understand, and those in the open building network internationally understand, that there are new forces at work today. We have bigger and bigger projects, we  need to work faster and more efficiently, and there’s increased variety of use. This requires us to rethink how we make decisions and what kind of technical strategies we use to build buildings that can respond positively to change.

In the technical arena, we know now that it’s important to disentangle  the technical subsystems that are expected to have a long and useful life from the parts of the same technical systems that are expected to change. Just like in a city infrastructure, the main utility lines under the street are expected to last for a number of decades, maybe 100 years, and are planned for that. The utilities that connect to them are likely to change more quickly as buildings come and go. The idea of separating the long-term parts from the short-term parts is also a key part of an open building strategy.

What kinds of buildings that might be familiar to people have used this strategy?

Stephen Kendall: Well, commercial buildings, office buildings, retail buildings – they’re all examples of the open building approach. Someone builds a structure with common spaces and common circulation spaces and shared mechanical systems, and then other people come and occupy the spaces provided and add their own partitions and their own equipment and their own pipes and wires and cabinets and so on. This individually determined fit-out  changes while the building doesn’t change. Even airports are common examples of open buildings – they too are  planned for change.

It’s interesting to us now that we see healthcare facilities, housing, and educational facilities following suit, albeit somewhat slowly and with a struggle because our traditional ideology is in conflict with the realities of the everyday built environment.

There are examples of projects following the open building approach all over the world and more are coming to light every year. The thing that John and I are doing with the Council on Open Building is to highlight these principles, identify best practices, and to encourage continued evolution of the architectural and technical methods that are needed to make open building conventional – both for new buildings and for reactivating the existing building stock.

John Dale: Here’s an example of an emerging response. In the context of a city like Los Angeles, where we’re still very car-oriented, we have a lot of models of buildings in which there’s a tower with housing in it sitting on top of a base  of parking. Parking, in order to be efficient, has traditionally consisted of a series of warped slabs and continuous ramps so that you can park in every possible inch.

From a long-term point of view, that’s not a very flexible model because that parking podium will only work as parking. It won’t work as anything else. The demand for parking is shifting as more people even in cities like L.A. – where more and more people are living downtown – are able to walk to work or to take transit.

What we need now are more pedestrian-oriented environments. We’re starting to see planners and public agencies asking that parking be designed to convert to other uses. That means that the strategy for designing and building those structures has to change. You have to have flat slabs. You have to have different structural  and mechanical systems so that the space that for a while was good for cars becomes good for shops or live/work spaces or something else.

So the focus now is to identify more opportunities to use this approach?

John Dale: I think we’re looking to widen the conversation. We’re trying to make sure that the language that we use to describe the technical and methodological aspects of open building are accessible, more widely understood. We want the open building approach  to be normative. We want it to be part of the language of planners, developers, architects, engineers, so as they work together collaboratively, they’re thinking at a deeper level about the longevity of buildings, their adaptability and their resilience.

Stephen Kendall: As a teacher for 35 years, I’ve found that my colleagues in the academic world have become trapped by the notion that in order to design a building, the first thing that had to be done was to give students an exact description of  the functions, the relationships between the functions, and to define the patterns of flow, in order to get very, very exact programs to guide the architectural design.

The problem has been that buildings often outlive the programs that were deemed to generate  form. When I tell students, “This semester we’re going to design a building that can accommodate a number of functions over its life,” or “We’re going to design a housing project in which the floor plans are not known at the beginning because the people haven’t come to live there yet,” everybody throws up their hands. They say, “Well, we can’t design a building without knowing what’s going to go there. The bankers won’t lend money unless they know what the floor plans are. Building regulators won’t give a building permit until they’ve seen exactly where the toilets are located.”

We have a fairly big mountain to climb to understand that function can’tdrive form in this sense. Form must be made available to incite use, or to enable use, to provide capacity for use that inevitably is changing. Commercial office buildings are very ordinary parts of our daily lives and they behave in the open building way. But in regard to some types of buildings, like housing, schools, and hospitals, it has taken a long time for people to say, “Okay, let’s see how we can design high-quality buildings in which the functions keep changing.”

When you get right down to it, the idea of building a big project and not knowing at the beginning how it’s going to be occupied over time is a very unsettling prospect in the old belief system.

Another really good example that John and I both know very well is the main group of buildings at MIT – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA. It was built over 100 years ago. It’s a stately artifact. It’s a big, beautiful building that forms a huge courtyard facing the Charles River. It has changed in remarkable ways – the size of departments, the layouts of spaces and the technical systems that have been introduced over the years, but it remains a remarkably coherent and stable piece of built infrastructure.

Has the concept of open building been included in discussions about green building? If not, is this something you’re hoping to highlight, as that seems to be  consistent with the goals of green building?

Stephen Kendall: It is important that the idea that the built environment is never finished becomes an integral part of thinking green – but unfortunately, it’s not been made explicit in the dialogue, in the literature, in the regulatory systems. This has never been made a direct part of the green building agenda, and that’s a problem. If you don’t introduce change into your conception of the building stock, or factor in questions such as, “Who’s responsible for the spaces and attributes of a built environment that are more permanent, and who is responsible for the parts that will change?,” the key concepts of open building will remain outside the discussion.

LEED has implicitly recognized the fact that the built environment is changing by the titles and guidelines of some of the LEED guidance documents. There’s LEED for commercial-base buildings. There is LEED for tenant fit-out. So it’s there, but the larger construct that buildings change has never yet really come to the forefront as a set of issues and skills to be taken on directly.

John Dale: I’d like to add to what Steve is saying. Clearly, there is an intersection between what we’re talking about and the mission of green building in the idea of resilience, looking to the future and understanding that change will become more and more pronounced. Population movements; changes of use; natural disasters which will destroy and require rebuilding rapidly. Understanding how we can create a new kind of building stock that’s more capable of responding to change quickly and appropriately is a very important challenge to the professions steering built environment transformation.

Also implicit in green building is the idea of minimizing carbon footprint. The first and best way to do that is to avoid premature demolition.  We need to promote  reuse. That is a fundamental tenet of green building. The Open building approach offers tools to reinterpret and understand what good building bones are, to allow for reuse and change. We think this needs to be added to the discussion about resilience.

How often are structurally sound buildings torn down because they were specifically made for a single purpose that isn’t required anymore and can’t be reconfigured?

Stephen Kendall: There’s not much data to answer that question, but there are in fact many examples of buildings that are technically just fine but no longer suit the purposes of the client, the society, and the users. For the last decade or so, I’ve been focused on the healthcare facility sector. In Switzerland, a major campus teaching hospital had designed a building for surgery only a few decades ago, and it had become obsolete. It wasn’t technically obsolete, but it was unable to accommodate new medical procedures, new practices of surgery, and so on.

It was becoming a barrier to good medical practice, because the building was rigid. All the pipes and ducts were buried in concrete. The walls between the surgical suites were part of the structure. While it had been  suitable when it was built, over a period of maybe two or three decades, the hospital found that it was just impossible to conduct the surgical procedures that were demanded of it in that building. It had to be torn down and replaced. This lead the client to develop an entirely new procurement method that is now policy in the Canton Bern; more than 20 building projects of all kinds have used this new method now.

The question is not only structural soundness but has to include spatial capaciousness. One Dutch developer who insists on the open building approach for all of his multi-family residential projects says, “When buildings in my portfolio are energy-efficient, adaptable, and lovable, they’re going to be good investments in our company’s portfolio because they’ll last longer.”

Are there extra costs involved in preparing a building for change? Is special engineering or design expertise required?

Stephen Kendall: The question is, are long-lasting buildings preferred? If so, they don’t cost more. Similarly,  do clients, society, the regulatory environment prefer that buildings  are fire-proof or earthquake proof? One can argue that both imperatives cost more. But if you prefer that, then you’ll pay for it.

That said, we know now that planning for change need not cost more if you are smart and if you employ best practices, and good logistics, and good construction contracts. There are no rocket science issues in designing a building for  change. The engineering techniques, the architectural techniques, the management techniques are known and can be applied if the mandate to do so is given.

What makes the open building approach a good strategy for schools?

John Dale: Let me start with another little story. I am currently working very closely with the Santa Monica-Malibu school district. Santa Monica High School has been around since the 1930’s, maybe a little earlier. It’s an 80-plus-year-old campus. Their master plan anticipates ultimately tearing down probably 90 percent of the buildings on the campus over the next few decades. The buildings have stood the test of time in some respects, but because of their inherent characteristics, for example, because many of the buildings are double loaded corridors with load bearing walls in between classrooms that are a little too small for the way teaching is done today, they are being rendered obsolete.

When you think of the extent to which school construction figures in the construction economy, when you think about how many of these facilities exist all over the country and the fact that school districts tend to do major replacements and renovations in 30-year cycles, it’s a challenge. It’s a problem that we have a stock of school buildings which are not really I sinc with the way pedagogy is evolving, the way teaching and learning take place, or need to take place, in our current context. Ideas about pedagogy are constantly changing and the approach to teaching and learning is constantly shifting, and having rigid buildings really doesn’t make sense.

So now we are working with Santa Monica-Malibu on a major new classroom building which rethinks the approach to school design and advocates an open building approach.

If a school closes because of demographic changes or other factors, does an open building approach make it easier for the city to make it into something else?

John Dale: Yes. But a key issue is who controls the land. The land and building ownership of public schools  tends to be autonomous, though there have been some interesting examples of joint-use facilities where municipal facilities and school facilities are co-located. In that case, designing a building that is open makes so much sense because the amount of territory any one entity sharing a facility needs may very well fluctuate over time.

There are obviously instances where school districts have disposed of properties as their enrollment shrinks. There are other examples where schools lease out their property to other entities, often an entity with comparable needs, for instance a school district leasing one of its elementary schools to a child development center..

What’s an example of how an open building approach could benefit a school?

John Dale: We saw the project that my firm, HED, in association with MRY, is working on with Santa Monica as a good opportunity to test some, if not all, open building principles. We are designing a major new classroom building. The total square footage is over 200,000 square feet and has recently increased. It sits on a fairly dense campus, so it’s a multi-story building. It’s actually becoming a five-level building; one subterranean level,  one partial subterranean level, two levels of classrooms and commons and one floor opening onto a courtyard and plaza, which is quite public.

What’s interesting is that it’s a tremendously varied program that is trying to fit itself into a single building. There are classrooms, there are laboratories, but there’s also a central dining and food prep facility. There’s underground parking, and there’s also a service distribution center. The building is being built alongside an aquatic center, which needs some of its functions housed within the envelope of the building. So there are tremendously varied uses stacked in a very dense configuration.

What we did not want to do was to determine for all time where every corridor will be, where every wall would be. We needed a more dynamic way to work with the district to accommodate a program that continues to shift even  as we are designing the building.

One of the things that is driving the design is the shifting pedagogy of the school district and the high school. They are starting to move away from a one-teacher, one-classroom enclosed, internalized environment to a more fluid environment where people work in small groups, where they work in the classroom and also work outside the classroom. We’re starting to see schools require more common areas, where different forms of learning can take place simultaneously.

We started to look for ways of making a more fluid floor plan. This influenced a whole series of things. We end up with actually deeper floor plates, which allow the clustering of spaces, so they’re not just lined up on a double-loaded corridor. We need, therefore, a structural system that accommodates a variety of  spatial configurations. We need columns rather than walls, which is more the typical double-loaded corridor system of schools, and we need mechanical systems and air distribution systems (we are incorporating a raised floor system in most of the building) that also accommodate  fluidity of program and some inherent change.

This is a building that will be capable of reconfiguration more rapidly than a more traditional model. It’s not to say that the building doesn’t have a character and a presence. It does. It has a very distinctive envelope that responds to the context. The permanent parts  create and form the edges to public spaces. The building isn’t anonymous – it’s differentiated from one floor to the other. It really is about accommodating ongoing change in a very fundamental way while at the same time establishing a strong sense of place and sense of permanence.

Will it take longer to complete the project using this approach?

John Dale: It absolutely does not mean a longer time frame. If anything, an open building approach  might actually promote lean design and more rapid construction. In Santa Monica, we have different groups of experts making decisions in parallel. Some people were making decisions about the fundamental structural and system ideas of the building, while other people are focused on helping the district rethink its program and adjust the kind of spaces it needs to accommodate.

In terms of construction, we’re looking for building systems that help accommodate the goals of the  school district’s need for decision flexibility. For example, we’re looking at a prefabricated moment -frame system with a uniform structural grid that will allow the structure to be erected more rapidly and also have fewer impediments to spatial flexibility over time as needs change.

There are already several green building standards. Do you see the open building approach as a standard in itself, a component of existing standards, or neither?

John Dale: It’s a really good question, and we’re actually right in the middle of this discussion. We’ve talked about whether open building should become a branch or an aspect of an already established system such as USGBC provides. At the moment, our premise is that we first need to be really clear about the mission of the Council on Open Building. We need to have very good examples available to show people and develop a kind of training program that allows people to understand and apply the fundamental principles in a very clear way. We are still having an open discussion about whether we then become an extensive and independent organization, perhaps with  its own accreditation system, or whether we become an ally with an existing institution that has a very good organizational structure.

Stephen Kendall: In several meetings that we’ve had with a core group of about 20 firms there was a general hesitancy to put in place another set of standards or another set of certifications. These things should ideally just become normal modes of practice. Standards of an architectural sort may never be needed. The practices of open building that we know about in China, in Japan, in Finland, the Netherlands or in Switzerland don’t depend on open buildings standard as such. They depend on clients being clear in their expectations of the long-term performance of their assets. The  question is what minimum shifts in the regulatory process will incentivize all kinds of innovation in the ways of acquiring a sustainable and resilient building stock planned  for change.

Standards may be needed in technical systems and interfaces – for example, the interfaces between the permanent and changeable parts of the building’s mechanical system – the interface of pipes and ducts and wires that are expected to last for 50 or 100 years with the more changing parts of those same systems. I don’t think that our Council on Open Building has, as its first objective, to set up new standards. Our goal is clarification of best practices, documentation and training.

What is this new group, exactly?

John Dale: The North American Council on Open Building. We’ve been focused on this really since the beginning of the year, but it’s been under discussion longer than that. We’ve been reaching out to engineering and architecture firms and product manufacturers and clients for core support and expertise. We’re trying to draw commercial developers into our midst and we’re trying to represent all the key building types that are represented by the building industry in North America. We’re in the process of firming up what the organization is and getting the word out through panel discussions and workshops at future large events such as ABX/GreenBuilding in Boston in November, and at Green Technology in Pasadena also in November. We’re looking to create teaching or training modules  and to create a concise way of chronicling and recording great case studies to help people understand what the opportunities and potentials of this approach are.

Stephen Kendall: It’s important to recognize that the idea of an open building approach have been part of an international discourse for at least 40 years. For the last 20 years, an open building commission has been in operation under the umbrella of the CIB, the International Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction. The CIB is a worldwide research council of maybe 50  different commissions, of which the open building commission (W104) is just one. We have an international network of over 400 people and we’ve met every year for the last 20 years in a different country with reports, peer-reviewed papers, student competitions and professional networking around the ideas of open building.

The CIB open building commission has so far been largely an academic gathering. The current  efforts, internationally, are  to move this agenda out of the academic and research arena and make it a normative conventional part of practice, while maintaining strong links to capable research units and encouraging teachers and students as they study the open building approach.

What we’re doing now in the U.S. and Canada and Mexico is drawing together a group of professionals to keep this idea at the forefront and at the leading edge of best practices for the production of a sustainable, resilient built environment.

Thank you