Open house: what a concept

by Renny Ramakers

In Suburbia: What a Concept published by the Opinionator of New York Times, Allison Arieff is certainly right when she says: “Addressing suburban ills requires massive change to systems, to finance, to transportation and infrastructure, and perhaps most challenging, to a culture deeply wedded to suburbia as emblematic of the American Dream.”

Most ills in this world (and we know there isn’t a shortage of them) require massive change on systematic and ideological levels. Indeed, it is a capacity—and many say, a responsibility—of design to address the many pressing problems facing the world today.

But is this the only role for design? Is design solely a form of crisis management and problem solving? Or can design also offer a different perspective on a problem, without having the aim of solving the problem entirely?

Service exchange in the suburbs

Our inspiration came from New York City’s service economy. In collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, we realized this system does not only create jobs and encourage social encounters, but also plays a psychological role for the service providers, in stimulating them discover something they are good at. We saw that the habit of outsourcing all kinds of life tasks by people in New York encourages others to invent their own professions.

We also noticed that many service providers we met created their profession with little investment and new infrastructure. Dany the trainer visited the homes of his clients to do training on their floor, Joshua the psychic held his practice in his home and Brian the dog walker only needed leashes and trust. It turns out that starting your own profession is possible with little or no capital.

photo by James Morris

We thought these dynamics had broader potential. Entering the suburbs, we did not intend to resolve the issues it faces, but rather to explore what value personal service exchanges might offer to suburbia.

We see Open House as a movement in which homeowners consider home business as a viable way to create a new role for themselves, which also increases interaction with neighbors, and possibly supplements one’s primary income. The one day event offered ideas and illustrated potential outcomes—some more realistic and some more speculative (or even fictional) than others. As a tool to help people discover their inner service providers, the event served to provoke visitors and participants to think for themselves about what might be useful for them as a business. We didn’t expect that the homeowners participating in the event would open up a business overnight.

Many services we encountered during our research in Manhattan appeared to be absurd at first glance (think of hiring someone to follow your spouse because you are suspicious of misbehavior, hiring someone to cut up your sofa so you can get it up your stairs, or signing up for a service to do yoga with your dog). The service economy has shown that what might start off as a strange business proposition, often turns out to address people’s actual needs and transforms into a serious business.

photo by Naho Kubota

That’s what seemed to have happened at Open House #6: Attention Clinic by Claudia Linders. Though its inspiration, the Monty Python Argument Clinic of 1978, is more comical in its intent, the one-day Attention Clinic at 39 Old Oak Lane turned out to be surprisingly real for homeowner Polly Dwyer: “When you are 82 years old, people often ignore you because they think you don’t know anything. I was thrilled to find out people wanted advice from me. It turned out I had a lot of life experience that I could call upon and it wasn’t so difficult for me to do so. I wasn’t expecting this at all.” Though Polly does not plan to pursue the Attention Clinic (she has her plate full curating Levittown Museum and taking care of her husband), her participation in the one day event revealed a hidden capacity she hadn’t considered before.

open house nr 5 photo by Spencer Lapp
photo by Spencer Lapp

A less unusual but equally earnest proposal was Open House #5: PS72 Porch-Side Lessons by Austin + Mergold with Spencer Lapp. PS72 was a teaching facility hosted at 72 Knoll Lane by Phyllis Dalton, a teacher and school principal who has been out of a teaching position for a few years. Designer Jason Austin explains: “Phyllis asked us to give her back her classroom. It was obvious to us that she had a lot of talent, but she seemed not to be able to market herself and her talent. The architecture became a platform for her service. We wanted it to support and display her talents and presence within the neighborhood.” Adopting a suburban vernacular, the materials for PS72 came primarily from Home Depot, including off-the-shelf plywood and lumber, lawn-mower wheels, plastic tarps and the American flag—an off-the-shelf garden accessory. The designers also adopted an institutionalized aesthetic to make the experience reminiscent of elementary school. “All aspects of the project were about developing infrastructure that was familiar and accessible to the suburban community.”

We also spoke with Phyllis after the event: “Once a teacher always a teacher,” she said. “I enjoyed passing on something that was not academic to people. I was able to use the teaching skills I had from my career for something that I was more passionate about.” Teaching the visitors two personal hobbies (collecting Hummels and making photo books), the 15-minute school session offered visitors a classroom experience, complete with a miniaturized version of a gymnasium, a library, a graduation ceremony and class photos.

photo by Austin + Mergold

The bigger issues

A few keen early-adopting homeowners with new business concepts are not enough to start the Open House movement. There are bigger issues to tackle, like outdated suburban regulations, and other issues rightfully raised by Arieff, including finance, transportation and infrastructure. The ninth house on the Open House tour addressed some of the broader implications of the Open House proposition.

photo by Naho Kubota

image by EFGH

In what was deemed the neighborhood showroom, Future Open Houses by EFGH (Hayley Eber & Frank Gesualdi) with Irina Chernyakova challenged existing rules of the suburbs and visualized the potential outcome of a bottom-up service economy on six blocks of Levittown. Regulatory modifications were proposed, including the possibility to convert private property (for example driveways) into public right-of-way (in for example, an drive-through service for sales or rentals), joint-use easements for two or more property owners to share a common feature (such as a mini storage facility or performance space built between two homes) or the modification of a occupancy group classification for the setting up of a public amenity (like a public theater, for instance). This house also presented sample floor plans of houses modified to host public services such as an art gallery, a love hotel, or a dog-sitting business.

art gallery by Droog

Art gallery

love hotel by Droog

Love hotel

Next steps

We see the event as a model for a future suburbia, which is not the model to solve all possible problems facing the suburbs. It is just a model to revive—to get more life—into suburbia.

The one day event was the first phase of the project. We are currently working on a publication which will deepen our insights, including those raised from these discussions.

In our work, we approach many serious topics, such as the rise in single living, sustainability, the increasing pace of life and the economic crisis in a playful way. We want to continue to generate debate by presenting models and possible scenarios with a light-hearted spirit. We are glad the debate has started.



Sample floor plans

Homeowners could adapt their existing homes to incorporate a service that is open to the public. Here are some examples which were presented by Charles Renfro at the Open house symposium on Saturday, April 23rd.

Extended living and dining rooms.

An art gallery.

A public library.

An extension for bed time stories.

A love hotel.

Dog sitting and backyard walking.

For more information, visit


Anything can be a service

And anyone can become a service provider. Here are some of the service providers the team met with during the research phase of the Open house project, ranging from image consultants and luv coaches to a service that cuts and reassembles your sofa if it doesn’t fit going up your stairwell.

Read the original project brief and see the full list of service providers who shared insights with the team here.


The symposium

Studio-X New York hosted the Open house symposium on Saturday, April 23rd, which was fully booked.

Co-founder and director of Droog, Renny Ramakers presented the goals of Droog Lab’s series of projects, each inspired by a different location.

Charles Renfro of Diller Scofidio + Renfro presented an overview of the design process and potential outcomes for Open house.

Mark Wasiuta presented an overview of suburban developments.

Economist Heleen Mees talked about the benefits of a service economy, comparing the situation in New York to that of Amsterdam.

Author Roo Rogers discussed the rising trend in collaborative consumption.

Artist Mary Ellen Carroll discussed her experience in working in suburban areas, including her project prototype 180.


Under construction

On Friday, April 22nd we went by the houses to see work in progress.

Open house #7: House of Signs

Open house #1: House Dress: not quite the same without the curtain.

Open house #5: PS 72: a preview of the lesson on photo book making.


Meet the homeowners

Meet the homeowners who participated in the Open house event on Saturday, April 23rd, 2011 in Levittown, New York. Thank you to each of you!

Lisa and Rich Santer of Open house #1

Anita Thompson of Open house #2

Lisa and Leo Vanderberg of Open house #3

Dawn Occhiogrosso and her daugher, Breannan of Open house #4

Phyllis Dalton of Open house #5

Polly and Bill Dwyer of Open house #6

Jim Hudak of Open house #7

Ann Torcivia of Open house #8 (Ann is also the homeowner coordinator)

Jose & Carina Barsallo of Future open houses (the showroom)


The suburbs: no big investments necessary


by Renny Ramakers

Since we ran a store in Manhattan, I have been travelling a lot to New York in the past two years. It was an exciting time, not only to have a store over there but also to get to know this fantastic city and its inhabitants better. One of the first things that struck me was the enormous amount of outsourcing and the variety of services I had not seen before. On the street I saw people walking ten dogs, in restaurants I noticed that some servants did not do anything but pour water in your glass and at the hairdresser’s I noticed a multitude of separated tasks. Reading the book “Between Greed and Desire – The World between Wall Street and Main Street” by Heleen Mees, I learnt how typical this attitude is in New York and how many jobs it creates for people who otherwise might be unemployed.

Discover your inner service provider

These experiences inspired me to start a Droog Lab project in New York with the theme of the service economy. Led by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, our team investigated the theme on the spot and they discovered that providing service also has a psychological dimension. They came up with a proposal to help people discover their inner service provider. Since Manhattan is already saturated with these kind of services, they wanted to find a different context for the same dynamics. And they found the suburbs, which are desperately hit by the economic crisis and where emptiness and boredom are omnipresent. By stimulating a network of personal services, they wanted to bring new life into these dying neighbourhoods, bringing in more density and encouraging cohesion among the inhabitants.

Levittown, NY

They went to Levittown, the archetypical post-war US suburb, and found Ann, a very enthusiastic homeowner who activated a number of neighbours to create businesses in their homes. These businesses will be revealed in a one-day event on Saturday, April 23rd. We have organized a symposium at Studio-X New York in collaboration with Columbia University followed by a bus trip to Levittown. I can’t wait to see the businesses the homeowners have created.

A model

I see this as a model for suburbs worldwide, especially in the sprawling suburbs. A range of personal businesses can bring more capital and density to the neighbourhood. It also encourages social cohesion and can have a strong psychological impact. It also can have a sustainable dimension because it means less commuting. No big investments are necessary to revive the suburbs—in this model, the people can generate earnings. Just let them do it themselves.

If we really take this seriously we definitely have to refresh the architecture of suburban housing. We’ll have to find a new balance between the public and the private spaces of the house. A prerequisite is an adaptation of regulations. Therefore we invited a number of New York architects to come up with proposals for new housing configurations and regulatory modifications. Their concepts will also be on show in Levittown.

More information:

Image by L.E.FT

Levittown: the suburban archetype

Levittown gets its name from its builder, the firm of Levitt & Sons, Inc. founded by William Levitt, who built the district as a planned community between 1947 and 1951. William Levitt is considered the father of modern suburbia. Levittown was the first truly mass-produced suburb and is widely regarded as the archetype for postwar suburbs throughout the country (1). On Saturday, April 23rd eight homes will be transformed into businesses by the homeowners in collaboration with our design team.

More information and to RSVP.

(1) source

Future open houses

On Saturday, April 23rd, this living room will become the showroom for Future open houses. EFGH (Hayley Eber & Frank Gesualdi) working with Irina Chernyakova have explored the potential consequences of an Open house movement, with implications on suburban housing design, land use and regulations.

This is the living room at 21 Wood Lane in Levittown, NY (before). Stay tuned to see what happens on the 23rd.

This is Frank and Hayley of EFGH, an architectural design studio in New York.

New York’s service economy

Open house, a Droog Lab project led by Diller Scofidio + Renfro started with a research trip in New York City, where the team met with all sorts of service providers, ranging from a dog walker to a luv coach and everything in between.

Thank you to the following service providers for sharing insights with us during our workshop:
Brian Mestre Dog Walking, Citymeals-on-Wheels,, Dr. Sofa, Extreme Achievers Team‎,  God’s Love We Deliver, InterExchangeIntuitive Readings with Derek Calibre, Joshua the PsychicKelima KMy Image Expert, North American Investigations, Inc.NY Wedding DancePaws In Chelsea‎Relaxation SuiteSanaVitaSunny Bates Associates‎The Image CircleThe Luv CoachTrain Daly‎Unique Chic


Meet Ann of Open house #8

Ann Torcivia has teamed up with Alex Schweder La with Jessica Rivera and Adam Bandler in the transformation of her home.

Ann is also the coordinator for all participating homeowners. She’s been instrumental in starting the Open house movement in Levittown. Thank you Ann!

Stay tuned to see Ann’s Open house, or join us on April 23rd for a tour.


Meet Anita of Open house #2

Homeowner Anita Thompson has teamed up with architectural designers Janette Kim and Erik Carver for turning her home into a business. Stay tuned to find out what business she will open on April 23rd.

Anita standing in front of her home in Levittown, NY.

This is Janette and Erik.

Meet Dawn of Open house #5

Open house is a one-day event by Droog led by Diller Scofidio + Renfro to take place on Saturday, April 23rd, 2011. The event will be kicked-off with a symposium at Studio-X New York introduced and moderated by Mark Wasiuta of Columbia University, followed by a bus trip to Levittown, where visitors can view and participate in several house installations in the neighborhood, designed and executed by architects, designers and artists in collaboration with the homeowners.

Meet homeowner Dawn Occhiogrosso. She has teamed up with  Lauren Crahan and John Hartmann of Freecell, a design and fabrication studio in the transformation of her home.

This is what their fabrication studio in Brooklyn, New York looks like.

Stay tuned to find out what service Dawn will offer on Saturday, April 23rd.