Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Book Review: How Buildings Learn

How Buildings Learn discusses how inhabitation and changing environment and demands shape a building while it is being lived in and used, how that learning process works, and how the style and structure of the building and the different parties involved can help or hinder this process.

The first helpful mental model How Buildings Learn introduces is the shearing layers of change: Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space, Stuff (and a half-joking 7th layer, Souls).  These are the slow and quickly adapting layers of buildings; they range from the nearly-eternal site (a citys street grid can survive centuries, fire and earthquakes) to the ephemeral space and stuff plans, which are subject to constant activity (at the whim of that pesky Souls layer inhabiting the building).  Freezing a mistaken decision in an immutable slower-changing layer (like structural elements that inhibit Space adaptation) creates pain for the buildings users forced to live in the poor and inflexible fit.

Another broad and convenient framework the book introduces is Low Road and High Road architecture.  Low Road buildings occur when people take over a space, often inexpensive, that allows them to improvise and get to work.  These included converted factories, warehouses, garages, barns, boats, storage containers, and churches.  These buildings learn because the building is not a precious item and so the inhabitantrs can work with it loosely and as they see fit.

High Road architecture learns instead over generations of patient care.  Stewart Brand draws the analogy to r-selected amd k-selected species.  The book shows as examples the best cared-for country houses of England and the manors of America's founding fathers.  High Road buildings last long enough to turn passing styles into history; doing one right is a labor of love measured in lifetimes.  A humbler example given was the home of poets Una & Robinson Jeffers in Carmel.  Built mostly by Robinson in local stone, he wrote in the mornings and worked on the home in the afternoon.  The home included a stone tower with a quiet chamber for his wife and a playroom and secret inner staircase for their boys.

One later chapter that I'd do well to learn the value of is Brand's paean to maintenance as a form of learning.  In a cute phrase: "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.". A basic idea from this chapter is that too much work and money usually go into the initial construction and not enough into gentle maintenance which allows the progressive correction of earlier missteps.  Need buildings he suggests are especially dangerous because they initially hold together, delaying the formation of good maintenance habits.

This chapter contains a helpful inventory of roof and construction materials from an aging and adaptability perspective.  I hadn't realized the great difference in wear between wood stud framing and brick.  Light wood construction is a very adaptable and easy to work with medium but it must be carefully sheltered from moisture and the elements.  Brick, among others, has a completely different life cycle, but can last hundreds of years and stand up to much greater neglect and exposure.  I'm not used to thinking of buildings as systems of materials instead of definitions of light and space.

Another chapter with a fresh perspective was that on vernacular architecture; everything not designed by professional architects.  There is an especially interesting section on American residential vernacular that discusses Cape Cods & ranch homes, bungalows, and mobile homes.  I live now in an modest but unique apartment that is a really special space.  Paying rent is a pure loss however, and we do sometimes miss a garden to grow in, a yard to stretch our legs, and patio to rest on.  I hadn't considered some of the virtues of a small, modest, and flexible home; one that could find a spot in a real community, and be capable of growing and adapting with us.  Brand in this chapter was very enthusiastic describing the vitality of these housing forms.  It made me curious to wonder how much space is in one of the (quite nice) mobile home plots near Mountain View, given how much rents there are and the population of hackers and developers there who would appreciate inexpensive housing and flexibility.  Another option to consider!  One a bit off the path for my urban mind.

An author Brand quotes frequently is Chris Alexander, another thinker and builder who has considered how buildings can adjust to house flourishing human lives and how those flourishing lives can come together in a way that graces their surroundings.  I want to read his A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.  It introduces the idea of design patterns; general patterns of solutions to archetypes of problems, and the format for presenting them.  An exposition of similar patterns in the smaller realm of software design is Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software.

How Buildings Learn struck a strong contrast to what I'd learned about Modern & Postmodern architecture.  I took a single course on modern architectural history, and one aspect I always found a bit odd about the way it was taught is that it focused on a few select buildings which set and typify style, forming a microscopic fraction of the world's construction, and not the rules and patterns according to which most building are actually built.  Based on Brand's references to many of the same figures, movements and exemplars, (proto-modrrn works like the Eiffel tower, the International style and its later adherents like Im Pei, and its manifestation in commercial and institutional buildings, and then Robert Venturi and later Postmodern adventures) this was not a deficiency of this particular course, but a fair sampling of the evolution of thought in high architecture.

Viewed less as an artform, the profession of architecture is structured in several ways that hurt clients.  The architect has little incentive in many contracts to make sure the building serves and adapts into its first years of occupancy.  Architects' contracts are also not always structured to encourage minimizing and meeting costs and producing buildings that will be simple and joyful to maintain.  Facilities management & construction management that Brand mentions which have sprung up to fill this gap.

One small kinship I had with the author is that he lived and wrote from Sausalito, so the book is rife with Bay Area references.  He mentions houseboats in Sausalito, converted garages in San Francisco, homesteads in Campbell & Point Reyes factories, converted to office space in Emoryville, and surplus military sheds in Mountain View.  The geographic immediacy enriched the book for me.