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How Buildings Learn

I just finished Stewart Brand‘s How Buildings Learn, a thought provoking and deeply inspiring book. I’ve been a fan of Stewart’s for a long time, through the Whole Earth Catalog, The Well, Long Now, and de-extinction, and his writing doesn’t disappoint. I’m not particularly interested in architecture, construction, or interior design, but he manages to bypass all three and find homespun philosophy and powerful insights in topics as mundane as siding materials and gardening techniques. Highly recommended.

Here are a few favorite quotes. On why buildings change (page 238):

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.

On as-builts (page 239):

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. Without accurate as-builts, says Chuck Charlton, “An electrical failure can have you wandering through the building shotgunning circuit breakers and shinnying down the chases.” … 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.

On state-owned property (page 163):

When the landlord is the state, as it was in communist lands, you get the ultimate in negative maintenance. All visitors to the mortally rundown buildings of Eastern European nations have tales like Brian Eno’s: “My wife and I were checking in to a hotel in Moscow. Our host showed us to our room, and began switching on the lights. As he turned on the one by the door, a great tongue of flame issued forth from a light fitting in the ceiling. He calmly switched it off again and said, β€˜Don’t use that one.” Since no one owned the light, why should anyone fix it? A command economy displaces responsibility even further outside the building than a market economy does.

On getting rich quick (page 165):

“People want to get rich quick.” The other side of the coin is, Go broke quick. Real estate is the classic case of soar and collapse, of tycoons going bankrupt and taking shortsighted banks with them. Work done in haste is necessarily shoddy, a house of cards. On a go-fast schedule there is no margin for a single error, and error is inevitable. High risk, high loss.

The opposite strategy is much surer, because the errors are piecemeal and correctable. When you proceed deliberately, mistakes don’t cascade, they instruct. Low risk plus time equals high gain. This strategy treats the fundamentals of the living investment with attention and respect. The lesson of realty laced with reality is: “Get rich slow.”

On temporary fixes (page 369):

Beware: in the real world “temporary” is permanent most of the time. If the cheap trial worked, it will be left alone, no matter how funky it is. If it failed, it’s embarrassing to fix. Life rushes on to more pressing or interesting problems.

On HOAs (page 153):

…new communities seek to pre-empt any such adaptivity by repressive, fiercely enforced “covenants, conditions, and restrictions.” These are the dread “CC & Rs” that homeowners’ associations use to control such details as what colors you may paint your house, what pets (and in some cases what children) you may keep, how your lawn will look, your roof, your fence, your driveway (no campers, trucks, or car repair), your backyard (no drying laundry or unstacked firewood). Any neighbor might report you. What if you ignore or defy such rulings? The homeowners’ association can take your house or send you to jail. Joel Garreau points out that these organizations have all the powers of governmentβ€”the ability to tax, to legislate, and to policeβ€”without the usual restrictions of democratic representation or being answerable to the US Constitution.

Garreau contrasts a new development such as Irvine, California, to the once-deplored original Levittowns that were created for postwar families back in 1949: The old Levittowns are now interesting to look at; people have made additions to their houses and planted their grounds with variety and imagination. Unlike these older subdivisions, Irvine has deed restrictions that forbid people from customizing their places with so much as a skylight…Owners of expensive homes in Irvine commonly volunteer stories of not realizing they had pulled into the driveway of the wrong house until their garage-door opener failed to work.

This degree of institutionalization 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.


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