Monday, October 16, 2006

How buildings learn, part 1

Well, I have been reading, if not consistently posting. With all of the other things that fill a life, it is difficult to make a coherent review of everything I've been thinking about, but I'll start to stab at it here. Everything on the reading list has to do in some way with what you might call the reality of the built environment. That is to say, if you could examine the entirety of existing structures standing today, how much of it was even designed by an architect? Well, not that much actually.
What are the most successful designs through history? And in the interest of sustainability, what lasts?
I'm beginning with Stewart Brand's book 'How Buildings Learn' (1994) because it is the most accessible and pertinent look at what I think should be a basis for thinking about making 'green' buildings.

Brand is a proponent of what is called 'the long view'. That is, taking into account what today's choices may mean not just in the short term, but over lengths of time that most people are unused to thinking about.
According to Brand, the illusion of architecture is that buildings seem permanent, but that they are for the most part actually designed, financed, constructed, maintained, and remodeled not to adapt.

His findings, in studying how buildings survive through time, is that they all adapt anyway- or they don't last- which is usually a sad waste. Brand, and later we will see Habraken, question the idea and the traditions- of how and why and for whom, we design and build and encourage designers to take into account the end user in a more intelligent manner.
Brand's goal in this book is to provide a study of what really happens to buildings and ideas about construction, through time.
What building is never adapted by it's eventual inhabitants? What structure is ever actually 'finished' for that matter? In the Middle Ages, scaffolds were left up around the great cathedrals because only God could ever 'finish' a building to perfection...
Anyway, Brand encourages us to embrace this inevitable change when we are building, and to that end seperates what makes a building into a hierarchy of form and function in degrees of permanance:

-First is SITE. This is the most permanant aspect of a building and is, barring catastrophe, nearly permanent. It's parameters are paramount in considering the type of building possible.

-Next is STRUCTURE. This is the frame, the bones. it's where timberframing comes in (not exclusively); its possible to build this element to last hundreds of years.

-SKIN. What bears the elements- with a limited lifetime, it is a shell designed to protect the structure and eventually be replaced.

-SERVICES. Dependent on technology, always upgradable with a finite lifetime- should be designed to be easily maintained/replaced.

-SPACE PLAN. Interior partitioning; adaptable to changing needs.

-And finally, STUFF. What is inside, the least permanant fixtures.

Considering these categories in the process, the design process can avoid waste and put initial energy and investment into systems that can make a building last generations. Consider that today, more money/time/energy is spent on changing existing buildings than creating new ones; if the design process recognises this heirarchy, we cna begin to see a path to sustainable building.

Next time: more thoughts on 'How buildings learn'...