What if we designed houses like web apps?

David Galbraith has embarked on a fascinating journey, exploring the notion that the flow of people and their interactions inside buildings, is similar in design to the flow of data and user interaction of Web apps.

Could best practices in web app design be applied to architectural design?

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Galbraith is a buddy and he belongs to what is a very small group of people I know, who are both insightful and foresightful, about the tremendous changes that our digital technologies are creating around us.

In his essay: Use Case Study House #1 — A house designed like a web application he offers a home floor plan that looks very much like a flowchart for designing a web application:

The title is a play on the Case Study Houses of the 1940s. It’s not a UX design but a UX inspired one.

Many architects tend to think of buildings as objects, the greatest ones, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, often thought about them as interconnected spaces but they focused on the spaces rather than the flow through them — this is analogous to looking at the stage set rather than the choreography.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to design a building like you would choreograph a dance — so that the end design was a picture of a person moving rather than the environment and where if that was sophisticated enough the environment would be defined by the person’s movement.

Web design is very linear, it’s all about flow and eliminating the niche, to get the bulk of people through a primary use case.

I’m intrigued by Galbraith’s approach to architecture, it’s one that is long overdue. Examples of great architecture seem to be always about image, loud statements about wealth, importance, or aesthetic panache. Architectural prizes reward a beauty that’s nearly always skin deep, and rarely judge how well a design supports the actual work of a building. Apps are always judged on how well they work.

Galbraith’s approach is sound and very sensible and it got me thinking: what would result if say you considered a home, or an office, as a container for a collection of life apps — a platform, an operating system (OS). Each app has a specific user interface but each having to share databases, processes, and the constraints of their hardware.

For example, a home or office building, is like an iPhone platform that runs apps such as Laundry, Cook, Watch TV, Exercise, Sleep, Work, etc. Each app has its own user interface designed for that specific activity but each shares the same restrictions defined by the building, the OS, such as the size of kitchen, building codes, etc.

Smaller homes would require different designs but each “Home OS” or “Office OS” would result in floor plans optimised to the available resources, and user loads, similar to the way apps are adapted for different sized displays, processor speeds, and network services.

Architectural designs that work well for one user, would surely work well for many, providing a scaling factor similar to the design of good software, which should attract entrepreneurial activity in licensing effective designs.

Testing out web apps is easy — testing out home or work spaces is not. Which means progress will be slow.

It should, however, be possible to identify what works and what doesn’t from what has already been built. Cheap sensors could capture masses of data about people flow in buildings and homes. Algorithms could quickly identify what works well and map it against its architecture. Best use cases could be quickly identified and improved in future designs.

It’s using big datasets in a similar way that web app developers analyse internet traffic flows and millions of user interactions, to identify what works best.

I hope other architects take notice of Galbraith’s’s experiment. I hear that unemployment rates are the highest in their profession — which means there’s a lot of them sitting around with time on their hands.

My advice: take a free Code Academy or Google online programming course, so you can start to familiarise yourself with the best principles of web app design. (And if you design future homes or offices please include this tiny detail: a USB charger plug alongside every power socket!)

Image: Brenda Anderson

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