Questioning modern approaches to flexibility : 50 years of learning from the School Construction Systems Development (SCSD) project




Lee, Joshua David

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The culture of design has struggled with how to address modernity’s quickening rates and forms of change. Between the dialectical dispositions of Parmenidean permanence and Heraclitean impermanence, a wide array of hybrid approaches emerged during the 20th century under the polysemic banner of flexibility. This dissertation questions flexibility as a design approach towards sustainability by providing a longitudinal analysis of a particularly robust mid-century modern experiment called the School Construction Systems Development (SCSD) project. In 1961 an influential group of philanthropists, architects, government officials, industry representatives, and school superintendents met to address various challenges facing schools at the time. They decided that an open, prefabricated, and integrated system of building components was needed that could afford four modes of flexibility—spatial variety, immediate change, long-range changeability, and expansion. The SCSD project was launched with sufficient financial backing from the Ford Foundation when a consortium of California school districts agreed to use the system on their anticipated projects and signed a joint powers agreement that guaranteed enough business to entice industry to develop components in accordance with the first performance specification to be used in the American building industry. The building system that resulted from this collaborative effort was adapted to the unique needs of thirteen unique schools, which have all been altered significantly over time. This dissertation builds upon and questions the findings of earlier studies of the SCSD through an in-depth, mixed methods examination of four representative projects. Archival research, personal observations, re-photography, re-surveying, plan evaluations, interviews, and a manufacturers’ advertisement analysis are triangulated and synthesized using the tools of grounded theory and actor-network theory. The results document the transformation of the intentions and receptions of the SCSD by various relevant social groups over 50 years. These new findings provide a great deal of useful insight for architects, educators, product designers, historic preservationists, and others about the affordances of spatial flexibility as a strategy for sustainability, the difficulties associated with technological transfer, the impact of unstable market conditions, the importance of user input during the planning process, and the need for long-term social relations to sustain sociotechnical innovations.



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