The call for rational building design is common in the commercial office building sector: durable materials, flexibility in mechanical and electrical systems, and open space plans give tenants control and lessen the disruption of churn. But these concepts have yet to truly take hold in the U.S. residential market with the exception of a few vigorous proponents of the Open Building theory. Originally put forth by Dutch architect John Habraken, Open Building concepts create a distinction between the base building (support) and interior fit-out (infill). By disentangling support from infill, Open Building improves sustainability by strategically optimizing both the base building’s durability and energy efficiencydycfftxqtbycyerfv and the occupant-controlled, adaptable infill environment.

Tedd Benson, founding owner and steward of Walpole N.H.’s Bensonwood and Unity Homes and Vision 2020 co-chair for Building Design + Performance, has spent the past 20 years manifesting Open Building strategies to recognize and facilitate the dynamic of change. “We can’t predict what people will need and want in their living environment,” he says. “Open Building principles respond to occupants’ changing needs rather than force the occupants to conform to a preconceived design.”

In Open Building, the initial design focuses on developing an infill environment with adaptable “capacity,” not a single outcome. Certain design aspects drive the space plan over the long term, such as the home’s relationship to the street, parking, private access, solar orientation, plumbing concentration, and interior circulation. Beyond these constants, however, decoupling the structure and insulation from infill, and using non load-bearing interior partitions leverages the durable building shell’s life, which can last for centuries. “This organized solution with a column and beam support structure allows homeowners to reconfigure their living space over generations and gives new homeowners the opportunity to reshape the residence to fit their unique preferences,” Benson says.

In addition to flexibility, the Open Building approach helps to keep valuable materials out of landfills. Residential infill systems like plumbing, electrical wiring, heating and cooling, cabinets, and fixtures are strategically planned and separated from each other based on a hierarchy according to their life spans.  “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,” explains Benson. “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.”

Click here for more information on Bensonwood’s Open-Built concept®, which puts the practices of Open Building into action. More information on the Open Building concept, as presented by Habraken, can be found on his website

Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Forum in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.