Semi-Permeable Architecture


By Peter Muya

I read an interesting article about opening our sealed-off lives to semi-permeable architecture. In this article, the author Rachel Armstrong, a professor of experimental architecture at Newcastle University, observes that the driving goal of architecture was impermeability. In other words, using hard materials to prevent the outside environment from getting in.

This driving goal, in her words, has robbed us the opportunity to have a suitable relationship with the environment. She has advocated for what she calls permeability. As much as architecture sealed off the outside, a certain part of the outside finds its way, either inadvertently or by design, in our dwellings. A cracked wall, broken seals or a cracked window. Even where exposure to the outside world was by design, other threats such as overcrowding, pollution or insecurity has led to tighter controls on our neighbourhoods.

Taking measures

A recent security scare in our neighbourhood led us to take measures to address the lapse based on advice from our security agent. We had to raise the perimeter wall at the back of the estate. The lower perimeter wall gave us a view of the nice garden and trees outside but that was suspected to be a breeding ground for criminals. At the moment the raised wall makes us feel like we are trapped in a maximum security facility. It met the goal of sealing the loophole but it only sealed us off from the lovely garden outside.

In her article, Ms Armstrong advocates for permeability in architecture. She gives examples or what techies call “use cases” such as :

  • Mycotecture – architectural building blocks that are formed from the fibrous material of fungal roots – are as strong as concrete and as insulating as fiberglass.
  • BioMASON bricks are built by microorganisms; they do not need firing and are as strong as traditional masonry.
  • The BIQ House in Hamburg which has a façade of thin-walled tanks filled with microalgae that harvest sunlight and carbon dioxide, and produce biomass that can be used to generate electricity.

What do these trends teach us when doing enterprise architecture? Just like its cousin discipline, enterprise architecture is about the enterprise. The layered approach is meant to create structure and predictability within the domains under consideration. Every space is sealed with “hard” material in order to fit within the target architecture. The motivation is to make domains well defined and definition is based on the perimeter wall separating outside from inside or the partition separating inside from inside.


These “hard” materials are meant to bring clarity to the domain but in so doing, they impair or constrain the ecosystem. With the rapid change and need for adaptability or what is commonly referred to as agility, yesteryear motivation for architecture must be dropped with a need for permeability. There has to be clarity on space without necessarily sealing off connectivity with adjacent spaces or the “outside world”.

If data is the new oil, then we might think of customer data as a fluid thing. While in one form it is crude oil, it may take the form of LPG gas in one instance or unleaded premium in another. A marine insurance customer for example, could be a supplier of building materials to a real estate construction project for which the insurance company has underwritten. In as much as material supply sourcing and supply is in the “outside world” to the insurer, the finished product is of interest to the insurer. A level of permeability is important from the onset.

Just like living walls are able to recycle water, fertilize green roofs, and purify air to make building interiors healthier, architectural building blocks in enterprise space must be designed such that they make the best and optimal use of what comes from outside like the case above to truly make it a living architecture. This may just solve the conundrum of adapt or die. In my humble submission, adapt or die isn’t just a question of installing newer walls (new tech) or outsourcing maintenance of storage tanks (cloud), it is more of  re-designing the enterprise to have a semi-permeable architecture that creates harmony between the outside and the inside.

About the Author

Peter Muya, is an award enterprise transformation practitioner, possessing 17years’ experience conducting mid and large-scale transformation projects in the telecommunications, financial services and public sector industries. He is the co-founder and a managing partner of PTI Consulting, a pan-African consulting practice providing ICT related business advisory services




Twitter: @themuyas

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