#spa2010 reflections 1: Maurice Mitchell on complexity, fit, the human dimension

Ever since hearing about the architecture of rapid change and scarce resources I’ve wanted to talk to Maurice Mitchell, one of its leading advocates. I was delighted when he agreed to give an invited talk at SPA2010.

I’d asked Maurice not to try and draw any specific parallels between his work and the work of software development: just to talk about his work and let any connections spark and germinate in the minds of the audience. He did just that - over the course of an hour, and in nearly ninety images (next to no words on the slides) we ranged from the slums and shanties of Delhi and Mumbia, student projects at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in North Wales, through a meditation on the utility and beauty of sheds, community building in a mining village in India, and children’s design for their own spaces within the shells of inner-city schools in London.

The images from the talk are available on the SPA conference wiki here. Maurice’s extended description of patterns of development and habitation in marginal land by excluded communities was exhilarating and moving, and underlined the importance of scale, boundaries, safety. I’m just starting to digest some of the implications (a lot of very interesting thoughts about observation, and the way we see, choose and name patterns): for now here are some smaller things that I found particularly suggestive:

Typhoon house

This is typical of a building in the coastal regions of Bangladesh. These houses belong to families who have escaped the poorest conditions, but in spite of their apparent solidity they are prey to the typhoon that ravage the area. The cost of adapting these structures so that they can withstand storms is actually pretty small — some 10% or so on top of the total. By securing the roofing tiles, separating the veranda from the main body of the roof (so that if it blows off it does not take the roof with it), strengthening the pillars, making sure that doors and windows open outwards so that the wind blows them closed and not open, the house becomes something that a family can invest in emotionally and socially, knowing it will last well beyond the next storm, and which can also be used to raise a loan or mortgage. 10% doesn’t seem so much to pay for such a transformation of family and local economic life.

Independence of structure, redundancy, resilience

The traditional way of building in this part of sub-Saharan Africa is to construct a frame from timbers cut from a large tree. The frame is roofed, then the mud walls built independently. This is a resilient, redundant structure: when the rains come, they wash the walls away, but the roof remains. As a result of deforestation, the encroachment of the desert and climate change, there are fewer and fewer large trees, so these building are now made without a frame, the roof supported directly by the mud bricks. When the rains are heavy, the walls wash away, and the roof of course falls.

Extending the life of a legacy

A caravan in the US. In its prime, a family bought land and moved the caravan to live in. Over the years, the neoprene seals fail, and parts become either scarce or too expensive. The solution: rather than leave the caravan to the elements, surround it with a frame and cover it with a roof to protect it from the rain. Once you have one frame and roof, it’s easy to extend the idea to a roofed porch, whose open sides are later filled in. A legacy dwelling, but one whose value (it’s still inhabited) is preserved.

I liked the idea of using technology and manufacture for what it’s good at: off-site fabrication of small, repeatable, low-cost elements that can be combined in various ways and in various settings on-site. For this to work, these elements have to be small and light enough (can be carried and manipulated easily), have to provide multiple opportunities for fit (to deal with varying needs and site conditions), and have to be customisable on-site. Brick is the classic example, but we also heard about Velux windows, of which Maurice is a fan. Certainly for the work he is involved in, transportation and assembly of large, expensive pre-formed components is not an option: financially or logistically. A small cheer went up when he said he preferred working with craftsmen to engineers :-).

Much of the work at CAT involves building independent parts of a structure — stairs, frame, floor, roof, maybe alcoves and partitions — each restricted to a single local material: stone, wood (local birch saplings or recycled pallets) or others. The components have to have integrity and independent stability, but they gain in utility and meaning when they’re brought into relation with each other to form a structure.

I remember the excitement fifteen years ago of the ferment of ideas around software patterns, and going back to the source to read Christopher Alexander’s pioneering work. I still turn to his books, and Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, for inspiration. Maurice’s talk has rekindled that excitement for me: I’m very glad to have helped it happen.

I hope we’re grown up enough not to grasp any more at any slight similarity between domains of creation and claim that because of these, software is architecture, or software is engineering, or software is craft, or whatever else. Software is software, a rich playground of materials, logical, functional and structural possibilities, with its own unique characteristics. That’s not to say that we can’t be inspired by explorations in other domains. Thinking about problems and solutions in a different domain is a well-established technique for fostering creativity, and it saddens me that much of the way we talk about software and software practice at the moment is either self-absorbed or fixated on a narrow concept of value. And I remain intrigued by the possibility that there are some deep principles of sustainable construction that apply across domains.

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