How Buildings (and sustainable graphic design) Learn

2009-04-13 00:00:00 +0000 — MFA Studio, Baltimore, MD

Vernacular design, as Stewart Brand describes it in How Buildings Learn, provides a systematic framework for building based on a series of foundational principles: efficiency and thrift of materials and time, a focus on context-driven form, and evolution over time.

In order to describe these aspects Brand starts with a definition of vernacular through an explanation of its roots:

“Vernacular” is a term borrowed since the 1850s by architectural historians from linguists, who used it to mean “the native language of a region…” “Vernacular” means “vulgar” sometimes and “the bearer of folk wisdom” sometimes. It means “common” in all three senses of the word—“widespread,” “ordinary,” and “beneath notice.”1

Brand goes on to writes that any common structure “not designed by professional architects”2 is vernacular. These non-architects used local culture and materials to guide their processes. Vernacular building represents a traditional, natural form of building.3

It is this commonness that makes vernacular architecture effective. Common features that have survived the passage of time typically survive because they are good. In this way vernacular buildings evolve through time, incorporating more and more “good” features, while eradicating “bad” ones. Now, instead of basic construction methods, vernacular designers are able to focus energy on the issues of craft and finishing. Imagine if every discipline’s designers had the mentality of vernacular builders: “Vernacular builders are content to accept well-proven old solutions to old problems. Then they can concentrate all their design ingenuity strictly on new problems, if any.”4

Brand next states that “vernacular design is always prudent about materials and time, seeking the most pragmatic building for the least effort and cost.”5 This sentiment can be found in modernism, industrial production ideals, and sustainability.6 It should be considered in every design and production process. When adding this ideal to contemporary design the goal becomes how to make choices of efficiency and thrift without having the design process result in sacrifice.

Vernacular design answers this question with the use of constraints (which are not the same as sacrifices).[^7] A design problem begins with the constraints in mind and those very constraints help guide the solution. The constraints are there through the entire process. Sacrifice creates choices once the process is underway, and requires giving something up, typically at a loss to the desired goal. Constraints may limit materials, funds, color choices, whatever, but choices inside those constraints often allow for innovation to take place outside of initial expectations.[^8]

In explaining the vernacular building process Brand eventually makes the statement “…Vernacular design is about form, not style.”[^9] The form referenced is a form influenced by the context of a building’s environment. It is an evolutionary form taking into account old solutions, available materials, thrift, efficiency and new practices. Achieving this kind of form-making requires a system that incorporates all of Brand’s principles—constraint in choices, allowing solutions to evolve, and accepting commonness, simplicity, thrift and efficiency. Through this acceptance doors are opened for beneficial innovations that simply build on existing structures and do not have to re-invent them.

Brand exemplifies these ideals in two kinds of traditional building patterns, the whale houses of Nantucket and the stilt houses of the Malays.[^10] The two building types grow in predictable, methodical ways as need and wealth arise. Each housing type uses several kinds of modules added in specific patterns to create additions influenced in a cultural tradition. Seen this way, Vernacular architecture becomes a systematic approach to form. It is a kit of parts and an example of constraints in action.

Brand’s philosophies of vernacular architecture lend themselves readily to the discipline of graphic design. Success over time, evolution in ideas, learning from mistakes, employing ideas thriftily and efficiently, using constraints as a tool for success, all are parts of a systematic approach, and all of which are important for a successful design practice. The concept of a systems based approach is particularly useful. Systems based approaches work well at combining context, content and form together in a symbiotic way.

For example, a systematic approach could be used to create identities that did not need to be redone every five or ten years. A kit of parts within a system for implementation that anyone could be taught to employ could help to do this. Instilling the mentality that it is okay to add and subtract at the user level is another concept from vernacular building that could be taken. Who better than the common user to help decide what is good / bad. This could do wonders for the possibilities of graphic design. If designers design systems for user implementation, then they need to be prepared to implement user feedback in future designs. The web is one place this is starting to happen, as it is a very forgiving place that easily allows for this kind of evolution to happen.[^11]

These concepts are also applicable to sustainability. Sustainability’s main goal is success over time. Constraints will build the heart of any proper sustainable framework. As constraints of materials and local / regional culture influenced the vernacular builders, national and international constraints will be added to the mix in defining non-sacrifice driven strategies in sustainability. Sustainability itself should be a constraint in all fields of design (e.g. instead of simply making the sacrifice to use less ink or standard paper sizes, the constraint of “sustainability” could instead lead to different systems of printing being developed all-together, one in which these considerations of waste are not even an issue).

Our sustainable future will be all about doing more with less. Those most successful in the future will be those able to take this mantra to heart (another “constraint”). Brand shows us that the vernacular builders were masters of this lesson, and we can easily do so again. If a fairly good solution exists, perhaps it is best left alone until we have the resources to truly improve it.[^12] Until that point actual failures should be tackled. This can be applied to the identity example earlier: The idea that an identity must get re-tooled every so often should be gotten rid of. With the correct kinds of effort and thought at the beginning of a project, and the mentality of “if its not broken, don’t fix it” or “only fix the bad parts” during the life of a brand huge amounts of time and energy could be spent elsewhere by the company and the designers. This mentality questions the current method of design we follow. The way design is approached now, at every turn a new, more unique and individual solution must be found. Instead of steadily evolving and growing our items into high quality items, we simply continue to flood everyone and everything with a never ending supply of decent or, worse yet, poor items.[^13]

Stewart Brand’s book provides foundational thinking for many other disciplines and theories. The fields of graphic design and sustainability have a lot to learn from old row-homes, stilt-houses and bungalows. The processes and materials that go into making something are just as important as the underlying philosophies and systems that result in its being made. How Buildings Learn provides examples where philosophy, process, and material come together to form a systematic whole. In examining vernacular form one examines an ideal that creates as much as possible from as little as possible, in the simplest and most efficient ways possible. Time is the most important piece of all of this, existence and evolution over time. If we can learn anything from old buildings to apply to our modern practices it is that “popularity over time… is something worth exploring.”[^14]

— from van Doesburg’s Towards a Plastic Architecture, 1924. [^7]: Another book about evolutionary design, The Design of Everyday Things, talks about constraints in the design process as a way to help succeed: “The Surest way to make something easy to use, with few errors, is to make it impossible to do otherwise—to constrain the choices.” [^8]: Constraints over sacrifices will be useful for my sustainable thinking moving forward. [^9]: From pg 133, col. 2, ¶ 1 [^10]: Charts showing these examples can be found in on pages 4 & 5 as figures 1 & 2. They are excerpted from pgs 136 & 137 in How Buildings Learn. [^11]: Open source software provides an initial framework or structure, and when user needs are not being met, they themselves write updates and modules to the original code to enable new features or functions. The community then sounds off as to whether the solution was good or not by how many other users adopt the upgrade. This is a perfect example of Brand’s philosophies in action today. [^12]: “Once a satisfactory product has been achieved, further change may be counterproductive, especially if the product is successful. You have to know when to stop.” —from The Design of Everyday Things [^13]: Much good design evolves: the design is tested, problem areas discovered and modified, and then it is continually retested and remodified until time, energy, and resources run out. This natural design process is characteristic of products built by craftspeople… each new object can be modified slightly from the previous one, eliminating small problems, making small improvements… Over time, this process results in functional, aesthetically pleasing objects. Improvements can take place through natural evolution as long as each previous design is studied and the craftsperson is willing to be flexible. The bad features have to be identified. The folk artist changes the bad features and keeps the good ones unchanged… Eventually the bad features get modified into good ones, while the good ones are kept. —from The Design of Everyday Things [^14]: From pg 150, col. 1, ¶ 2, line 1

===== ##### Readings Referenced: How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, by Stewart Brand. (specifically Chapter 9: Vernacular: How Buildings Learn From Each Other.)

The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World, by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.

1000 Words: A Manifesto for Sustainability in Design, by Allan Chocinov.

The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman.

American Signs: Form and Meaning on Route 66, by Lisa Mahar.

Towards a plastic architecture, by Theo van Doesburg.

Design for the Real World, by Victor Papanek

  1. From pg 132, col. 1, ¶ 2

  2. From pg 132, col. 1, ¶ 3, line 3

  3. From American Signs: “Traditions provide chronological and cultural continuity… tradition and the vernacular go hand in hand—most vernacular objects are traditional. Because such objects are ordinary and common, their designers address the needs and expectations of the community rather than their own.” This leads to another, more simple definition of vernacular design: Common Design by Common People.

  4. From pg 132, col. 2, ¶ 2, line 6 - in How Buildings Learn this is already a quote attributed to Dell Upton.

  5. From pg 134, col. 2, ¶ 3, line 4

  6. “The new architecture is economic; that is to say, it employs its elemental means as effectively and thriftily as possible and squanders neither these means nor the material.”