I had come across several recommendations to read ‘How Buildings Learn‘, by Stewart Brand, during the past year and finally picked up a copy of the book. Here are some snippets to (hopefully) help explain the valuable lessons this book can teach the IT industry, particularly the newer architect-style roles that are cropping up (enterprise-, solution-, software-, system-, information- etc.):

“…Almost no buildings adapt well. They’re designed not to adapt… But all buildings (except monuments) adapt anyway, however poorly, because the usages in and around them are changing constantly… Architecture, we imagine, is permanent. And so our buildings thwart us.”

The book describes the concept of time layering and its relevance to buildings. The six layers (simplified here): SITE (geographical setting, duration: eternal); STRUCTURE (foundations and load-bearing elements, duration: 30 – 300 years); SKIN (exterior surfaces, duration: 2o years); SERVICES (inner workings of the building – wiring, elevators, etc., duration: 7 – 15 years); SPACE PLAN (interior layout, duration: 3+ years); STUFF (furniture and movable items, duration: mobile).

“…Ecosystems could be better understood by observing the rate of change of different components. Hummingbirds and flowers are quick, redwood trees are slow and whole redwood forests even slower. Most interaction is within the same pace level. The dynamics of the system will be dominated by the slow components… The same goes with buildings. Site dominates structure (location determines foundations), which dominates skin, which dominates services etc.”

Interestingly, the reverse becomes true in extreme situations.

“Ecologist Buzz Holling points out that it is at times of major change in a system that the quick processes can most influence the slow.”

New ‘stuff’ (e.g. replacing desktop computers with laptops, wireless technologies, switching from individual working in cubicles to group collaboration in open plan environments) may demand adjustments to space plans and services. And the need to change services can even result in the premature demolition of buildings. This issue leads on to some interesting comments that IT solution architects should consider:

“An adaptive building has to allow slippage between the differently-paced systems of site, structure, skin, services, space plan and stuff. Otherwise the slow systems block the flow of the quick ones, and the quick ones tear up the slow ones with their constant change. Embedding the systems together may look efficient at first, but over time it is the opposite… and destructive as well.”

The book recommends an alternate approach to traditional building methods: the use of scenarios:

The benefits of scenario-planning are simple – design a building/system to accomodate multiple different possible outcomes. This can help avoid the problems that occur when the designers idea of expected use does not match the actual use.

There is another book that follows this theme, applying it to the design of everyday things and how we conform to, or adapt, their purpose: ‘Thoughtless Acts?‘ by Jane Fulton Suri + IDEO

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