Compounding ideas — Stewart Brand’s Pace layers & Buildings for *people*

Recommended collision of worlds

Today brings a colliding of worlds. And only diagraming can attempt justice.

Personal drivers of past and present
Collision between varied nodes of today

Stewart Brand’s pace layers framework is revered as a mental model for software and systems design. Nevertheless, its original intent — a framework to understand the built environment — still holds. [Supplementing Brand’s recent text (linked below), listen to this related podcast from the Interval.]

Rates of change define pace layers. According to Brand, the necessary layers of a system function differently and “operate somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.” Lower layers, like nature and culture, are necessarily slow. Upper layers, like fashion and commerce, are notoriously fast. Brand continues, “If slow parts are not occasionally frustrating then they’re not doing their job. But if you don’t respect them for that, you don’t know how the world works.”

“Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.” — Brand

To quote pace layer evangelist Paul Saffo, “constructive turbulence” is perhaps even more interesting than the pace layers themselves. The eddies of pipes and rivers, the inter-tidal boundaries of coastlines, and the mystical S-curves of tech narrative… each represents a “turbulent boundary,” the locale where slow layers catch up to fast layers (and/or vice versa).

For anyone who has ventured California’s coastlines, gotten stuck at a river eddy, or tried to play the business model game of an S-curvy technology — often what happens at the boundaries of pace layers is far more intriguing than the full layers themselves.

But how did the idea of pace layers come to be?

1970s | The Frank Duffy effect

  • Architect Frank Duffy pursued his doctoral thesis mapping the relationship between organizational and office layouts. Related Question: What might a similar study find today? And related link: spatial organization’s impact on collaboration
  • In 1972, Duffy and a colleague analyzed how much money was spent on buildings over a 50-year timeframe. 1/3 was spent on new construction, 2/3 post-occupancy. Related Question: What might a similar study find today? And related link: only 3% of today’s US building stock consists of new or renovated build
  • In the 1980s, Duffy advocated for a new role in the buildings industry: Facilities Management. Related Question: How would the FM role have evolved if introduced in today’s context? And related link: History of the FM industry
  • Also in the 1980s, Brand met Duffy and learned of his layering concept for buildings: Shell (50y lifetime)>> Services (15y lifetime)>> Scenery (5y lifetime) >> Set (monthly lifetime). Related Question: Does this lifecycle still hold true for buildings today? My industry experience says yes.
  • In 1998, Duffy continued his work on people in the workplace environment. His book “New Environments for Working” offered “ideas for what could be done to improve the functionality of office buildings in the light of changing worker and organisational demands.” Related Point: My world intertwines with Duffy’s more than I would have thought…!

1980s | International Facilities Management Association [IFMA]

  • With the growing impact of computer terminals and “office landscaping” came a new need to manage facilities and people. Enter the era of Facilities Management for commercial buildings.
  • From Brand’s How Buildings Learn: “‘Facilities managers were created by information technology,’ says Frank Duffy, who honors them more than his fellow architects. ‘An office building exists to accommodate changing organizations. The management of that change process is now the domain of the facilities managers.’”

Early 1990s | Sheathing Layers [Brand’s take in How Buildings Learn]

Late 1990s | Pace Layers [Brand’s redux with Brian Eno]

For someone interested in the original playground of Brand’s layering — i.e. the Buildings Industry (and better yet, the playground of buildings + facilities management + software + systems design) — what insight can be captured now, with 30 new years of lessons learned?

Pace Layering: How Complex Systems Learn and Keep Learning

Author: Stewart Brand



Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and by occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.
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