2017/10/20 08:40 Nick Seemann, “Pattern languages in community building projects”, Purplsoc

Plenary @nickseemann #purplsoc Pursuit of Pattern Languages for Societal Change http://www.purplsoc.org/conference2017/

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Introduction by Howard Davis

Known Nick Seemann since 1998, when he came to U. Oregon when he came to study

  • In 1978, at UC Berkeley, Howard was asked to sit in for Chris Alexander when he went on sabbatical
  • Own first teacher on pattern language was Max Jacobson
  • Taught:  pattern language; urban studio; urban studio on urban design
  • Studios included David Week, Ken Costigan — became good friends, went to Papua New Guinea, pattern language based on traditional patterns
  • David went to Sydney

Nick met David in Sydney, then worked with Ken in Papua New Guinea

  • Back to Sydney, David suggested research master’s in U. Oregon
  • Did field work in Nepal, Katmandu, in slums, building a small school
  • Thesis:  Mapping the Mandala
  • Went back to Sydney, started architecture firm, Constructive Dialogue

Nick says when he meets a new person, he has something to learn from them

  • Speaks to idea in architecture, everyone is important, deserves humanity and dignity

[Nick Seemann]

Purplsoc Nick Seemann

Came to Oregon, when Howard was finishing Production of Houses

Applications of patterns in work

Building from Sydney:  1965 Don Gazzard blog post

  • Sydney Wentworth Church, Richard Lafastria
  • Sketch:  when sitting at the top, above the tree canopy, then into building with a nice space
  • Move up, and then in the light space
  • Sad:  the building hasn’t been used in 15 years
  • This year, went up for sale
  • In Sydney, someone will buy it and turn it into private
  • Relic of heritage building, that will become useless

Will give two talks:

  • A new building
  • Fixing up, nursing homes


  • Involving users:  focus on social life
  • Evidence based work
  • Piecemeal growth

Working in Papua New Guinea, worth with Ken Costigan and David Week

  • Working to evolve building tradition
  • 15 years through working a master’s degree
  • How do I use pattern language to understand the culture?
  • Local technique, no power tools
  • 30-foot long post put into building
  • Could have been part of the Alexander book system
  • David travelling down coast of Sydney:  see the glint of shine, light reflecting off a metal roof, can see progress is coming

Came back to Australia, practice with Tim Turner

  • Wanted to do something socially engaged
  • Crisis accommodation, building for aged
  • Never did any real houses
  • Spending all of time working with community organizations


  • Pattern language for nursing homes
  • Always a social research project, e.g. volunteering 3 weeks in a nursing home to understand what’s going on
  • Intersection been social, craft and sustainability

The Caroline Chisholm Centre

  • Western Sydney, an area of financial need, a lot of indigenous in the area
  • Community building set up by Society of Vincent St. Paul
  • Programs for groups, e.g. old people who assaulted police officers who could take course instead of jail
  • Food vouchers for financial support
  • Already ran 15 years, wanted a better building
  • Mapping out on the site
  • Industrial area, building wouldn’t be looking out on a beach, so looking self-contained
  • Spent time, workshop with 30 people

Two social activities to take seriously

  • 1. Main place that people like to socialize is out the front door, having cigarette
  • Entrance of the building was grand
  • 2. At lunchtime everyday, everything stopped, everyone had lunch together

Workshop:  4 difference scenarios

  • Built pattern language


  • A humble, social entrance
  • An oasis as a quiet place of change:  since building had no outlook, a cool spot in the middle of a hot area (2 degrees C to 40 degrees C), yet didn’t want air conditioning
  • Narrow building, verandah access:  breezes blowing through
  • Integration of activities:  no corridors

Not pulling from a catalog of patterns, coming out from the dialogue and keep changing with the conversations

Flexible, small medium large rooms

  • Movement mostly outside the building, with courtyard in the middle
  • Consultation continued over 4 years: going through models, involving in construction
  • Reticulated space, doors slide out
  • Large doors open out to garden
  • Originally included air conditioning system
  • Air taken underground, used to cool rooms, concrete slab would keep room cool

Issues:  some people still felt disenfranchised, 3 or 4 years in, gave time people to discuss

  • Most of the 25 people changed over 4 years

Buildings most satisfying were often smallest

  • Shift from accommodation (giving people a place to sleep)
  • Process to offer of engagement
  • Intake, treatment, sleeping (8 hours), washing and then eating

2014:  shifting more directly to nursing home

  • 190,000 people in Australia living in assisted care
  • Environments are bad
  • Could be frailty, macular degeneration: environments could make those worse
  • Existing building stock is a mess

Dealing with issues, pattern-based

Two big influences:

  • Paul Pholeros, healthhabitat.com , housingforhealth.com — not well known out of Australia
  • Given a task by elders, to stop people from getting sick
  • Doctor, community worker and architect
  • Did research for 10 years, showed a demonstrable improvement in health for places they lived in
  • 8000 homes
  • Looked at health hardware, what was used to deal with issueser
  • e.g. children being washed twice per day:  if houses don’t have running water, no way to wash child in clean water
  • Water from well, into hot water system that won’t fail from salting up, a clean surface to clean up, with a plug (so that people don’t use a newspaper that will clog up)
  • Spend was $7200 to fix houses

Other project was school

  • One room school
  • Patterns used to bring people together
  • Not known for construction skills, they would knock down and rebuild
  • They valued later for stopping fighting, moving forward
  • UnitingCare, Building Design Guide, 32 pattern summary — has been rewritten 3 times (rewrites getting worse)
  • Knowledge was there, but no one was using it
  • Go back a step:  what was important
  • Doing a 100-page book, and then trying to sell it, use it

In aged care, besides disable, the knowledge is there

  • Key Principles for Improving Healthcare Environments for People with Dementia, aci.health.nsw.gov.au written 30 years ago, typewritten
  • 10 ideas
  • 1. Unobrusivley reduce risks
  • 2. Provide a human scale
  • 3. Allow people to see and be seen
  • (a) Reduce to “small households”
  • e.g. 50 people for lunch everyday is going to be intimidating
  • (b) Accessible gardens
  • (c) Improve Orientation

Accessible gardens:  day centre, get people outside, going into a contained space

  • Good visual access
  • A path that leads you out
  • Corridors for moving through rooms
  • Transition zone to allow eyes to adjust

Improve orientation

  • Was little contrast, except going into room, looks institutional
  • Hide clutter
  • Give more of a residential look
  • Hide a door (for a cleaner)
  • Nooks for people to sit in
  • Small changes for client, one corridor at a time

Small households

  • Was large diningroom, locked doors to small balcony
  • A cluster of small spaces
  • Good sight lines
  • Containing different households
  • Took middle of business, converted into service areas
  • Garden space outside
  • Better sight lines

Another project, similar idea

  • Original idea of knock down and rebuild, but 5 years later, it isn’t done
  • Had:  bedrooms with 3 or 4 people in them, now ways out
  • Converted to 2-person bedrooms
  • Set up another living space open to outside

Strategic improvements:

  • Coming back to Paul’s original ideas
  • Making incremental
  • Looking a culture change, working with staff, knowledge of staff

Pieter Bruegel, The Elder Children’s Games

In Australia, looking for few buildings that encourage activities

  • Coming through conversations with clients
  • Evaluation process

School in Nepal, 6 years later

  • Community built 2 more rooms, paved, built more bathrooms
  • Not fighting on beauty, building together as a group

Next step:  How to involve people more fully


When doing incremental projects, useful, allowing people to maintain the facility while using it.  Also improving designs

  • Small projects more likely to happen
  • $7000 projects, so that staff can see it won’t take 4 years
  • The best way to get staff involved
  • Set up an action research approach:  are improvements happening, is going outside important

Working in different client:  inside/outside, heating/cooling.  How to get cooling done?

  • Focused on 12 patterns
  • Challenge in aged care is getting them excited so that they want to go outside
  • In Papua New Guinea, a lot about cooling

#pattern-language, #purplsoc-2017