3.02 – How Buildings Learn

In order to do some scene-setting, let’s start with Chapter 2 of How Buildings Learn.

Stewart Brand refers to British Architect Frank Duffy, who’d coined the term “Shearing Layers” to describe the four different layers of a building; Shell, Services, Scenery and Set – “A building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components” says Duffy. Brand then expands this to six different layers, which all move at different speeds:

SITE – the geographical setting. where something is.

STRUCTURE – The bits you and I would think of as ‘the building’. Foundations, load bearing walls, roof.

SKIN – Exterior surfaces – the energy-saving paint, the reflective coating on glass, whatever coats the Structure from the elements.

SERVICES – The systems that pipe things in. Water, electricity, etc. Notably, the book’s from 1994, and there’s no mention of Internet.

SPACE PLAN – Walls, Ceilings, Doors & Floors. If you’ve never seen it, you’ll be surprised at how quickly this stuff can change.

STUFF – “All the things that twitch around daily to monthly” says Brand. The tables & chairs, the appliances. Desks, laptops, materials.


The proposal, first by Duffy and then by Brand, is that what happens is that these layers all move at different speeds.

Where a building is the slowest thing to change; we’re talking seismic changes, sometimes lieterally. Then each layer gets a little faster until we’re at the most internal layer, that of the ‘stuff’, which changes quickly, and often. Brand points out that these different layers over time interact with different people in different ways too. Individuals inside, who’re likely there on a daily basis, interact with the “stuff” layer, the landlord will interact with the slow “services” layer, and so on.

I’m really interested in the space in which people do work, having spent a good part of the last six years playing with different ideas of how people best work together to do their best work. Back when I was at PHD, I spent a fair bit (perhaps too much) trying to get the meeting spaces and breakout spaces changed into spaces where people would mix and work differently. The Artefact Cards can be seen with hindsight as a way to create something disrupting at that “Stuff” level to change the way folk work within buildings on a day-to-day level.

And with clients recently, we’ve been hijacking areas of their own offices, and transforming them by doing highly visible, different types of work in those areas. What we’ve seen is that if you ascribe new purpose to a part of a building by operating in a certain way, then other people pick up on the methods used.

In short, the spaces in which we work are largely ignored by most of the people who work in them; those people who’re most affected by the space most often have least influence in how that space works for them.

How might that change? Brand refers to ecologist Buzz Hollings, who points out that in systems of nature that working on the layers principle “it is at the times of major changes in a system that the quick processes can most influence the slow“.

As part of this thesis, I want to investigate just how you can use the faster changing layers of both people and space to change the slower moving ones. To make it a practical exploration, however, I’ve taken the idea of the different SPACE layers, and created a version based on the things I think that it’s most likely we can affect.

From slow to fast, then, they are…

SURROUNDINGS – taking the area in which a building sits, and treating the square mile around it as part of “the office”. In the same way as Airbnb created hotel rooms without building hotel rooms, how can you have a bigger office without moving to a bigger office?

SERVICES – All of the things that flow into the building, both standard (utilities, internet etc) but also non-standard (food vendors to buy from, centrally selected charitable causes to support). Essentially the things that ‘gatekeepers’ allow to flow into the building with regularity.

IMMOVABLES – The doors, walls, meeting rooms, breakout spaces, open plan areas. I previously mentioned that these can be changed quickly, but it’s more useful to presume they CAN’T be moved; it forces new creative interpretations of how to hijack existing space.

MOVABLES – The desks, chairs, recycling bins, some of the refreshment points… a good rule of thumb is “anything a team could move if they put their minds to it”. As as we see less plumbing (LAN cables), more wifi, less desktops & more laptops in offices, movables become more movable.

MATERIALS – Finally, things that we presume are their to be carried and used; laptops and devices, cards and books, software and apps, and the humble pen. This stuff in smaller, nimbler companies tends to be really fast moving, large companies tend to pull as much as they can up into the slow SERVICES layer though, through centralised procurement & provision.


That’s how I’m starting to think about the places in which people are asked to work. Tomorrow, we’ll see how a similar thinking approach from The Clock of the Long Now helps think about the people themselves.


PREVIOUSLY – 3.01 – Thesis Intro





5 responses to “3.02 – How Buildings Learn”

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