Phil Gyford


Sunday 24 October 2004

PreviousIndexNext How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand

It’s taken me years to get round to buying and reading this book (and months to type the notes up), but it was worth the wait. It made me look at buildings and the building process differently, and I’ve had to re-evaluate what I think of as good design when it comes to architecture. The pictures (one or more on almost every page) are invaluable. Go read it.

1. Flow

5 More is spent on changing existing buildings than on building new. Three forces changing buildings: technology, money, fashion.

7 Commercial buildings have to adapt quickly, whether to success or failure. Domestic buildings change most steadily. Institutional buildings change reluctantly and rarely, at great expense (designed to show permanence, difference from commercial activities).

10-11 Age makes us appreciate buildings. Brian Eno:

An important aspect of design is the degree to which the object involves you in its own completion. Some work invites you into itself by not offering a finished glossy, one-reading-only surface. This is what makes old buildings interesting to me. I think that humans have a taste for things that not only show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which also show they are still a part of one. They are not dead yet.

The most interesting period for a building is between creation and demolition or preservation — when it’s changing.

2. Shearing Layers

12 Frank Duffy (of DEGW) sees a building as four layers:

  • Shell — structure, lasts 50 years in UK, 35 in US.
  • Services — cabling, lifts, etc, replaced every 15ish years.
  • Scenery — partitions, dropped ceilings, etc, 5-7 years.
  • Set — furniture.

13 Brand expands on this:

  • Site — geographical setting, eternal.
  • Structure — foundation and load bearing elements, 30-300 years.
  • Skin — 20ish years.
  • Services — 7-15 years.
  • Space plan — interior layout, from three (commercial) to 30 (domestic) years.
  • Stuff — furniture and belongings.

17 When designing a building, different types of designers are “legitimised” by looking at a building in this way — responsible for different bits. Different people relate to, and have control over, different layers of a building once completed. Slow layers are “in charge” of change more than the faster ones.

20 An adaptive building must allow slippage between each layer, or the slow layers block flow of quick, and quick layers tear up the slow. Embedding layers together may look efficient initially, but over time it’s the opposite.

23 Growth does not equal adaptation. The opposite of adaptation is turnover — one tenant replacing all traces of the previous. Age plus adaptivity is what makes a building come to be loved.

3. “Nobody Cares What You Do In There”: The Low Road

24 “Low Road buildings are low-visibility, low-rent, no-style, high-turnover.” Customisable.

28 Artists move to run down areas, make it exciting, property values rise, artists move on. Jane Jacobs: only “well-established, high-turnover, standardised or highly subsidised” operations can afford to construct new buildings. Others re-use old. Jacobs again: “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must come from old buildings.”

28-9 People used to store stuff in basements and attics. After 1920s new bungalows, modernist homes and ranch houses [in US] didn’t have these. Storage moved to garage. People then began using garages as offices, studios, spare bedroom etc. Self-storage business took off on cheap edge-of-town land [and, in UK at least, old industrial/warehouse buildings].

4. Houseproud: the High Road

35 A High Road building acquires its character through: “high intent, duration of purpose, duration of care, time, and a steady supply of confident dictators.” (eg, Chatsworth house) If built in fat times, it can be hard to maintain them in lean times.

38 Updating services that were once thought perfect is hard. High Road buildings are constantly refined, whereas Low are gutted and refitted. Low are like species with high population growth, able to take advantage of any new niches. High are like stable “high carrying capacity” species, that do best in stable ecosystems. Low do well in cities, High thrive in countryside. Dandelions vs oak trees.

44 When institutions try to make High Road buildings they go for monumentality over flexibility. When, say, a decade later they need to expand they often end up with Low Road extensions: portakabins, rented space in nearby buildings, people working in storage rooms etc.

5. Magazine Architecture: No Road

Modern, inflexible buildings.

54 Architecture is usually associated with art. Peter Calthorpe: follies of the profession would vanish if architects decided they do craft, not art. Folklorist Henry Glassie: “If a pleasure-giving function predominates, the artifact is called art; if a practical function predominates, it is called craft.” Art is radical, but buildings are inherently conservative. Art experiments, experiments fail, art costs extra. Art throws away old, good solutions. “Art begets fashion; fashion means style; style is made of illusion; and illusion is no friend to function.” Fun for architects, fun to watch, not fun for buildings’ users.

55 Photography is a major culprit — architecture awards are won by how a building looks not works. Architecture magazines are about what sells — they’re advertising, cover to cover.

56 In the late 60s, early 70s a few places reacted to failures of Modernism. “Post-Occupancy Evaluation”. Christopher Alexander and co’s A Pattern Language. Conserving energy became a source of design innovation. Then it all faded. Post-modernism. While buildings were often adaptive inside, appeal was shallow: decorated sheds (as Venturi called Las Vegas). Deconstructionism.

57 We concentrate on buildings’ exterior, not the structure. This is wrong.

57-8 Sir James Stirling — much praise, but based on exteriors. Buildings were often faulty and unloved. Judith Donahue in ‘Fixing Fallingwater’s Flaws’ (Architecture, Nov 1989):

Leaks are a given in any [Frank Lloyd] Wright house. Indeed, the architect has been notorious not only for his leaks but for his flippant dismissals of client complaints. He reportedly asserted that, “If the roof doesn’t leak, the architect hasn’t been creative enough.” His stock response to clients who complained of leaking roofs was, “That’s how you can tell it’s a roof.”

59-60 Geodesic domes don’t work: always leak; waste space; hard to adapt; wasteful of materials; hard to expand; insulation was hard; doors and windows weaken the structure. Right angles work.

61 Fragmentation of tasks causes problems: architects are followed in the process of constructing a building by engineers, contractors, subcontractors, etc. [Architect’s role sounds like that of a writer on a Hollywood movie.] Japanese conglomerates are one-stop-shops for the whole process.

62 In the US developers are often the ones in charge throughout the process (Edge Cities). Architects and contractors are paid a percentage of the total cost. This encourages trying to be too perfect too soon.

62-3 “Claims” — costs arising from change-orders during construction earn the contractor a lot. Discourages adaption during construction.

63 Since Modernism there’s been the idea that architects do everything and deliver a perfect product. Attention is focused on two moments: the final model and the hand-over to owner. A model-maker: “A lot of the time now, you see buildings that look exactly like their models. That’s when you know you’re in trouble.”

72-80 Building codes can be god but can also restrict adaptation.

75 Small building lots give more variety and provide for more gradual change over time — lots of small changes.

79 Zoning may have some benefits but it freezes cities.


What makes homeowners’ associations so viciously conservative? Market value is determined not by how well a house works, but how it looks in the context of its neighbourhood — “curb appeal,” as it’s called. Vast effort has gone into making the development look nice to a carefully calculated market segment, and that must not be undermined. When you sell your nice house (Americans move every eight years, on average), do you want the prospective buyer to see someone repairing their car or putting out laundry to dry next door? Suppose they’ve got a metal roof instead of tile, or a nonstandard dormer sticking out? Well, if they can’t, you can’t. This degree of insitutionalisation of real estate value over use value is odious enough as an invasion of privacy, but it also prevents buildings from exercising their unique talent for getting better with time.

81-82 When property market is on the up people treat homes as investments, making changes for imaginary next owners. When all houses are investments, no one will waste money on improvements, as the neighbourhood determines value. No one is allowed to be less nice (by homeowners’ associations) so nothing changes.

Downtown, the value of land overwhelms the value of buildings. In Tokyo in 1980s, average life of a building was 17 years. Total value of Japanese real estate was four times that of America’s.

When market dives it’s often cheaper for landlords to have no tenants.

83-4 But if market is going up or down slowly people make improvements.

85 Money in buildings: Jacobs: “cataclysmic money and gradual money” — the former is destructive, latter is wholesome and adaptive. Alexander: “There should be more [money] in basic structure, less in finish, more in maintenance and adaptation.”

86 The greater the gap between landlord and tenant, the less the incentive to maintain and improve.

87 Unless building is too cheap for speculation, when landlord doesn’t care what is done to it (Low Road).

7. Preservation: A Quiet, Populist, Conservative, Victorious Revolution

90Any building older than 100 years will be … beyond fashion.”

91-2 Old buildings were built to last [this is self-defining, surely — old buildings that weren’t built to last haven’t, er, lasted]. Show age well.

92-3 Preservationist Paul Goldberger:

“A lot of our belief in preservation comes from our fear of what will replace buildings that are not preserved; all too often we fight to save not because what we want to save is so god but because we know that what will replace it will be no better.”

94 Victorian Gothic Revival enthusiasts did a lot of “restoration” in the UK, often making buildings look older than they actually were. John Ruskin, William Morris et al were against this, wanting to keep buildings as they were, with all subsequent modifications. Morris’s Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

95-6 National Trust, English Heritage in UK. National Trust for Historic Preservation in US. Tax benefits in US for developers rehabilitating historic buildings.

97-100 The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which must be met to qualify for tax breaks, emphasises High Road style repair and preservation, keeping modifications added to buildings in the past, rather than stripping them back to the original.

100-3 Poor, neglected buildings tend to last — no money to change them, and they last past their second thirty years, the period where things are often replaced.

103-4 Adapted buildings last — use changes, not necessarily the building.

105 Old buildings are more freeing — you don’t have the vacuum of a blank slate.

109 Preservationists should teach classes for architects, developers and planners — the lessons they’ve learned working with old buildings; what lasts, what doesn’t, what adapts, etc. Apply these to new construction.

8. The Romance of Maintenance

110-131 Flat roofs let in water. Everything else deteriorates too. Maintain things well and often. Facilities manager should be a more important position than it is.

9. Vernacular: How Buildings Learn From Each Other

132 “In the eyes of tastemakers, old vernacular is lovely. New vernacular (including everything we might call Low Road) is unlovely.” “Factory-built mobile homes” are new vernacular. [This seems wrong to me, if mobile homes are mass, commercially built…?]

133-4 Three-aisled structures [like Cressing Temple] date from 1300 BC in Northern Europe.

135-9 Vernacular builders tend to re-use existing styles and techniques, rather than inventing anew. Non-architect designed. Vernacular building historians concentrate less on the style of buildings and more on when it was built, how it’s changed, how it was used, the technology used to build it, etc.

140 Client-driven building often copies features from existing buildings.

141 Architectural industry’s standards restricts innovation. “Catalog architecture,” internationalised, homogeneous style. Sliding glass doors only survive from decade to decade due to this, and are bad at being doors, walls and windows. “A measure of how remote the builders’ decisions have become from the users’ experience.” [I thought people liked patio doors!?]

141-7 “Santa Fe style” - concocted in 1912 to boost tourism, assembled from earlier styles: native indians, Spanish settlers and Yankees.

150 But this forced ad-hoc, open-ended forms into a formal design. Specialised spaces, not multipurpose.

150-4 Extremely successful house forms: Cape Cod house, bungalow and mobile home.

153 10 per cent of all homes in US are mobile homes. Half in mobile home parks.

10. Function Melts Form: Satisficing Home and Office

160-2 Porches above the Mason-Dixon line have mostly disappeared, gradually: screens, glass, walls. Weather wasn’t suited. Also increase of traffic, decrease of pedestrians meant they were less appealing. Replaced by decking at the back of the house — private. Brand expects a revival of the covered porch to protect against the sun.

162 Garages were 15% of a house’s enclosed space in 1930. 45% by 1960. Not just more cars: Modernism got rid of attics, sheds, cellars and peripheral rooms. Garages are needed to store stuff.

164 A building and occupants form a system. When occupants change they do things differently, system changes, some parts of the house may break.

165 “Satisficing” — solutions that are just good enough. Why temporary solutions last. Done by occupants, not designers.

166 Stylistic (as opposed to functional) interior designers create unified looks that get polluted by use and don’t adapt. William Seale: “They’re merchandisers.”

167 Single-loop learning: repeating and refining a routine. Double-loop learning: major readjustments called for (eg, change in use of a room). Learning to learn: Creating long-term adaptive solutions that make changes less disruptive.

168-9 Invention of the open office — 1958 by two German organisational designers — to create flexibility. Hard to imagine the shock when the idea spread in the 1960s via magazine articles. By the late 1960s Herman Miller introduced modular furniture. Problem-solving has moved from architecture to office furniture. IT speeds up the change, makes this flexibility more necessary. Raised floors make it easy for office users to change things; dropped ceilings are hard.

170-1 Three trends: open offices in 1960s, energy efficiency in 1970s and IT in 1980s. Created, respectively: “deep office buildings” (no need to have everyone near a window), sealed windows, “smart” buildings (all services integrated and computer controlled). Whole buildings expensively shaped around a trend. When trend moved on, building was obsolete.

172 “Cave and commons” offices — small office per person opening onto a communal space — balancing privacy and interactivity.

174 William McDonough, architect: insists any new office he designs should be potentially convertible into housing, as he sees this as the most fundamental use for buildings.

177 MIT’s Thomas Allen: “It is estimated that communication between members of the same organisation decreases by an order of magnitude [ie, to one-tenth] when their offices are on different floors.”

11. The Scenario-buffered Building

178 “All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong.”

178-181 Architects often use a programme or brief, detailing the wishes of the potential users. But these tend to focus on what users want now. Too specific and short-term. Scenario planning avoids this.

181-3 Process: Gather consensus expectations about future from major players. Day one: Identify focal issue or decision. Explore driving forces. Identify most important and uncertain forces. Identify basic plot lines of scenarios — should be both plausible and shocking. Think the unthinkable.

Day two: Adjust scenarios, name them (2-5 scenarios, ignore probability). Devise a strategy for the focal issue/decision that is viable in all scenarios. Identify leading indicators that will show which scenarios (if any) will come to pass.

186 Rules of thumb for strategic building designers:

Some can be borrowed directly from chess players: “Favour moves that increase options; shy from moves that end well but require cutting off choices; work from strong positions that have many adjoining strong positions.” More specific to buildings: overbuild Structure so that heavier floor loads or extra stories can be handled later; provide excess Services capacity; go for oversize (“loose fit”) rather than undersize. Separate high-and low-volatility areas and design them differently. Work with shapes and materials that can grow easily, both interior and exterior. “Use materials from near at hand,” advises Massachusetts builder John Abrams. “They’ll be easier to match or replace.”

A spatially diverse building is easier to make use adjustments in than a spatially monotonous one — people can just move around. Medium-small rooms accommodate the widest range of uses.

When in doubt, add storage. Add nearby storage — closets, cabinets, shelving and deep storage — attics, basements, unfinished rooms without windows. What begins as storage can always become something else, and if it doesn’t there’s never enough storage anyway.

Shun designing tightly around anticipated technology.

188 “A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start.”

12. Built for Change

190 Spend more on basic structure, less on finish, more on perpetual adjustment and maintenance.

191 Rather than a mortgage, spend the downpayment on the basic structure, and then add/change over time (no interest to pay).

192 Avoid fashion. Don’t customise a new building around technology. Be square.

193-4 Decide to take High or Low Road. Structure should be built to last 300 years.

196-200 Design/builder John Abrams takes photos of each wall after services are in but before sheetrock covers them. Used while finishing the building, and passed on to owners afterwards in “The Book”.

200 Experiment as a building is built. Oversize components (for potential future uses). Live in it while it’s being finished.

206 After finishing, things will break or won’t work, and will need fixing/adapting.

207 Spare parts should be left and a set of “as-built” plans.


I've had the book hanging around for years. Now you make me want to go and read it.

Posted by paul murphy on 26 October 2004, 6:42 pm | Link

I was frustrated to discover that this book is out of print in the UK - the notes above exactly explain why the housing association in Coin Street on the South Bank wasted an opportunity by building twee little buildings instead of going for the high-density occupation that the people there needed.

Posted by Glyn on 22 November 2004, 5:24 pm | Link

Yeah, I bought mine from someone on Abebooks and it looks like there are still plenty around.

Posted by Phil Gyford on 22 November 2004, 5:33 pm | Link

In July 97 the BBC aired a six part TV documentary of "How Buildings Learn" The first part led my Stewart Brand, the following five parts show some examples, good and bad ones all over the UK. Including an interview with Christopher Alexander and lots of stuff to think about. Good humour, nice visuals and sound from Brian Eno. There is no DVD or video available but some libraries have recorded it and it should be possible make a copy for home use.

Posted by Michael on 4 July 2005, 10:31 pm | Link

I'm reading this book as part of a studio assignment in Architecture grad school. By looking at architecture this way, my professor is a rare treat in the standard way that architecture has been taught since the beginning of the Modernist era. As he puts it, they push you to force a 'BIG(often WACKY) idea' into every building rather than crafting the best solution. I think this is a VERY important book for the future of Architecture and I believe that there is hope from my generation to bring respect back to the profession if I am correct in believing that this will become a more and more common way of thinking.

Posted by Crystal on 30 August 2005, 11:22 pm | Link

Someone knows where I can download the "How buildings learn" BBC's documentary?

Posted by Antonio on 26 December 2005, 9:53 pm | Link

Amazing summary!

I've added a link to it on my homepage:…

Posted by Stewart Brand on 29 May 2007, 9:29 pm | Link

Thanks Stewart, belatedly. I'm glad you like it.

For those who have got this far, the six-part TV series of the book is available free on Google Video: parts one, two, three, four, five, six.

Posted by Phil Gyford on 4 January 2009, 11:47 am | Link

"Age plus adaptivity is what makes a building come to be loved."

Undoubtedly, my favorite line in your notes.

Thank you.

Chip Dowis
George Dowis Architect
Charleston, SC

Posted by Chip Dowis on 13 September 2011, 3:47 am | Link

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