Should architects design buildings as if they were Web apps?

Should architects design buildings as if they were Web apps?

Summary: Buildings and Web apps share many similarities...


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?

Dave 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 this essay: Use Case Study House #1 - A house designed like a web application he offers a home floor plan (above) 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, its all about flow and eliminating the niche, to get the bulk of people through a primary use case.

I'm intrigued by Dave'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.

Dave'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, WatchTV, 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 optimized 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.

However, it should 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 analyze Internet traffic flows and millions of user interactions, to identify what works best.

I hope other architects take notice of Dave'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 familiarize 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!)

Topics: Cloud, Operating Systems

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: Should architects design buildings as if they were Web apps?

    Yes they should. Architects should embrace new entrepreneurial ways of generating revenue from their design expertise and value they can bring to the built world. They should. But will they. How many? Many are sitting on the sidelines. Let's see a few take a chance and put innovation ahead of pride and ego. We'll all benefit. A tipping point is near in the profession whether architects realize it or not...
  • RE: Should architects design buildings as if they were Web apps?

    Very interesting article. My sister/brother-in-law are in the process of heavily renovating their house, and in the process are adding lots of things to enhance a heavily digital lifestyle (including the aforementioned AC outlets with accompanying USB charging jacks), and I can see where this thought pattern could affect things like this along with other more substantial considerations affecting future building design choices. I can't really comment as I have virtually nil experience with architectural design concepts, but definitely seems like good food for thought for those in that industry.

    Interesting thought: I wonder if 20 years from now it'll be standard for homes to have "equipment rooms" to house home server(s) and maybe even provide a centralized hub for telecommunication lines, etc... similar to offices?
    Noah A
    • I doubt equipment rooms

      @Noah A As everything gets smaller, you don't need that. You already have a router sitting somewhere thats doing a good chunk of your telecom work. A cable/sat box thats really a computer sits on your TV. A small PC in a component-size case is a home server, or you can even get a small NAS box to serve files. I think more the 'equipment room' will just be a box like a power panel stuck somewhere in a closet.
  • If they build buildings like programmers build programs

    There would be monthly patches, every now and again the building would have to be completely powered down to reset it, the building would be obsolete in 5 years...which wouldn't matter because it would crash before then.
    Thats what the building inspectors tell us every time there's a software problem.
  • Funny how retro this is.

    Architects already do this, it's called a bubble diagram. They were really made popular at the GSD in the 1940s because of people like Gropius's interest in architectural space as response to pragmatic needs/desires. So, who needs to learn from whom now?

    Maybe the next thing will be for software architects to develop web apps that are more fleshed out than bubble diagrams so the user experience can become more multivalent.