Favorites from: How Buildings Learn

Recommended book

My favorites, below. All still relevant to my work, today.

How Buildings Learn

Author: Stewart Brand


Almost no buildings adapt well. They’re designed not to adapt; also budgeted and financed not to, constructed not to, administered not to, maintained not to, regulated and taxed not to, even remodeled not to. But all buildings (except monuments) adapt anyway, however poorly, because the usages in and around them are changing constantly.
When we deal with buildings we deal with decisions taken long ago for remote reasons.
Some buildings are designed and managed as a spatial whole, none as a temporal whole.
“An important aspect of design is the degree to which the object involved you in its own completion.” — Brian Eno
The form of cities persists for centuries, but their intense economic metabolism consumes their physical substance.
A triumph of abstraction, real estate operates distant from the daily life of building use, distant from the real. The “real” in “real estate” derives from re-al — “royal” — rather than from res — “thing” — which is the root of “reality.” Realty is in many ways the opposite of reality.
Against the flow of this constant entropy, maintenance people must swim always upstream, progresses against the current like a watchful trout. The only satisfaction they can get from their work is to do it well. The measure of success in their labors is that the result is invisible, unnoticed. Thanks to them, everything is the same as it ever was.
Commercial buildings have to adapt quickly, often radically, because of intense competitive pressure to perform, and they are subject to the rapid advances that occur in any industry. Most businesses either grow or fail. If they grow, they move; if they fail, they’re gone. Turnover is a constant. Commercial buildings are forever metamorphic.
Office buildings are now the largest capital asset of develop nations and employ over half of their workforces. At the office, management theories come and go, each with a different physical layout. Unremitting revolutions in communication technology require rewiring of whole buildings every seven years on average.
One area of perpetual discord is the enforcement of building codes. The earliest cities had them. [Even] the Nineveh of 3000 BC the Assyrian King Sennacherib [had them]. As a youth I regarded building codes as the embodiment of all that was unoriginal and constricting in society. Later I learned their value.
Buildings can’t learn if they don’t last.
It was fire codes that led the way in regulating the materials and design of buildings.
Building codes are an adaptive and local phenomenon. There are 44,000 code-enforcement bodies in the US. These have been semi-standardized to three major regional systems — one each for the Northeast, the Gulf states, and the Midwest/West — and reflect to some degree historic and climatic differences. The codes often force builders and dwellers to act against their short-term interests…
Convention is preferable to law, being more adaptive, accommodating, and locally appropriate, but a fast-moving society outruns the pace of informal convention and must resort to abstract law.
At their worst, code enforcers block creativity and defy reason, answerable to remote abstractions that have nothing to do with the present case or opportunity.
The community also rules a building by how it handles services — water, electricity, gas, sewerage, phone, television, and peripherally, transportation. That these are each managed by different bureaucracies means that streets are torn up for service repair and replacement far too often.
Buildings do better over time when they are closely held and closely cared for.
This is an old and interesting problem in organizational learning. How do people learn to do cheap problem-prevention instead of expensive problem-cure? There’s no immediate reward for putting in a sprinkler system, only extra nuisance and expense. A larger, slower entity — the community — has to do the learning and instill the lesson, by convention, habit, rite, or law.
Finding out who actually owns commercial properties is often nearly impossible. The buildings usually have passed through many owners, each one concerned primarily with the interests of backers and potential buyers, seldom the building users, the neighbors, or the public in the street.
Landlord and tenants are automatically in conflict
A final real-estate effect on buildings is the stress caused by constant turnover. […] A set of offices is likely to suffer 10 or more tenant organizations in its lifetime. Each turnover usually is accompanied by a complete renovation or remodeling. Often there are two renovations per ownership turnover — the first by the departing owners looking to jazz up the place for a higher sale price. But that one is wasted, because the new owners immediately make another extensive renovation to match their own tastes and needs. The building can’t learn much with all those shock treatments. On the other hand, turnovers can help upgrade some of the basics such as roof, foundation, and services. The increasing use of buyers of private building inspectors in recent years has helped this process.
Turnover refreshes, but it also erases. Nearly everything about real estate estranges buildings from their users and interrupts any form of sustained continuity.
Most design in the real world is guided by rules of thumb.
The most convenient form of expansion is cellular << modularity
Taking a strategic approach to a building may mean postponing many design decisions and leaving them to the eventual users of the building. This is heresy to professional designers who want all the design problems solved beautifully once and for all. It was developers, not architects, who recognized the market for “shell-and-core” office buildings, where the tenants instead of the builders fit out each floor.
One way to institutionalize wholesome chaos is to disperse significant design power to the individual users of a building while they’re using the place.
Due to deterioration and obsolescence, a building’s capital value (and the rent it can charge) about halves by twenty years after construction. Most buildings you can expect to require complete refurbishing from eleven to twenty-five years after construction.
Since the downward spiral of dilapidation can accelerate so quickly, the trick is to keep a building from entering the spiral at all. Two methods are supposedly standard, but both are in practice somewhat rare. One is “preventive maintenance” — routinely servicing materials and systems in the building before they fail, thereby saving considerable expense and greatly extending the life of the building. The other is designing and constructing the building in such a way that it doesn’t need a lot of maintenance. Both are unpopular. Solid construction? Expensive! Preventive maintenance? BORing.
The longer that buildings are expected to last, the more you can expect maintenance and other running costs to overwhelm the initial capital costs of construction, and the more inclined owners will be to invest in better construction so they can spend less on maintenance.
The three things that change a building most are markets, money, and water. If you would ensure a building’s longevity, protect it from markets and water, and feed it money, but not too much and not too little. Too much encourages orgies of radical remodeling that blow a building’s continuity and integrity. Too little, and a building becomes destructive to itself and the people in it. Pressure to cut a building’s running costs inspires such shortcuts as cheaper air filters, replaced less frequently, and a lower rate of air cycling, and mildew left in the ducts. Then suddenly everybody gets headaches and allergies, people are taping ice cubes to the thermostats, and the union’s lawyers are on the phone. The amount that should be budgeted annually for maintenance in a commercial or institutional building typically ranges from $2 to $5 per square foot per year, says Chuck Charlton, one of the newly emerging profession of “facilities managers.”
Too often a new building is a teacher of band maintenance habits. After the initial shakedown period, everything pretty much works, and the owner and inhabitants gratefully stop paying attention to the place. Once attention is deferred, deferring of maintenance comes naturally.
They used to be janitors and building superintendents. They were the bottom of the status hierarchy around buildings, but they retained stolid, jealous power. From their private warrens down by the furnace room in the basement of commercial and institutional buildings radiated waves of truculence and an open avoidance of maintenance and repair chores. All that changed in the 1970s with the coming of the information economy — offices, multiplying everywhere and computers driving the offices. “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.” << And now FMS need to be “recreated” by new types of information technology (e.g. ML)
By 1979 there was an International Facilities Management Association (IFMA). It listed nine areas of responsibility which sound dry, but they are the essence of the ongoing life of a working building — planning and design; construction and renovation; coordination of facility changes and relocation; purchasing furnishings, equipment, and external services; developing facilities policies; long-term planning and analysis; building operations; maintenance and engineering; furnishing and equipment inventory management; and real estate procurement and disposal.
Facilities managers can be a source of relief or of maddening frustration for building users, depending on how the organization works.
Buildings in general should imitate the practice of factories, where the building itself is considered to be the company’s most basic and expensive tool, and is treated with respect and close attention as the profit center.
In factories, for example, the “as-builts” are scrupulously updated. As-builts are building plans that show in detail exactly what was built, which is always significantly different from what was in the original plans. […] Most as-builts that he encounters are at least 10% wrong, which multiplies maintenance and remodeling expenses. If the as-builts aren’t updated constantly, each bit of repair or remodeling, each new contractor, each change of property management makes the plans more misleading.
This kind of close, sustained attention to the cumulative effect of sporadic bursts of maintenance and repair is essential to conscious “learning” in a building
Computers are ideal for keeping dynamic records of this sort. <<But still, even in 2018, this record keeping is done poorly. Need to extend BIM not just to actual use in design and construction, but all the way through maintenance.
There is a sensing problem with buildings. Too much is invisible — the pressure regulator in the gas meter, the rot in the walls, the location of the short circuit. Ventilation is especially elusive. While people are acutely sensitive to temperature problems and always ready to bang on a thermostat, they don’t notice when they aren’t getting their requisite 15 cfm of fresh air. Manufacturers eager to sell electronic products are beginning to produce a variety of systems to sense and report incipient maintenance problems. Buildings will become automatically self-diagnosing like an office copier or an airplane, and that’s fine. But I’d like to see building designers take on problem transparency as a design goal. Use materials that smell bad when they get wet. Build in inspection windows and hatches. Expose the parts of service systems that are likeliest to fail.
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