Sunday, December 7, 2008

Participation vs. Consumption: The Search for a Contemporary Vernacular

In a chapter titled “The Lessons of Vernacular Architecture,” Victor Papanek writes, “it may be helpful to start from a process-oriented rather than a product-based viewpoint” when seeking to understand vernacular architecture (The Green Imperative, 118). Though this paper is not a study of the vernacular, the idea that architecture can be understood as part of dynamic processes rather than a purely material form is incredibly powerful, and can be used to envision an evolution in city-building that I will call a contemporary vernacular.

Consider the current development process in which buildings are produced (conceived, designed, and constructed) by professionals to be consumed (purchased or leased) by anonymous end-users: This system more closely resembles Henry Ford’s assembly line than it does a traditional community building process such as, say, an Amish barn raising. Therefore, if one is interested in designing built environments that contribute to the well-being of the natural world (including humans), rather than perpetuating mass-produced simulacra, it is a worthwhile endeavor to explore the processes that separate the former from the latter.

One such process is the participation by the end-users and community that is central to the barn raising and absent from typical construction projects. This participation in the social realm is rare in contemporary city-building and can be related to ubiquitous patterns of mass consumption where “the fixation on (obtaining) personal goods has denied the necessity of sacrifice beyond the family” and “has allowed little space for social conscience and confined aspiration to the personal realm” (An All-Consuming Century, 3). The idea of trading collective power for personal spending power is expressed neatly in Henry Ford’s five-dollar/eight-hour day, where production workers agreed to submit to extensive managerial control in exchange for a generous salary. By abandoning their right to organize and, instead, focusing on personal material gain, the workers set the stage for the atomized social structure famously described by William Whyte in The Organization Man, where social bonds are formed over common individual struggles rather than coalesced into a collective movement.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, one can turn to the ideas and accomplishments of the great community organizer Saul Alinsky, who asserts that “the complete man is one who is making a definite contribution to the general social welfare and who is a vital part of the community of interests, values, and purposes that makes life worth living” (Reveille For Radicals, 17). His conception of democracy is founded in the masses – which he considers the substance of society – and is defined as working from the bottom up.

The question then becomes how to elicit participation in a society that is increasingly insular and has moved from the social halls of yesteryear to the shopping malls and suburban homes of today. One answer can be traced back to Marx’s Grundrisse, where he notes that technology is a force that can overcome what seems to be an impassable limit and therefore exposes it as traversable barrier (Interview the David Harvey, n+1, issue eight, 45). With the widespread use of technology within the design and construction industry – Building Information Models (BIM), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and online collaborative environments used for construction administration and project management – and the general computer fluency among the masses – manifested in what has been termed Web 2.0 and includes blogs and social networking sites – it seems that cyberspace would be an ideal venue for participation between end-users and professionals. The goal of this paper, then, is to explore the available technology in use today in both the professional and the public realms, examine any overlaps that may already be occurring between the two – paying special attention to research into increasing participation via technology – and, finally, building a scenario where end-users are an essential part of the development process, therefore tilting the process of development toward a new contemporary vernacular.

Professional Technology

One of the most exciting emergent technologies in the architectural and engineering world is Building Information Modeling, or BIM. A BIM model is a three-dimensional computer model that organizes information from all the major design disciplines involved in the construction of a building. Each team member can upload and download information pertaining to their portion of the design, generate construction drawings, and check for conflicts between the building systems. BIM can also generate images that show the interactions of various systems, which can be very useful for designers trying to visualize complex relationships.

According to feature articles and advertisements in architecture and structural engineering magazines, BIM is the tool that is changing the industry. “BIM has great potential for helping produce better architecture, faster and for less cost” (Building Team Views Technological Tools as Best Chance For Change,; an ad for Bentley’s BIM system informs the reader that Change Is Good and urges the potential customer to make change good for themselves by using Bentley; Walter P. Moore, an elite structural engineering firm, uses BIM as an advertising and recruiting tool – BIM. It’s not about Buildings. It’s about people – and prizes itself as a leader in the revolution.

The cover of the November 2008 issue of Modern Steel Construction reads, “A Healthy Dose of BIM” and features several articles about the use of BIM for healthcare projects. This is fitting because design teams working in the healthcare sector stand to benefit from the collaborative nature of BIM, due to the complexity of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems that are the infrastructure of a modern hospital and must fit within the space allocated by the architecture and structure. For this reason, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, another industry-leading structural engineering firm, has adopted BIM for all healthcare projects.

Another technology that promotes collaboration between the design team and the contractors is the online project management environment. It comes as no surprise that Autodesk, the company behind the ubiquitous drafting program AutoCad, and the most popular BIM system, Revit (Top Criteria for BIM Solutions, AECbytes, 3), has also created Constructware. This software is a web-based environment where members from each discipline can upload and download drawings, sketches, photographs, meeting minutes, etc. A basic use of Constructware that increases efficiency from the structural engineer’s perspective is answering requests for information (RFIs) from the contractor. Whereas this process has been conducted chronologically through mail, fax machine, and most recently email, with the architect serving as intermediary between the contractor and engineer, Constructware now serves as a virtual meeting place where the questions can be asked and answered by the appropriate parties.

Moving beyond individual buildings and into broader realms such as planning, infrastructure management, and ecology, one will find that a dominant technology is the Geographic Information System (GIS.) The real power of GIS lies in its ability to link maps – geographic data – with data sets such as land use, infrastructure services, or pollution levels, and thus creating a simulation of past, present, or potential future landscapes. GIS also has the capability to produce images such as specialized maps, three-dimensional renderings, and animations, all of which make scientific data more accessible to a nonscientific community. Apropos to the subject at hand, spatial data from a GIS can also be shared over the Internet, making it available to users in different locations (USGS GIS Poster,

While both BIM and GIS are powerful tools that could be used to include the public in the design process, they are, unsurprisingly, very expensive. Moreover, special training is required to implement, operate, and understand the both the structure of the systems, as well as the content that is input and produced. One technical solution to both of these problems would be the creation of an accessible interface that could utilize the power of these systems without requiring the purchase of the entire software suite or specialized training. The Internet is a likely avenue by which this sort of distribution could occur.

Public Technology

With the rise of Web 2.0 – that is, the Internet as a platform for expression and participation – millions of people have found new ways to spend their leisure time. For example, Wikipedia, the open source free encyclopedia has more 684 million visitors annually and at least 75,000 active contributors; Facebook, a social networking site, is the fourth most heavily trafficked website in the world and has over 120 million active users. Popular musical artists such as Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and Beck, have all held remix contests where different portions of their songs are released online for hobbyists to assemble in new ways and upload to the artists’ websites, where the public can listen to them and vote on their favorites.

Jeff Howe christened this process of tapping into the abilities of the masses crowdsourcing in an article for Wired (The Rise of Crowdsourcing, June 2006). Much of his article focuses on the economic aspects of using nonprofessionals for stock photography and research and development, namely the cost savings of using output from people who are producing out of sheer enjoyment. As a warning to any organization eager to implement crowdsourcing, he offers a list of common attributes of the participants, of which the most applicable to this study are the dispersion of the crowd, the fact that the crowd has a short attention span, and the tendency of the crowd to self-regulate so that the best “products” are acknowledged. These criteria should be kept in mind when constructing a framework for online participatory urban design.

Of course, there are pronounced differences between spending time online for entertainment, for work, or for more serious social activity that lies somewhere between these extremes. One example of a more politicized version of online activity is the authoring of weblogs, or blogs. For example, Huge Ass City ( is a blog published by a Seattle urban planner that addresses issues such as transit, housing density, bicycle infrastructure, sustainable design, etc. In the last six months the site has had almost 42,000 unique site visits. While the site attracts many readers who are interested in these urban topics, and could very well influence their positions on these issues, it stops short of any Alinsky-esque organizational activity that could hope to influence policy. Blogs also serve as a one-to-many information distribution system, more like the radio, which Horkheimer and Adorno accuse of turning “all participants into listeners (consumers) and authoritatively subject(ing) them to broadcast programs which are all exactly the same” (The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, 122), than a forum for discussion, or active participation, even though many have a feature where readers can comment on posts.

These examples reflect the power of the Internet to build communities. In their paper, Community-Driven Place Making, The Social Practice of Participatory Design in the Making of Union Point Park, Jeffrey Hou and Michael Rios focus on the community building process as an essential predecessor to “predominant participatory design approaches that focus narrowly on the binary interaction between designers and users” (Journal of Architectural Education, 2003). Their findings will be further explored in the discussion of real-life participation.

Public Participation via the Internet

Some technology-focused academics understandably see the Internet as an ideal platform for public participation. In his article Internet GIS for Public Participation, Zhong-Ren Peng discusses the need for public participation in environmental planning, the capabilities of a web-based GIS system, and proposes both a taxonomy and a system architecture that could implemented to involve users in the planning and decision making processes.

In his introduction, the traditional use of GIS as a presentation tool, rather than an interactive design tool, is discussed. This top-down method of participation, in which the public is only able to comment on what has been prepared by professionals, has been considered both elitist and antidemocratic, mainly due to the fact that the layperson has no exposure to GIS. An evolution in participatory capabilities, which has been termed Collaborative Spatial Decisionmaking (CSDM), accepts public input for the GIS model but encounters difficulty with equal access across socioeconomic groups and often requires a facilitator to operate the system efficiently. According to the author, the next evolution is the Internet GIS, which will be as powerful as the systems that professionals use but will include a user-friendly web-based interface that allows users to evaluate and comment on designs, select alternatives, and ultimately build their own alternative scenarios. He does not elaborate on how detailed the user input should be or how users will be educated to build practical scenarios but, assuming this could be done in a narrative format, it would be a democratic way to bring end-users into the design process.

The author argues that Internet GIS can overcome two obstacles that occur in traditional public forums: the vocal attendees that dominate the meetings and the inflexibility of meeting time (attributed to Kingston et al, Web-based public participation geographic information systems: an aid to local environmental decision making, 2000). Also promoted in this model of participation is the interactivity between users: the sharing of scenarios and analyses through chat rooms and discussion boards. The only downside mentioned is the ever-present problem of equal access to the Internet. While it is true that such a web-based system, accessible from the comfort of one’s own home, during one’s leisure time, is certainly convenient, this arrangement, paradoxically, seems to privatize public participation. Granted, such a system could be a valuable tool for generating interest or eliciting feedback during the conceptual stage or between benchmarks of the design process, but to suggest that ordinary citizens should virtually congregate in cyberspace to participate in city building seems to encourage further segregation of an already atomized society.

Peng’s proposed system evokes Baudrillard’s conception of the hyperreal – neither the real nor the unreal, but the continual simulation and electronic discussion of plans and scenarios that will likely never exist outside of the computer model, and which are not necessarily based on existing reality. However, a hybrid approach of web-based and real-life participation, such as CSDM – the previous evolution in GIS – more closely resembles a process that that is both human and social, and therefore part of a contemporary vernacular.

From Online to Reality

Though the Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) does not keep statistics on the number of public comments it receives per project, it does publish this quantity in final land use decisions (personal correspondence with the DPD Public Resource Center), which are available online ( While it is beyond the scope of this paper to sort and analyze the types of responses given for specific projects, it can be noted that larger projects – such as a new multistory mixed-use building in the Wallingford neighborhood (40 attendees at the public hearing), or a three-story office building in Queen Anne (24 written letters in the two week comment period) – tend to generate the most public concern, often regarding traffic congestion and loss of habitat. Projects that require the subdivision of lots for multifamily construction are popular but often only receive minimal comments, if any. Meanwhile, consider that the aforementioned blog Huge Ass City has averaged about 235 unique hits daily over the past six months. Though these numbers cannot be directly correlated, they do suggest that online interest in the developments around Seattle outnumbers actual social-political action that could actually influence what is (or isn’t) built. Therefore, a phenomenon worth exploring is the process of translating online interest to real-life action.

One example of a web-based group that spurs real-life activity is ( With over 3.2 million members nationwide, and funded solely by the donations of members, MoveOn endeavors to bring “real Americans back in to the political process” by circulating petitions, notifying members of upcoming ballot initiatives which could be influenced by constituents contacting their representatives, and organizing parties to watch films about current events. Another poignant example of the power of organization via the Internet that results in real-world consequences is the terrorist attacks of September 11th. According to an article in the Spring 2003 issue of Parameters, the US Army War College Quarterly, “evidence strongly suggests that terrorists used the Internet to plan their operations for 9/11” (Al-Qaeda and the Internet: The Danger of Cyberplanning). The article continues to illuminate other uses of the Internet for organizing terror attacks, gathering information about targets, recruiting, or using the web as a conduit for disrupting business or communications through hacking – all of which are mirror images of productive activities that could be undertaken by technology-based participatory design process: organizing real-life meetings, gathering information about the site of a proposed project, attracting new participants through social media, and using the web as a conduit for the exchange of design ideas.

It is these leaps from the virtual world to the real world where participation via technology begins to gain some momentum, where the hyperreal could be escaped and more process-oriented city-building practices could be developed. Peng’s proposed Internet GIS could be used in this context to “hook” potential participants via blogs, online versions of design magazines and newspapers, etc. Though I have not found any evidence of this transition in the context of urban planning, I have found two intriguing examples of integrating technology into the public forum.

In his article Public Participation: Technology and Democracy, Kheir Al-Kodmany, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, describes a method of using technology to increase public participation in the design process. Capitalizing on the power of the image as a way to understand the environment, the team used a GIS and an artist trained in depicting urban scenes, to facilitate discussions with citizens from the blighted Pilsen district of Chicago and explore revitalization goals, which included the development of a familiar incarnation of consumption: commercial tourism. Over four consecutive Saturdays, the group met in a church and, using GIS and digitized hand-sketched images projected on a screen, explored design options that help revitalize the neighborhood. The GIS proved to be a valuable resource because of its ability to display problem areas graphically, as well as data that reflected problems, such as the frequency of pedestrian and vehicle collisions in areas without sidewalks; besides sketching the new neighborhood that the citizens described, the artist, in one instance also helped extract local knowledge when she sketched some trees that residents knew could not be planted due to a shallow underground sewer system. Through this interactive mode of design, the team ended up with a plan that reflected the ideas of the professionals and the community, and could not have been generated by either group independently.

Of course this type of design process relies on many externalities, such as an interested and available group of citizens, a meeting location, the required equipment ranging from the GIS system to the projectors, and the expertise and availability of planners fluent in GIS. The author also notes other issues encountered such as the duration of the meetings, the transport of the equipment, the marginalization of communities without access to such technology, and the possible misuse of the technology to “blacklist” certain areas based on socioeconomic data. Regardless, the synthesis of the professional and local knowledge, coupled with the use of high technology and old-fashioned public participation, is a model that could form the backbone of a contemporary vernacular.

Another development in GIS that can be used to empower the public is the introduction of user-produced qualitative information into the system. Al-Kodmany mentions both narratives and oral histories as next generation data that “increases not only the richness and diversity of the information available, but also comes closer to the ways in which communities perceive their spaces.” In an article primarily authored by Steve Carter, titled Public Participation, GIS, and cyberdemocracy: evaluating on-line spatial decision support systems, the research team studies a Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) that was created for use over internet but was first tested a local fair, where the users could be observed. The GIS included a map of the English town of Slaithwaite and data fields that are activated as one clicks on features such as the river, buildings, or roads. After selecting a feature, the user can input unlimited text describing it, how they relate to it, or suggestions of how it may be improved.

These studies were successful because they connected the public to the design process using a language that transcends socioeconomic differences: the language of images and stories. Through this more level playing field, it seems likely that collective interests could materialize, as they did in the Pilsen study with regard to the need for sidewalks. The authors of the Union Point Park study refer to these “shared meanings and definitions that people bring to a situation or problem” as cultural framing, and note that social movement theory considers it one of three major factors behind social change, along with mobilization structure – “the formal and informal vehicles through which people mobilize and engage in collective actions” – and the more ephemeral political opportunity. Technology, as it has been described in this section, would thus be both a tool for mobilization and a method by which to discover shared interests.

What about BIM?

With the similarities between BIM and GIS, that is, the synthesis of graphic and descriptive data, it is feasible that BIM could also be used to include the public in the design process. One can envisage a scenario where a conceptual design of a public building, say, a library, is brought to the public in a fashion similar to the Pilsen neighborhood revitalization. The citizens could voice their concerns, a designer could digitally sketch out alternatives, and – borrowing the Slaithwaite example – comments could be archived in the system either at the meeting or afterward via the Internet. The advertised depth of BIM – the ability to coordinate the design disciplines – would not be utilized at this point, but a new dimension of user input, which could be encouraged by BIM’s power to generate images, could be incorporated. Virtual walkthroughs, “fit” of the new building into the neighborhood context, impacts on the view and more could be presented to the public, to help them understand the effects of design decisions. After all, as John Pastier, a former architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times says, it is the city – not an architect or the city elites – that produces great buildings. Unfortunately, I could find no examples or studies of BIM or similar technologies being used for participatory design of buildings.

One factor that could likely be an explanation for this lack of public participation could be the relative newness of BIM within the construction industry. Consequently most of the discourse in academia and professional publications concerns the barriers that must be crossed to use BIM to its full potential. In a paper authored by Carrie Dossick, the researcher concluded that the main barriers to widespread implementation are organizational, and revolve around “trust in leadership, information, technology, and skills of others” (Analyzing the Ramifications of Building Information Technologies for Collaboration in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction, 2008). It should be noted that part of her study is based on the observation of real-life meetings that incorporated a BIM model operated by one of the attendees, thus resembling the Pilsen revitalization meetings but with professionals instead of the community.

In the November 2008 issue of Modern Steel Construction, one of BIM-related editorials address this issue of trust as well as the financial investment required to purchase, train at least one office expert, and disseminate general working knowledge to employees (Technical Solutions are Just the Half of It). Another reason that is unrelated to BIM but pertains to participation in general could be that many buildings are developed by private companies, and thus are less likely than a public project, such as a park, to involve the public. However, despite these factors, the field of facilities management provides a great opportunity to incorporate end-user data into buildings that have been designed and built with BIM.

In a study of the renovation of the Pentagon, researchers from Pennsylvania State University note that the BIM model records performance data of all the mechanical and electrical systems but does not solicit feedback from the occupants (Pulling User Feedback into Renovation Design at the Pentagon, Dahl, 2006). The author proposes a using a post-occupancy evaluation (POE) to add subjective data to the information collected by the BIM system. Though his proposal is to use a survey that is separate from BIM, he suggests implementing a feedback system that directly links to end-user input to the model. However, building on Carter’s PPGIS and Clare Cooper Marcus’s work in San Francisco (Pink Palace to Rosa Parks Towers: High Rise Rehabilitation Using Environment and Behavior Research, 1988), which utilized interviews to obtain information from residents, a more powerful POE that captures a narrative of the everyday experience could be employed online. For example, building occupants could describe the fluctuations in temperature during the day and provide information that may not be collected by sensors connected to the BIM system, such as reflected sunlight off adjacent buildings. The Internet platform for project management that was introduced earlier is a good example of a venue where multiple users could provide both textual and graphical information. Of course, the interpretation of such information would be more involved than a simple survey, but could be employed after seasonal or operational changes to gain a clearer picture of the resulting environment. As such tools for the collection of qualitative data are developed for post-occupancy situations, similar tools could be used to involve the community in the design process.

A Contemporary Vernacular

It should be evident that while technology is certainly a tool that can be used to increase participation in the design process, it is not a panacea that will solve all of our design woes. It cannot substitute for social engagement and should evolve in such a way that it can be used by an average citizen who lacks the specialized training required to operate and understand complex systems such as BIM and GIS. This evolution will hopefully revolve around two attributes that are accessible to the majority of people: images and narrative.

A contemporary vernacular could be modeled on two of the research projects described in this paper. An effective conceptual framework could be based on the Hou and Rios paper that emphasizes community building as the step before any public participation. While this could have a significant online component, it is paramount that the transition is made to the real world, especially given the unequal distribution of Internet access and the fact that many groups, such as the elderly or non English-speaking immigrants, would likely be passed over if the organization depended too heavily on technology. Another lesson from Union Point Park is that many groups with varying interests came together over shared interests that resulted in a large pro-park presence.

A participatory design process such as that utilized in the Pilsen revitalization project would be an effective way to combine the social and technological experiences. It would be in this arena that images and narratives could be synthesized into a representation of how the community envisioned its future. In this study, the University played an integral role by providing the technological expertise to operate the GIS system, but this responsibility could perhaps be shifted to a non-profit organization that focused on community design.

It must also not be forgotten that after the building is built, or the park is constructed, end-user feedback should be constantly acquired in order to learn what design features were effective. As Paul Walker Clarke asserts, “it is false to assume that, once a physical evocation of (social) values is constructed, the desired sociability and participatory citizenship will ensue” (The Ideal of Community and Its Counterfeit Construction, Journal of Architectural Education, 2005). Rousseau says men create and government and government informs the next generation of men; Lefebvre says the same about space, but it must be recognized that public reactions will not necessarily be what was intended by the designer. A post-occupancy evaluation that can be completed online or in person would be one way to understand the success of the project.

Finally, referring back to the ubiquitous American culture of consumption, it should be noted that all of these processes require a certain amount of activity that cannot be easily classified as work or leisure. Participation falls somewhere between these extremes and likely resembles the former more than the latter, but that does not mean it has to be drab. As Papanek professes, “form follows fun”: A park or library meant for the enjoyment and enrichment of the community should not be discussed in stuffy church basements but, rather, in an environment and fashion that evokes the intended finished product. It is this sense of ritual in creation that Walter Benjamin attributes to real art, and given that one function of art is to reflect the current social situation, what better way can this be accomplished than by the democratic creation of places by the collective social body?


Rich said...

Just read your very interesting paper -- definitely got some wheels turning in my brain! Is there a class at UW you wrote this for?

You may be interested in my M.Arch thesis (UW 2006), "Building Anarchy: Christiania as an Alternative Building Culture." There should be a copy in the UW library. It analyzes the building culture of a squatter community in Copenhagen where the residents have control over their own built environment. You can also see a clip from our work-in-progress documentary about it at:

If you want to chat more on this subject, check me out on Face Book - Rich Jackman -- or email me at richjackman1 at

Rich said...

Oh, I think this paper is for your class with Bob Mugerauer, right? I took a class from him, great guy!

EEPaul said...

Interesting stuff. Just a couple of comments:

BIM is more than 3D. Teams can add time (4D) and cost (5D) and other dimensions (eg: sustainability measures) so that the commonly-used abbreviation is now nD.

Autodesk did not create Constructware. It acquired the previously independent Constructware a couple of years ago, intending, I believe, to augment its own Autodesk Buzzsaw collaboration product - though there has been little sign of any convergence between the two products since Constructware joined the Autodesk stable.

I have been involved with Be2camp - an online network for architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) folk to look at Web 2.0 tools and techniques (wikis, blogs, mashups, Second Life, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc) and how they can be applied in practice. Be2camp 2008 was held in October in London.