Ever changing times

“Continual transformation” is the way a Pueblo Indian art historian describes her culture and home village. Recent research has found that more money by far is spent on changing buildings than on building new ones. 96% of architects are involved in some form of rehabilitation; a quarter of their income is derived from this work. Buildings are subjected to three irresistible forces - technology, money and fashion.


Commercial buildings have to adapt quickly; Domestic buildings are the steadiest changers; Institutional buildings are mortified by change. Buildings whose business it is to make money signal when they are failing - costs exceed income – and then the usage and structure keep being adjusted until there’s a fit.


All buildings grow: most even when they’re not allowed to. Homes are slowly shifting fantasies, and rapidly shifting needs. The widowed parent moves in; the teenager moves out; finances require letting out a room; accumulating stuff needs more storage; a home office or studio becomes essential; desires for a new deck, a hot tub, a modernised kitchen, a walk-in cupboard, a hobby refuge, a whole new master bedroom.

At a recent conference on Housing in Pretoria, it was frustrating for me to hear all the talk about “adaptations” when it came to the subject of accessible housing, as if this is the unique reason for a building to be adapted; I have concentrated on trying to ensure that all new buildings are accessible. My mindset has been upset since reading “How Buildings Learn; what happens after they’re built.” by Stewart Brand. So there is constant change to all buildings anyway. Between the dazzle of a new building and its eventual corpse, when it is either demolished or petrified for posterity as a museum, are the functional years.

When one is trying to encourage developers, and the general public, of the efficacy of making a building accessible at the same time as doing another “adaptation” it is often treated as a ridiculous, frivolous, unworthy suggestion. It is patent that implementing the right changes (for accessibility) is not going to add significantly to the costs; so it should be a painless process all round.

A building is conceived as 6 layers: the six S’s:

1 Site: site is eternal.

2 Structure: the foundation and load bearing elements are the building: Structural life ranges from 30 to 300 years (but few make it past 60)

3 Skin: exterior surfaces now change every 20 years or so to keep up with fashion, technology or wholesale repair. Recent focus on energy costs has led to re-engineered skins that are air-tight and better insulated.

4 Services: these are the working guts of the building: wiring, plumbing, sprinkler system, heating, cooling, lifts etc. Many buildings are demolished early if their outdated systems are too deeply embedded to replace easily.

5 Space Plan: the interior layout: walls, ceilings, doors etc; Turbulent commercial space can change every three years or so; quiet homes can wait for 30 years.

6 Stuff: chairs, desks, phones, pictures, kitchen appliances, lamps; all the things that twitch around daily to monthly.

It means that building forms which are very “adaptive” are invented.

The dynamics of the system will be dominated by the slow components, with the rapid components following along. Site dominates Structure, which dominates Skin, which dominates the Services,
which dominates the Space plan, which dominates the Stuff. Souls are servants to all of these. The only layers which are affected in the adaptations required for accessibility are Space Plan and Stuff; if conceptually they had had accessibility as part of the brief, the Services layer (in the form of lifts and lighting) might not have to be adjusted.

Buildings improve with time, if they’re allowed to, and become mature.

Buildings are healthy when it isn’t only the big projects which are adding to it, but also a continuous series of adaptations – small, very small, and tiny, in ever larger quantities, so that by the time you get down to the smallest level you’ve got hundreds of things getting tuned all the time.

Winston Churchill used this quotation more than once: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us”. He was actually talking about the House of Commons at Westminster, which is a long narrow chamber which forces the political parties to be unsegregated. If our buildings are accessible environments inside and outside, so that the broadest range of people can use them independently, then they will surely add value to an integrated mature society.

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