Chalk Talk: How Buildings Learn

A chalk talk on Stewart Brand’s model for how six layers in a building change at different rates from his book “How Buildings Learn.”

Chalk Talk: How Buildings Learn

How Building Learn – Rate of Innovation from Sean Murphy

I want to talk today about Stewart brand’s six S model from his book “How Buildings Learn.” He talks about six layers in a building that change at different rates:

  • The site that the building is built on is permanent.
  • The structure and the skin change much more slowly. The load-bearing structure may change every 30-60 years. The outer skin may change every 20 to 30 years.
  • Services, space plan, and “stuff” change more rapidly. Services include electrical wiring, conduit, and plumbing. The space plan allocates the internal area of the building and determines where dividers and walls that are not load-bearing walls are placed. Then you’ve got stuff: furniture, fixtures, wall hangings, and the like.

The slower layers constrain the quicker ones. I think this is a useful framing for how to make an effective change or innovation. The rapidly changing layers, the services, the space plan, and the stuff are where it is easiest to innovate.

To put this in a business context, if the site and structure change slowly or not at all, these are your founders and early employees. Your structure includes a business model, mission, vision, culture, and a name and logo.

Skin and services represent long-lived decisions: the products and services, your technology stack, critical procedures you establish, and significant capital investments would all be good examples.

The easiest place to innovate because it’s easiest to change is at the space plan and stuff level. Here we find things like the messaging in your decks, brochures, and website. Feature experiments would be another example.

I found it interesting to consider how to apply Brand’s model to business. I hope you found this helpful as well.

The diagram for the six layers is by Peter Merholz.

About SKMurphy Chalk Talks

These chalk talks are designed to provide a brief illustration of an importance concept related to innovation and entrepreneurship. I explored the idea of “pacing layers,” the concept underlying how buildings learn in my 2016 interview with Jerry Weinberg.

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