How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re built (Stewart Brand)
The book is a thought piece on the built environment, and a critique of the common approaches in designing and building homes. The books builds up to some steps that can lead towards a more suitable built environment for all through adaptive architecture.
The book suggests a framework for looking at “layers” in a building, and that changes to a building should come at different rates for each layer. For example, the inner layers like things and services, should change at much higher rate than the outer layers like foundations and walls.
It speaks to two main equally valid approaches: the low row fast, cheap and learning from doing; and the high road of quality and learning from the vernacular. There are also rants about the “no road” approach of architecture magazines, where architecture designs are intended to wow on opening day but fail to serve users, and are a maintenance disaster.
“Real estate turns buildings into money, into fungible units devoid of history and therefore of learning. A room would gradually embody its history, but a dollar gains its time-and-space binding power from having no history, and the dollar wins. The room becomes not what happened in it, but what its square-footage is worth. Monetization frees from history by destroying history. Almost nothing can stand against this universal liquidity.” 87
Some of the main pieces of advice are to build incrementally over time, learning from the process (instead of looking for a fully cooked single solution). Building in a way that can accommodate different scenarios in the future (as opposed to planning for a specific use). Leveraging the learnings from history (keep what has worked for generations). Opting for preventative maintenance over need for repairs.
“What makes a building learn is its physical connection to the people within.” 209
Some personal thoughts:
The book talks mostly about buildings, but it got me thinking about parallels with life and design.
Parallels with life
- Market pressures create an unhealthy pressure on buildings, resulting in suboptimal built environment; not very different from market pressures on other parts of our lives.
- The advice for building serves for humans too: trust the process, plan for but don’t try to solve future problems, opt for prevention over remedy.
- Grow in slow, steady, and small changes.
- Be a cautious ancestor, and hold space for a desirable future.
- Honour history and in pull from its lessons.
Parallels with design
- Don’t look for a perfect solution, learn from the process.
- Iterate, and be humble in learning from mistakes.
- Design for a strategy rather than a plan, bring in many voices, and let them shape the design.