meta-design pioneer N. John Habraken

N. John Habraken began developing methods for what is now called “meta-design” in the 1960s. Responding to the post-war need for housing in Western Europe, Habraken and his Eindhoven research group (the SAR) developed a method for designing housing that, as opposed to cookie-cutter mass-housing approaches, provided variability in floor plans and flexibility over time. His method distinguished the “support” or shared infrastructure parts of a design from the “infill” parts that could be changed freely. This distinction allowed designers to work independently on different “levels” of a design, and to evaluate the capacity of a design at one level to support or contain a variety of lower-level designs. A designer at one level provides a context for lower-level designers to make decisions, which ultimately determine the freedom that “end users” have to operate—in the case of housing, the freedom of inhabitants to arrange the furniture.

Habraken showed that organizing a design process this way produces designs that can more easily be changed over the building life-cycle—a relevant property for designs that must last decades or even centuries. (Stewart Brand’s popular book How Buildings Learn celebrates this principle). But Habraken went beyond theory:

To implement his ideas Habraken developed technical notation—a system of grids and charts—for documenting designs and design rules and procedures for systematically developing and testing designs formulated in this notation. He showed how, using his methods, designers could systematically explore a design space. This enables a designer to develop supports (meta-designs) that allow more infill variability and flexibility. He began with buildings, but soon expanded his scope to urban design.

Habraken’s design methods, first described as the “SAR method” in the 1960s later became known as “Open Building” because unlike most kit-of-parts modular coordination systems, the method does not restrict designers to a single closed system of components from a single manufacturer.

Habraken’s technical design method was predicated on observations of the built environment: the existence of dependency hierarchies. He recognized several hierarchies or orders in the built environment: Structure, Territory, and Supply. The order of structure or gravity deals with how the world is assembled (e.g., the foundation supports walls above, which support the floors). The order of territory deals with spatial containment (e.g., the city block contains the lot, which contains the building, which contains the apartment). The order of supply deals with the directional networks of pipes and wires that provide water, gas, and electricity. These three physical hierarchies are properties of the real world that in turn imply hierarchies of control in design. Therefore a method that acknowledges these hierarchies can be more efficient and produce better designs.

Habraken’s notation was adopted in the Dutch building code, and his design methods were employed in many developing countries for building housing. But Habraken’s ideas never made it in mainstream architecture. Perhaps his systematic methods and ways of talking about the built environment were too technical for the culture of professional architecture. And although he developed methods for designing built environments, Habraken was always interested in whether his observations might apply to design fields beyond architecture (such as VLSI) and he was always interested in cross-disciplinary campus conversations on design.

Habraken’s work on meta-design is relevant to collaborative design and participatory design, but it never gained a foothold in either of these fields. His method for collaboration in design was based on a hierarchical partitioning of concerns. During the 1980s, as the emerging field of computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW) gained momentum, this hierarchic way of working together by separating concerns did not fit mainstream CSCW. And although Habraken’s original motivation was to empower end users in the design of their housing, his systematic view also did not fit the prevailing tenets of participatory design.