A house and its arguments mold to each other.


It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.” Bill Bernbach


Bernbach is right; and wrong. From a broad perspective, this is true. But when you get down to the nuts & bolts of it, people are constantly changing and the environment in which a person exists (stuff, time, space, society, community, etc.) exerts changes upon the ‘unchanging person.’

Which leads me to buildings.

When I say buildings, I mean Stewart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn.” There is a lot to be learned when thinking about buildings and people; at least from Brand’s viewpoint. Almost no buildings adapt well because they’re actually designed not to adapt. This doesn’t mean they don’t, just not in obvious ways; just like people.

  • Buildings, when built, would prefer to remain just as they are and hold out against the times; just like most people.
  • When we deal with buildings, we deal with decisions taken long ago for remote reasons.; just like people.
  • All buildings adapt anyway, in good ways and not as good ways, because the usages in and around them are changing constantly; just like people.
  • The fact is buildings are constantly impacted by 3 forces: technology, money, and fashion; just like people.

The truth is businesses have integrity and maintain some sustainable values (discussed later on) and enduring value; just like people. That integrity and sustaining aspects, in combination with the adaptation features, can be found in Brand’s layers of buildings (which certainly reflect aspects of the individual):

  • Site. this is the geographical setting of the location, the defined lot whose boundaries and context outlast generations of buildings. Site is eternal. Sure. The foundation and load bearing elements are perilous and expensive to change so people typically don’t, but they can. Sites are unmoveable.

Personally, this is where we have elected to stand, live or build our careers.

  • Skin. Surfaces now change every 20 years or so to keep up with the fashion or technology or for repair. Recent focus on energy costs has led to reengineered skins that are airtight and better insulated.

Personally, this is what we choose our appearance to be and what we deem important to how we are viewed.

  • Services are the working guts of a building: communications wiring, electrical wiring, plumbing, sprinkler system, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning and any moving parts like elevators and escalators. They wear out or become obsolete every 7 to 15 years.

Personally, these are the things we have chosen to incorporate into our lives in terms of ongoing maintenance.

  • Space. Plans and where walls, ceilings, floors, and doors go.

Personally, this is how we use our time (time is our space).

  • Stuff. Chairs, tables, phones, pictures, rugs, kitchen appliances, lamps, even hair brushes, all the things that twitch around daily to monthly. Furniture is called ‘mobilia’ in Italian for good reason.

Personally, this is the ‘stuff’ (the shiny objects, widgets, technology, useful things) we use and bring into our lives.

The dynamics of the tug of war between sustaining and changing are clearly dominated by the slow parts with the speeding aspects often simply following along. As Brand suggests: ‘slow constraints quick; slow controls quick.’ Buildings, or people, this is generally true. Unchanging is still changing. To be clear. In our current view of the world as a madcap, speedy, chaotic place, we ignore almost everything I just shared.

I would suggest thinking about buildings, and people, in this pacing way is practical, pragmatic, and enhances thinking of possibilities. The pacing clearly defines how a building relates to people and how people relate to the world around them. Levels of accountability match pace levels as an adaptive building has to allow slippage between the differently paced systems of site, structure, skin, services, space, plan, and stuff. Lack of accountability, or recognition of, to the different paces means the slow systems block the flow of the quick ones and the quick ones tear up the slow ones with their constant change. When working this way its supposed to make the ‘unchanging’ parts adapt just enough and the changing parts are tied to progress, rather than uselessness.

Which leads me to the pursuit of success, thriving, admiration and taking care of one’s own.

Gallup conducted research in the early 2000’s to determine the conditions that create loyal and productive employees which, in turn, create higher performing companies. The study identified 12 core elements that need to be present to create a ‘highly engaged employee.’ About half the elements deal with management style and the other half have to do with an employee’s sense of belonging. As the study stated: “a uniquely human twist occurs after the basic needs are fulfilled. The employee searches for meaning in her vocation. For reasons that transcend the physical needs fulfilled by earning a living, she looks for contribution to a higher purpose. Something within her looks for something in which to believe.” It is always more rewarding, in totality, to work with and for someone who is trying to make a difference rather than just try to sell more stuff. That decisions for ‘something to believe in’ is unchanging, yet, what thriving means can change (or adapt, i.e., has some emergent characteristics). That said. That sense of thriving demands some sense of shared, sustainable, values. Let’s call it ‘values integrity.’ And that is where the changing person is having some issues.

Our motivation/focus/attention/behaviour will naturally gravitate to things that provide the richest sense of progress.”

Dr Jason Fox

A decline in shared values undermines our ability to address our greatest challenges. A fragmentation of individual values hinders our ability to common sense making. It’s like we have forgotten the collective action on behalf of the public good has actually been necessary for our survival up to this point as well as general societal thriving and progress. We have forgotten by doing things together that we can achieve remarkable success AND have a sense of shared admiration. I will not suggest we have become more selfish but I would suggest we’ve become more irresponsible even while believing we have increased our responsibility itself. It’s possible we have misconstrued what true sacrifice is as the larger narrative bludgeons us with a belief that maybe we are sacrificing more than ever. I will say that we are encouraged to embrace short-term thinking and too short a sense of history both of which dimmish the larger sense of collective good and heighten the sense of importance of ‘saving the self Life’ which, in turn, encourages us to cocoon ourselves in individual values. A well-functioning system must be rooted in something deeper than some unchanging person dedicated to oneself. To be clear. In today’s world the unchanged desires of thriving, admiration, taking care of one’s own, has become grounded in some fairly unhealthy thinking:

  • We have forgotten long term investment and delayed gratification and embraced short term gratification and ‘get it now while you can’
  • We have accepted an extreme loss of confidence in our institutions and the authority of the leaders across society; instead embracing individual opinions speaking in confidence.
  • We’ve shifted from a healthy skepticism to cynical suspicion of everything and everyone.

All of that makes an unhealthy unchanging person almost incapable of adapting to (a) a changing world and (b) progress.


Which leads me to the real values crisis.

Unchanging and adapting is a nuanced discussion especially when it comes to values. But the discussion of values is imperative when we discuss what should be unchanging with regard to an individual in a world swirling with different layers of things affecting that individual’s behaviors and encouraging some unhealthy change. It was Dov Seidman in the book How who suggested that there are two competing kinds of values that drive business, government, leadership, individual behavior, and relationships. He calls them situational values and sustainable values.

  • Situational values involve calculations about what is available in the here and now. They’re all about exploiting short-term opportunities rather than consistently living the principles that create long term success. They are all about what we can and cannot do in any given situation.
  • Sustainable values are focused on what we should and should not do in all situations. As such they literally sustain relationships over the long term. Sustainable values are the values that connect us deeply as humans such as transparency integrity honesty truth shared responsibility and hope. They are all therefore all about how not how much.

“Situational values push us toward added toward the strategy of becoming too big to fail.

Sustainable values inspire us to pursue the strategy of becoming too sustainable to fail by building enduring relationships. What makes an institution sustainable is not the scale and size it reaches, but how it does its business and how it relates to its employees, customers, suppliers, the environment, society, and future generations.

Dov Siedman

The point here is while the world has clearly drifted from sustainable to situational values, the unchanging person somehow keeps a grip, albeit tenuous on occasion, on sustainable values. This is important because sustainable values, and sustainable thinking, lead to not only creating sustainable work, but building a sustainable society (by any definition of sustainable). Sustainable values offer the individual flexibility of intellect and of will to successfully thrive, gain admiration, and ‘take care of his own.’ And maybe that is my pointy. We have inverted the overall importance of unchanging and change. In other words, we are unchanging on the wrong things and changing on the wrong things and emphasizing change over unchange. That said. Many things have changed, many things are changing, even ‘the unchanging man,’ but it’s a bit more complex, and complicated, than just an “unchanging man.”

Which leads me to speed and opposing forces.

Living in today’s world one could easily believe everything is moving faster and as such if you are not running fast enough you are falling behind. This has an insidious effect because buried somewhere in our brains is the ‘survival of the fittest’ belief in that if you are behind, you will be the first eaten. Metaphorically, this is a mindset which creates anxiety and some unhealthy other beliefs. We compensate in a variety of ways of which if we were just a bit more reflective would actually identify some interesting things to ground ourselves in.

The first is that the more we think things are fast the more we will seek out some slow, or even unmoving, components in our lives. This becomes important because not all slow and unmoving parts are created equal and if we choose them well, well, we ground ourselves in sustainable values and a mental construct which provides some framework within which we can adapt and move stuff in and out of. Yeah. Just like; ’how buildings learn.’ If we view ourselves as houses, we learn, adapt, absorb ‘stuff’, all without losing the solid architecture.

The speed swirls around the house from light winds to hurricanes and we stand. Speed expends its energy on us externally while, internally, if we have invested in a solid structure, stand on a considered site, and have thoughtfully crafted our space, we not only withstand the efforts of speed, but absorb the changes and aspects we purposefully select with which to adapt.

The second is, well, festina lente. If we become reflective about speed and the illusion of the benefits of ‘moving fast’, most likely festina lente comes into sight – ‘make haste slowly.’ Once we get past a fear-of-missing-out or maybe accept that grabbing onto the newest shiny object doesn’t appear to be benefiting our personal progress, we begin to grasp the concept of ‘slow down to speed up.’ We begin to ground ourselves is more solid decision-making, more solid conceptual & critical thinking and more solid energy against things that actually have progress as an outcome.

In the end.

There are surely some speedy things happening in the world and there are surely some times when things happen speedier than others, but nature is nature and culture is culture and self is self and, well, they are all purposefully constructed to be just a bit slower in pace and more contemplative of change. Not unchanging, but just a bit more thoughtful about whether to run or not, when to be speedier and when not, and when to change, and when to not. In the end, let me circle back to the beginning quote: a house and its arguments mold to each other. We people, houses of values and beliefs and attitudes and what we seek important to ‘hold on to,’ argue with ourselves constantly with regard to what we want to change what we don’t. What we argue about, how we argue, molds our house to us. Ponder.

Written by Bruce