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How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built

Stewart Brand · 8 HN comments
HN Books has aggregated all Hacker News stories and comments that mention "How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built" by Stewart Brand.
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Amazon Summary
Buildings have often been studies whole in space, but never before have they been studied whole in time. How Buildings Learn is a masterful new synthesis that proposes that buildings adapt best when constantly refined and reshaped by their occupants, and that architects can mature from being artists of space to becoming artists of time. From the connected farmhouses of New England to I.M. Pei's Media Lab, from "satisficing" to "form follows funding," from the evolution of bungalows to the invention of Santa Fe Style, from Low Road military surplus buildings to a High Road English classic like Chatsworth—this is a far-ranging survey of unexplored essential territory. More than any other human artifacts, buildings improve with time—if they're allowed to. How Buildings Learn shows how to work with time rather than against it.
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All the comments and stories posted to Hacker News that reference this book.
Ooh, that reminds me of another excellent book on failure, Sidney Dekker's "Field Guide to Understanding Human Error":

It's about investigating airplane crashes, and in particular two different paradigms for understanding failure. It deeply changed how I think and talk about software bugs, and especially how I do retrospectives. I strongly recommend it.

And the article made me think of Stewart Brand's "How Buildings Learn":

It changed my view of a building from a static thing to a dynamic system, changing over time.

The BBC later turned it into a 6-part series, which I haven't seen, but which the author put up on YouTube, starting here:

I especially like that in the comments he writes: "Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project."

That first episode should be required viewing (repeatedly!) by all architects, physical or software. Geeze.
> Buildings are much more complex in the way they live and breath and the ergonomics they offer than what a lot of people give them credit for.

Too true. Anyone interested in this topic should check out "How Buildings Learn". Well worth reading:

Also made into a 6-part TV series by the BBC:

Those illustrations are great!

Stuart Brand's "How Buildings Learn" also provides some theoretical background on buildings as infrastructure and can inform how a property may be improved with an eye to the future.

There's a whole video series as well, this segment discusses the advantages of loose zoning at the docks in Sausalito:

May 05, 2013 · ericedge on Don’t build. Compose
I agree there's a range, but if you have to abandon an analogy to describe another end of the range, then it's time to find a new analogy. I think one trap in the article's logic is thinking that all structural engineering is at the scale of bay-spanning bridges or skyscrapers. Structural engineering can range from structures that withstand earthquakes down to a shack to stash your garden tools--just because one end of the continuum requires more rigor than the other doesn't make them unrelated.

In software engineering there are still rigorous requirements in fields that run software on other planets or in medical systems, but there's software with looser requirements as well.

The best metaphor I've encountered for the wide variety of software engineering was a talk that covered the book "How Buildings Learn" -- there are structures that favor adaptability, and others that favor rigor, but that doesn't mean that structural engineering doesn't happen on one end of the continuum compared to the other.

(To be fair, there are rigorous forms of writing, too, but I think restricting the analogy to only novels is too narrow to be effective.)

How buildings Learn" by Stewart Brand from 1994 (a really great book)

Yes. Stewart Brand should need no introduction to readers of HN for his many influences on high-tech industry, but I'm always telling friends about How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built,

especially friends who study architecture.

From the photo caption showing the existing (ugly) pre-fab skyscraper:

"Prefabricated skyscrapers can be inflexible. To create a lobby for this hotel, Broad had to stick an awkward pyramid onto the base."

Central planning of the national economy during the Warsaw Pact era left some cities in central and eastern Europe with some of the world's ugliest and most user-unfriendly "modern" architecture. Only in a country with a centrally planned economy could a builder come up with the idea that skyscrapers built like Lego toys will become the new standard for skyscrapers.

I think it's here on Hacker News where I learned most of the interesting story of the construction of the Burj Dubai (now Burj Khalifa) skyscraper. There were structural innovations in that building

that allowed it to reach its world-record height. It was also built during a crazy, boom economy, and it remains to be seen how soon, if ever, the building will produce an economic return for its investors.

I think the most thoughtful book I have ever read about architecture, published before Hacker News was founded, is Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built.

(Yes, the author is the same Stewart Brand who is famous among HN participants for saying "On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.") Brand's book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built is all about the many modifications that building owners make to buildings over time as the economy changes, as new materials and technologies are invented, and as buildings change owners. The gee-whiz articles about what the Chinese builder PLANS to do with buildings made of pre-fab parts are less interesting to me than what the possibilities are for modifying such buildings after they are built.

AFTER EDIT: An interesting second-level comment below asked about

it looks in the video like they build the crane into the building (which is sort of a waste of a crane)

and that prompted me to look up an article about how the tower cranes that build the tallest skyscrapers interact with the buildings they build.

There are occasions when some parts of the crane's support structure is built into (or onto) the building as the building goes up, but usually the working part of the crane is disassembled and reused.

AFTER ONE MORE EDIT: While doing something else, I remembered that another Hacker News participant recently linked in a comment in another thread to Paul Graham's 2005 essay "The Submarine,"

about the public relations industry, and how "news" stories are inserted in the mainstream media. I have seen a lot of kind submissions to HN of stories about the Chinese builder's PLAN to build the world's tallest skyscraper out of pre-fab components, but those stories, even in the best instance, have included remarkably little actual reporting from the scene about the economic viability of the plan or how well the builder's existing buildings are liked by owners or occupants. He has a great publicity machine, but I'd like to know more about the buildings.

I totally agree with your view on communist concrete buildings (I have to look at them every day).

But before we completely dismiss the idea of using prefabricated elements, consider the good old bricks, which are basically prefabricated elements that allow for enormous flexibility. Same with roof tiles.

To me it seems that prefabricated elements become a problem if they are too large relative to the building's total size. It's hard to make an interesting lego house using 200 lego bricks because the square shape of the lego bricks define the shape of the house. But if you use 20,000 lego bricks the shape of the building doesn't appear to be defined by the shape of the individual bricks. Sort of the same way fonts appear ugly on low resolution screens.

Prefabricated elements should be smaller.

Assembly costs are already a major expense in large buildings. TO drive costs down, the prefab elements will be getting larger, not smaller.
Yes, except if they invent something to make assembling easier (for example a click system of some kind). If prefab elements get so small that a person or a small robot could carry it and so that it could be stacked easily, transported in containers, raised up with elevators etc. it could be cheaper.
Even then, to drive costs down further, you could make them larger and you have fewer of the easier operations.

The minima for cost will always be, make the elements as large as feasible.

"How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built " by Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth fame). Highly recommend it. I've lost track of how many copies (10?) I've given as gifts to friends.

TLDR: The bones of a building determine how adaptable it is to reskinning and structural change. If you don't have the right bones, you will have to tear the building down and it will not adapt over time. Adaptable systems have a backbone that lets them be stable during change.

Mar 31, 2009 · tjic on Malls, the Future of Housing?
I personally think that new uses for old spaces is quite cool.

If you agree, you might enjoy the book "How Buildings Learn".


The cost of demolition and new construction is much lower than renovation, especially when the systems requirements (showers, plumbing, etc.) are so different.

I feel quite confident stating that - aside from a stunt or two here and there - we will never see malls turned into housing in any sort of massive way.

My interest isn't so much as stopping the mall, and turning it into housing, but (EDIT: being US centric) incorporating the (until suburbia took over vast swaths of land) ages old tradition of living and work/market areas mixed together into the new architecture of suburbia and the malls. I can see a potential access benefit for living within walking distance of daily needs for folks who are losing or have lost mobility. If you don't have to drive, then you use less fuel, if there are other ways that can be implemented to reduce energy consumption, then there is potential "green space."

Malls don't have to be just shops, medical facilities, services, light manufacturing. From what I've seen in new stores going into malls, the retail spaces in malls were designed for stores to move in and restructure in that space.

Then there is the counterpoint of "Do I want to have my store/business in such close proximity to all these people living?"

I think that there is a lot of promise and a lot of problems in this idea of a new suburban "urban center" based around renewing/reinventing the mall. And there is the stigma, to many, of the name "mall."

Right you are about the renovation. Fifteen or twenty years ago HP bought the failed Mayfair mall for a song, intending to get cheap office space. The cost turned out to be huge because it turned it wasn't a single building. Each store was a separate building with a common exterior wall. Among the problems were uneven floors, so that a bunch of little shops couldn't be combined into an office space. IIRC the remodeling cost over $25m.
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