Abstract Although nowadays powerful semantic web toolkits exist, these frameworks are still hard to apply for designing applications, since they often focus on fixed representation structures and languages. Prominent examples for applications using semantic web representation languages are ontology-based information systems. In search of a more flexible software technology for implementing systems of this kind, we have developed a framework-based approach which is influenced by description logics but also supports the integration of reasoning facilities for other formalisms. We claim—and support that claim using case studies—that our framework can cover regions in the system design space instead of just isolated points. The main insights gained with this framework are presented in the context of ontology-based query answering as part of a geographical information system.