Wednesday, September 26, 2007

How statutes learn

It’s a truism that rewriting telecoms law is so hard that the US only managed to do it twice in the last one hundred years. But somehow the Congress and the regulatory agencies stay busy, and stuff changes around the edges.

I was suddenly reminded of Steward Brand’s wonderful book “How buildings learn”. (If you have any interest in either architecture or history, I strongly recommend it.) He espouses an onion-layer model of buildings. Quoting from the book:

Site - This is the geographical setting, the urban location, and the legally defined lot, whose boundaries and context outlast generations of ephemeral buildings. "Site is eternal."

Structure - The foundation and load-bearing elements are perilous and expensive to change, so people don't. These are the building. Structural life ranges from 30 to 300 years, though few buildings make it past 60, for other reasons).

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

Services - These are the working guts of a building: communications wiring, electrical wiring, plumbing, sprinkler system, HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning), and moving parts like elevators and escalators. They wear out or obsolesce every 7 to 15 years. Many buildings are demolished early if their outdated systems are too deeply embedded to replace easily.

Space Plan - The Interior layout: where walls, ceilings, floors, and doors go. Turbulent commercial space can change every 3 years or so; exceptionally quiet homes might wait 30 years.

Stuff - Chairs, desks, phones, pictures; kitchen appliances, lamps, hairbrushes; all the things that twitch around daily to monthly. Furniture is called mobilia in Italian for good reason.

Brand argues that because the different layers have different rates of change, a building is always tearing itself apart. If you want to build an adaptive structure, you have to allow slippage between the differently-paced systems. If you don’t, the slow systems block the flow of the quick ones, and the quick ones tear up the slow ones with their constant change. For example, timber-frame buildings are good because they separate Structure, Skin and Services; “slab-on-grade” (pouring concrete on the ground for a quick foundation) is bad because pipes are buried and inaccessible, and there’s no basement space for storage, expansion, and maintenance functions.

He quotes the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander: “What does it take to build something so that it’s really easy to make comfortable little modifications in a way that once you’ve made them, they feel integral with the nature and structure of what’s already there? You want to be able to mess around with it and progressively change it to bring it into an adapted state with yourself, your family, the climate, whatever. This kind of adaptation is a continuous process of gradually taking care.”

There seems to be an analogy to policy making. Some things that are almost eternal, just like Site: the regulatory imperatives like taxation, public safety, and economic growth. Legislative Acts are like the slowly-changing Structure and Skin. The trade-offs and compromises they represent are hard to build, and so they’re slow to change. Then we get to regulatory rulings made within the context of legislation, the working guts of applying laws to changing circumstances and fine-tuning the details – these are like Services and Space Plan, which change every 3 – 15 years. Finally, like the Stuff in homes that move around all the time, we have the day-to-day decisions made by bureaucrats applying the regulations.

This kind of model also gives a way to ask, restating Christopher Alexander slightly, “What does it take to craft legislation so that it’s really easy to make comfortable little modifications in a way that once you’ve made them, they feel integral with the nature and structure of what’s already there?”

I imagine that DC operatives do this instinctively – but perhaps an architectural metaphor could make the process even more efficient.

1 comment:

suzew said...

damn when I first read the head I thought it was going to be about art, and how statues learn... just as valid a vector to travel in your ever-churning mind ;-)