Zen and the Art of Building Maintenance

“A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start.” – Stewart Brand

The Buddha and 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume might not be the first people you’d turn to for advice on building design. But a closer look at one of their central theories offers some surprising lessons. You are not who you think you are, according to both thinkers. It may feel as though you have some intrinsic essence that remains independent and unchanging, but this is an illusion.

You are nothing more than a bundle of properties, perceptions and experiences without any underlying cohesion, forever changing from moment to moment.

So, how does this apply to buildings? The work of Frank Duffy, one of the most influential workplace designers of the late 20th century, offers some clues. To Duffy, the nature of organizational and technological change means that a building should not be regarded as a singular entity fixed in space and time — “There isn’t such a thing as a building,” he says. Rather, there is a system of layers, each operating at different speeds and scales.

This concept was later popularized by Stewart Brand, the US futurist and tech visionary, whose 1994 book How Buildings Learn expanded on Duffy’s theories. A building is comprised of six “shearing layers”, Brand writes, each with different lifespans, ranging from centuries and decades (for the Site, Structure, and Skin) to years (for the Services and Space Plan), even to months (for Stuff such as furniture and computers). There is an overall hierarchy — Site dominates Structure, which dominates Skin, and so on — but buildings where faster layers aren’t hindered by slower ones are more adaptable to change, therefore more resilient and ultimately more useful.

The six “shearing layers” of a building. (Source: How Buildings Learn)

Although some layers have longer life cycles than others, they all inevitably degrade over time. Systems grow inefficient. Furniture becomes outdated. Concrete cracks. This progression towards degradation and disorder — entropy — reveals itself in ordinary ways all around us: desks get cluttered, coffee loses heat. To maintain order, energy must be added to the system, for example by reheating your coffee.

Likewise, for buildings to remain successful, effort and resources must be expended through regular maintenance and upgrades. The question is not whether entropy can be prevented (it can’t), but how it can be controlled, planned for, and worked with. “More than any other human artefact, buildings excel at improving with time, if they are given a chance,” writes Brand. And maintenance is key. “No maintenance, no building.”

Buildings can be improved by adapting to their occupants’ evolving needs over time. The best way to accommodate this is by considering the life cycle of each layer and designing them in a way that invites ongoing maintenance and flexibility. This requires asking questions about future operations and adaptation early in the design process, followed up with post-occupancy user feedback.

The climate crisis serves to make this issue more tangible. For cities to achieve deep carbon reductions, most buildings that currently exist will need to be retrofitted to zero carbon. But what’s often forgotten is that the buildings being designed and constructed now will also need to be retrofitted to zero carbon at some point in the future.

With the price of carbon expected to rise, it will cost more for a new building to be retrofitted at some point in the future than it will to just design it to zero carbon now; but it will cost even more if that new building is designed in a way that makes retrofits more difficult. For example, several cities are now transitioning to be all-electric to meet their carbon targets. Each layer of a new building should take this into consideration now.

The traditional notion that a building is a fixed entity still dominates contemporary architecture — but this too is an illusion. Instead, by understanding buildings as integrated systems of dynamic layers, we open up new possibilities for shaping them in ways that can benefit more people for longer.

When thought of in this way, it’s easy to see how the building designers of today can serve as a vital link to the building retrofits of tomorrow. As Brand says, “A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start.”


Originally published in The Possible magazine.

Photo credit: Jordi Surroca