Derek Sivers

How Buildings Learn - by Stewart Brand

How Buildings Learn - by Stewart Brand

ISBN: 0140139966
Date read: 2021-08-02
How strongly I recommend it: 10/10
(See my list of 200+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

I’ve read this book three times since 1999, and gifted it many times to others. It’s changed the way I look at buildings. I read it again now because I’m building a new house. Its main idea is that all buildings are predictions, and all predictions are wrong, so design to make them easy to change. I think of it metaphorically in life: assuming my predictions about what I want will probably be wrong, so make my life easy to change. Get the paper book because the photos are crucial.

my notes

All buildings are predictions, and all predictions are wrong. Design so that it doesn't matter when they're wrong.

Whatever a client or architect says will happen with a building, won't.
Whatever you are ready for, doesn't happen.
Whatever you aren't ready for, does.

A building can't be finished.

Because buildings discount time, they misuse time.

Almost no buildings adapt well, but all buildings adapt anyway.

Layers, on SITE (unchanging), from outside in:
SKIN: changes every 20 years, air-tight, better insulated
STRUCTURE: foundation & load-bearing, rarely changed
SERVICES: changes every 7-15 years
SPACE PLAN: interior layout, walls, ceilings, floors, doors. changes every 3-30 years
STUFF: "mobilia" in Italian

The slower layers (site, structure) constrain the quick (services, space, stuff).

Keep services separate from skin as well as structure.
Don't hide pipes and wires in walls.
Take photos after the services are installed but before the sheetrock/skin. Record precisely where all the services are before they are hidden.
Take photos of the foundation and drainage before fill-in, septic system before fill-in, and all trenches.
Everything that is buried will be dug up some day. Leave a treasure map.
A building should have "as-built" drawings showing what was constructed. Restoration architects charge less if the "as-built"s are available.
Keep scrupulous maintenance logs. Precisely what was done, when, and by who.
Schedule the routines of periodic servicing and preventative maintenance.

Window openings stay the same.

Choose the option that gives me more options.
Avoid cutting off choices.
Provide excess services capacity.
Use shapes and materials that can grow easily.
A spatially diverse building is easier to make adjustments in than a monotonous one. (?)
Medium-small rooms have the widest range of uses.
When in doubt, add storage: closets, cabinets, shelving, unfinished rooms without windows.

In many fields, "architecture" means "unchanging deep structure".

We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.
(NOTE: could be applied to many things "We shape our systems, and afterwards, our systems shape us.")

All buildings grow.

There isn't such a thing as a building. A building is several layers of longetivity of built components.

Over 50 years, the changes within a building cost 3x more than the original building.

The most renovated rooms are kitchens and bathrooms.

Pouring concrete on the ground for an instant foundation is mal-adaptive because pipes are buried, and no basement space for maintenance and services access.

Timber-frame buildings separate Structure, Skin, and Services, but balloon-frame (standard stud construction) over-connects them.

Good structures only come dynamically.

Build so it's easy to make little modifications in a way that once you've made them, they feel integral with the nature and structure of what's already there. Be able to mess around with it and progressively change it, adapt it.

The problem with architects is they think they're artists.

Convention became conventional because it works. Don't live in an experiment.
The "old box" is old because it's profoundly adaptive.

Architects are only invovled in 5% of new buildings.
Architects are a minor ornament. Developers build.

Buildings shouldn't look exactly like their models. That's when people knew the least about what's really needed.

Architects think of a building as a thing. Builders think of it as a sequence.

Hire good builders and save money in the long run.

We are in denial about maintenance because when done it's just a negated negative.

Consider the need to clean windows, reaching light fixtures, etc.
Make a building that is easy to maintain.
Invest in better construction to spend less on maintenance.

Water is the root of all evil. It makes chemical reactions everywhere you don't want them. Conusmes wood, erodes masonry, corrodes metals, peels paint, expands when it freezes, permeates everywhere when it evaporates. It warps, swells, discolors, rusts, loosens, mildews, and stinks.

Houses deteriorate from the bathroom out.

Moisture from the ground rises by capillary action into foundations.

Assume water will get through the exterior layer. Intercept it, and quickly return it outside.

The roof is a building's most important organ of health. Roof effectiveness is determined most by pitch and shape, next by detailing, next by materials. Its look is irrelevant.

The simpler the roof, the better. Chimneys and skylights invite problems. Complexity can come later if it must.

Standard hanging metal gutters are the best.

Metal roof best: standing-seam, terne-coated stainless steel or copper. Fasten with stainless steel screws, not nails.

Vinyl siding traps moisture behind it, letting it do its damage for years, invisibly.

What you want in materials is forgivingness.

Wood is the best for adaptability but the worst for maintenance. It always wants to absorb moisture.
The exception is timber-framed buildings, because the wood is protected from the weather, it is massive, and exposed. Air and eyeballs can get at it, and keep it dry and inspected.
If timber frame, use hardwood pegs instead of metal bolts.

Bricks are heavenly. All brick walls need is to be repointed every 60-100 years.
Since the 1960s most brick walls aren't as long lasting because they are built with an outer layer of decorative brick and inner layer of cheaper brick or concrete block. The problem is the metal ties that connect the two layers. When they corrode the whole system falls apart. Same as vinyl and aluminum siding: they hide their problems, and that's the problem.

Concrete is a miracle except it can't be changed or even really repaired.

Roofs should be no-maintenance. But walls should be low-maintance, because walls channel our lives, we want to upkeep them and change them when we do.

Stud construction buildings wear down so fast.

The main frame of the building should be built of solid stuff that can last 300 years.

Adaptation between buildings and users is slow and continuous process that can't be achived in a single leap.

A new building is a bad teacher of maintance habits, since deferring of maintenace is habit.

Accept well-proven old solutions to old problems.

Keep wiring, plumbing, and ducts accessible.

Make 2-5 different scenarios for how I'll use this house. Make a strategy that accomodates all scenarios.

Design decisions will keep happening through the whole process, permissions, site preparation, construction, finishing, inhabitation.

Spend more money than usual on the basic structure. Less on finishing. And more on maintenance.
The less-on-finishing part will take forceful management because the architect will want pizazz in the finish., where it shows.

Insulation: tightly crafted windows and doors, orientation to the sun.

The lighter the color of a roof, the better it stands up to solar deterioration.

The "temporary" is permanent most of the time. If the cheap trial worked, it stays. If it failed, it's embarrassing to fix.

Occupy a building while it's being finished or remodeled. It's worth it for the fine-tuning that your presence affords. Make sure things sit exactly where it feels best for you: counter height, fridge, sinks, etc. It should fit like tailored clothing.

It would be nice if architects would design tiny starter homes for people, but they won't because the profit margin is too small. Most that grow from modest beginnings are owner-designed and owner-built. An architect is rented briefly to sign the plans.

Fine-tuning (making little repairs as you go) turns a building from a nuisance into a joy.
Find things that don't work, and try things that might not work.
By failing small, early, and often, it can succeed long and large.