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Buildings and Rate of Change

We tend to think about change in terms of the increasing velocity and veracity that we’re facing today.  However, there’s wisdom in the way that commercial buildings are built to accommodate change and how they change over time.  While buildings don’t last forever, they do a good job of accommodating change given they’re made of concrete that isn’t readily malleable.

How Buildings Learn

Steward Brand’s book, How Buildings Learn, is built on the work of Frank Duffy.  It explains how buildings are built to “learn” – Brand’s word for change.  They’re built with the awareness that there are some pieces which can’t change or are hard to change – like the site the building is on – and simultaneously how other things change at radically different rates.

The model breaks down the components of a building into six layers, each of which changes at its own rate:

  • Site – Permanent.
  • Structure – The most persistent part of the building. The lifespan of structure can be measured in decades to centuries. When the structure changes, the building has changed.
  • Skin – The façade or outer face of the building is expected to go out of style and be replaced every 20 years or so to keep up with fashion or technology.
  • Services – These are things like HVAC, elevators, etc., which simply wear out over the period of seven to fifteen years.
  • Space Plan – Commercial buildings may change occupancy every three years or so, driving a change in the way internal space is allocated. Domestic homes in the US are, on average, owned for 8 years.
  • Stuff – These furnishings and flairs change with the seasons and the current trends.

What we can learn from How Buildings Learn is how to build a set of overlapping cadences for different kinds of change.  By building the awareness of different rates of change into the operating system of the organization allows us to communicate effectively about the type and scale of the change.


Changing the pen cup on your desk to match the season isn’t a big change – and shouldn’t become one.  It shouldn’t matter whether Bob or Suzi is sitting at any given desk (as long as there’s a red Swingline stapler).  Changes like converting from cubicles to a more open concept – or vice versa – is big enough to warrant some work and attention, but it falls far short of the planning necessary to change the ventilation system or the elevators.  Even that pales in comparison to the cost and planning – and external approvals – necessary for changing the skin or structure of the building.

When working on change initiatives, we should communicate to our stakeholders the degree of change that we expect overall and in their particular behaviors.  Without this knowledge, they will assume that it’s no big deal, only to be surprised later – or, conversely, be very concerned about a relatively minor change.

The mechanism you use to communicate the relative scale of a change project can be unique to your organization — and need not be related to buildings.  It must, however, be well understood by everyone, which means resources like Job Aids and Performance Support tools as well as continuous training and reinforcement as people leave, transfer, and join the organization.

Holding the Line

One of the things that successful building owners do is recognize when they should delay changes in the building and when the costs of maintaining the building require that changes be made more immediately.  Perhaps taking the perspective of a building can allow you to focus on those changes that need to be made now and those that can be deferred.

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