How Buildings Learn

A stunning exploration of the design of design.

How Buildings Learn written by Stewart Brand is a book on the evolution of buildings and how buildings adapt to changing requirements over long periods. “Evolutionary design is healthier than Visionary design”. Brand asserts that the best buildings are made from low-cost, standard designs that people are familiar with, and easy to modify. In this way people can gradually change their buildings to meet their needs. This principle we use while creating and designing our NxtGen Houses.

Addressing the building layers (site, structure, skin, services, space plan and “stuff”) within a building based on their ability to temporally adapt. The Shearing layers concept views buildings as a set of components that evolve in different timescales. “Our basic argument is that there isn’t any such thing as a building. A building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components”.

Longevity per layer:

Site
This is the geographical setting, the urban location, whose boundaries and context outlast generations of ephemeral buildings. “Site is eternal.

Structure
The foundation and load-bearing elements are perilous and expensive to change. Structural life ranges primarily from thirty to one hundred years.

Skin
Exterior surfaces now change every twenty years, to keep up with fashion or technology. (re-engineered skins that are air-tight and better-insulated)

Services
These are the working guts of a building: communications wiring, electrical wiring, plumbing, HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning), and moving parts like elevators. Every seven to fifteen years.

Space Plan
The Interior layout – walls, ceilings, floors, and doors: five or twenty years.

Stuff
Chairs, desks, phones, pictures; kitchen appliances, lamps; weekly to monthly.

Stewart Brand brought his software sensibilities to the hard environments of building construction. He embraced upgrading, modularity, maintenance, and user manipulation as essential to creating more future proof buildings. He explored what makes buildings successful.

He wanted to stop creating objects (buildings) with only the first use in mind (the first tenant), and looked also to potential future us so buildings can (or need to) adapt in time.

Source: How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand (1994)