In "How Buildings Learn," Stewart Brand wrote that “Buildings keep being pushed around by three irresistible forces — technology, money, and fashion.” Right now, technology is doing a whole lot of serious pushing, as so-called smart technologies are being developed by all kinds of companies. Most of the ones we have discussed are add-ons that you can buy to control your lights or adjust your air vents; parts of your house that you can get to without ripping out walls. That’s because most of our houses and buildings were built by people who didn’t care about how buildings learn. 

All of the technological changes were are going through now would be a whole lot easier to manage if people had worried about this a few years ago. Why? Because our buildings are not easily adaptable. Even though a structure might last hundreds of years, the services inside might last 15 to 30 years. Now things are changing so fast that electrical and plumbing might be obsolete in three to five years. Everything is stuck behind drywall and inaccessible unless you gut the house, and all of our new smart home gadgetry has to connect by WiFi or radio or through the power lines. It’s all a kludge. 

Back in 1994, Vermont builder Tedd Benson of Bensonwood started playing with what he called his Open-Built system, building on the work of book author Brand and John Habraken. In 2006, Benson worked with MIT to develop the OPEN Prototype Initiative with the goal of building adaptability and flexibility into the home. He has kept at it, implementing it in his Unity Homes line, but it certainly hasn't gone mainstream. However, things are changing fast now, and it's time for home buyers and the industry to have another look. 

Open-Built design takes into account that systems change. Benson tells Ecobuilding Pulse:

The simple act of disentangling the wiring from the structure and insulation layer allows you to upgrade, change, or replace a 20-year-lifespan electrical system when new technology arises without affecting a 300-year structure. Open Building provides a more rational form of design and construction that supports long-term sustainability for buildings with increased shell longevity, and more control and flexibility for the homeowner.
The advent of the Smart Home means that there is going to be pace of change like we have never seen before. The change in climate and pervasive droughts that we are seeing in the West mean that we are going to have to disentangle our plumbing systems and separate waste streams as well as recover heat; it could mean changes in electrical systems, possibly to direct current or multiple systems. 


Change? We're not afraid of change. (Photo: Bensonwood)

In a house designed around Open-Built principles, the layers are separated, with each defined by its life span and need for future alteration. So electrical wiring is not inside the insulation, but perhaps behind the baseboards or in a space between the drywall and the insulation. In Benson’s possibly extreme case, ceilings are all removable so that you can get at mechanical and electrical systems without busting drywall. Plumbing is gathered in big accessible chases, so that changes can be made. Because as Brand noted, it happens because of technology, money and fashion. Benson notes:

We can’t predict what people will need and want in their living environment. Open Building principles respond to occupants’ changing needs rather than force the occupants to conform to a preconceived design.
Our needs are going to be changing at a much faster rate in the next few years; it’s time we built our homes so that they can adapt. 

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Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.