I’ve been having an email conversation with my friend and colleague, Kimihiro Miyasaka. Mr. Miyasaka is an architect based in Toyko. I’ve known him for many years and have been enriched by our positive relationship in numerous ways including cross-cultural learning and collaboration. Additionally, we have various interests and priorities in common, such as the importance of good design, a fondness for wood and timber construction, the celebration of craftsmanship, and the pressing need for both more sustainable homes and homebuilding processes.
Lately, Miyasaka and I have been lamenting our difficulty in communicating the importance of Open Building ideas to the future of homebuilding. We think the name itself is inadequate and somehow undersells its significance. Open Building theory attempts to explain the rather subtle fact that buildings are fundamentally different than their contents and are only temporally defined by their interior amenities and finishes. Yet these short term elements have somehow become entangled in our consciousness and in the buildings themselves. A house is at least two things, not one. All the pieces, parts, layers and equipment add up to a long-term feature on the landscape in which the dynamic churn of daily lives plays out.
Two things. They both matter, but at different time scales and for different reasons:
One is the house; the other personalizes it and makes it your home.
One is the theater; the other is the stage where your play is set.
One should resist change; the other should invite it.
One should be designed for permanence and sustainability; the other should be designed for multiple possibilities and flexibility.
One is your actual shelter; the other allows the shelter to function for your needs and desires.
One has public implications; the other is purely private.
One ought to be worthy of long financing; elements of the other should be paid for immediately or shortly.
The purpose of the theater is what happens on the stage, but it wouldn’t be smart to compromise the quality of the theater for the needs of a play. The theater is in service to the stage, but the stage is therefore subservient to the theater.
This sort of paradoxical relationship is the nut of Open Building. It isn’t sexy. It’s even kind of boring. But understanding it and applying its truth to the process of design and construction could transform the industry and the very idea of home. At the very least, accepting its reality, and applying principles and priorities that arise from that understanding could make houses and homes much better places for less cost.
My childhood home, which we affectionately call “2320,” is a good example of a typical older home living out its long-term potential and its short-term continual change. It’s now about 120 years old and is in its 4th incarnation. It started out as a single family home, became a rooming house, and then was broken into three different apartments. My father saved it from the wrecking ball and had it moved a mile up the street. With that, it was occupied by 13 rowdy Bensons and it stayed in our family for about 40 years. When we sold it, the buyer bought it with a sub-prime mortgage and never even made the first payment. Instead the“owner” stripped out the millwork,, sold it on EBay, and otherwise did his/her best to destroy the place. But a new buyer, like my dad, recognized its beauty and value and has completely restored it for her family and her at-home business. It’s hard to imagine why 2320 won’t be useful and no doubt made over a few more times in next 120 years.
The theater lives on; the stage is constantly changing. Unfortunately, 2320 wasn’t built for the inevitable churn and change that’s happened over the years. Each of the incarnations has been difficult and expensive, or has caused the inhabitants to adapt to the building in uncomfortable ways.
The challenge Miyasaka and I have been noodling about is two-fold: How do we get the theater to support the requirements of the stage and, on the other hand, how do we ensure that the plays on the stage don’t cause people to forget the needs of the theater. Being the diligent and thoughtful man that he is, Miyasaka came up with a plan to help put the priorities in the right place. Notice that the brown refers to the “Support” (Theater) considerations, while the blue refers to the “Infill” (Stage) considerations.
Miyasaka is showing that the budget for the Support/Theater is fixed, while the budget for the Infill/Stage is variable. By this chart, he is proposing to his clients different strategies for affecting the completeness or the level of finish for the Infill for the purpose of making the underlying house construction all that it should be. He offers no strategy to go the other way, which I think is brilliant.