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


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


The DGML Approach

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

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

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

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

Technological, institutional and social aspects of Open Construction Systems

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

Technological aspect

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

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

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

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

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

Institutional aspect

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social aspect

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

Digital fabrication technologies may be helpful tools towards this goal, given that they translate digital data into physical objects. Consequently, the thresholds of skills, cost and time needed for the construction are lowered together with the relevant transportation and socio-environmental costs(Kostakis, Fountouklis, & Drechsler, 2013).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

More information

Contact author via

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

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