Designing with Time

In the context of the lifetimes of trees or even the planet, human lives are very short. Even doubling our life expectancy in the last 100 years (world average 1900: 31y, 2014: 71.5y) has done little to change the role that the limitation of our time on this earth plays in our lives. Most of us are afraid of death and our time is so valuable, people pay money for our time.

Good things take time, and the slower they unfold, the more powerful they are.

There are things that come and go fast, like fashion, which get a lot of attention, but don’t have much power. The slower things  such as culture or climate change take decades or even centuries to develop and have a huge impact on everyone’s lives.

It takes perspective and humility to tune into and contribute to things that are “bigger than us”. Things that we can influence that will not unfold in our lifetimes. But the reward is so much greater.

Let us explore the power of time on a few examples.


Most current new buildings are constructed with the delivery day in mind. Beauty could be a consideration, but beauty that gets better with time? Buildings need to look good in the catalogue/render and the day they are finished. But very soon after they start to degrade and look worse every day. The render falls of, the white walls turn green and grey, cracks form.

Weathering is the death of a modern building.

Can weathering become a friend and add charme rather than maintenance time?

This building isn’t even finished and the render already makes it look terrible and cheap.

In addition to weathering impairing how a building looks, the user needs to feel welcome in it. If not designed that way, new houses aren’t adaptable to changing circumstances and gradual adaptation by the user.

Design with the user in mind – human or non-human can put us in touch with time, because it makes us step out of our own involvement with the project.

A thing that Stewart Brand calls “Flow” in this great 90s documentary ” How buildings learn”. (must watch for those interested in architecture and engineering)

Beauty is ephemeral. A popular saying tells us that “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”. You can probably say that for one person (the architect) but as soon as you employ statistics, you start to get a different pattern. There are certain elements to beauty that are universal and statistically significant if you do the work and ask people what they think of one design as opposed to another.

Universally beautiful designs share some of 15 fundamental patterns of order. Have a look at “Nature of order” book 1-The Phenomenon of life by Christopher Alexander for more on this. (I talked about beauty and housing before here in “Lead with Beauty” and “Quality of Housing”)

“Evolutionary design is healthier than visionary design” -Stewart Brand

Beautiful old building in Kyoto


There are many buildings from Roman times still standing, more than 1000 years after. One of the secrets of these buildings’ longevity might be the special concrete they are made from that gets harder and harder over time.

It uses volcanic ash and sea water to produce a mortar that is very resistant and incredibly strong.

We don’t know if the Romans knew what exactly what they were doing but the fact that we didn’t come up with something comparable yet is a testament to their ingenuiety.

One of the problems with concrete is that its production produces a lot of carbon dioxide (2% of total global emissions).
To preserve concrete as a tool for the future, researches are investigating “green concrete” by adding fly ash from coal burning. That is intended to reduce the emissions coming from firing the kiln in cement production.

I haven’t seen anyone questioning the obvious reliance on coal power generation to maintain fly ash “production”. Burning coal is definitely not something we should be doing in 50 years. I would love for us to approach concrete with a longer timeframe than that, as the Romans seemingly did.


Designing with trees always means to design with time. Many trees, like the japanese cedar, grow so slowly, that they take a hundred years to be the width of a human leg.When trees get older, the canopy gets larger, they drop a larger shadow and can potentially deprive plants that used to grow under them of light. Roots can split asphalt and concrete and make an obstacle course out of a path.

You can decide to see the problems, or you can see the beauty.

Designing with time means tuning into the cycle of life. Nothing lasts forever.

The larger canopy could also mean that more stormwater gets intercepted by leaves and do not contribute to flooding. It also means more solar energy getting used to feed microbes in the soil and provide shade in hot summer days. It also means more evaporation to actively cool the summer air when no breeze blows.

You can’t plant a hundred year old tree (okay you technically can with a lot of cash, as demonstrated by Singapore).
But you can allow for succession of plant species. Maintenance beyond a one or two year horizon is often not included in a designer’s brief. But good designers do it regardless.

The video above features the ING headquarters in the Netherlands (it’s beautiful). The architects regularly come back and check on it and then make changes to ensure their building works. Close cooperation with the owner/user is absolutely crucial. It also provides valuable learning for the designer.

In contrast, engineered designs always come with a “design life” after which they probably malfunction and should be replaced. They get worse over time and not better. Natural processes get better. In many wild natural areas, the soil gets thicker, biodiversity increases, more rain falls etc. if left to their own devices. Feedback loops such as regularly checking on your designs ensure you learn and improve past and future designs.

This is how nature works.


Instead of thinking about management and limited lifetime, could we try to design something so it gets better and better as the years go by? Could we not try to conserve something but regenerate?

What energies would be set free to a change in mindset like that?

Here’s what I learned from thinking about these three things:

1) It is important to let go of what you make and let others adapt it to suit their needs.
2) Ask people what they need and how you can help them. Don’t assume.
3) Take the long perspective and think about if your product gets better or worse over time. Then make changes.
4) Get involved with something that takes longer than your lifetime to come to fruitition. Plant a tree or revive a mammoth 🙂
5) Try to regenerate and makes things better, even if you haven’t specifically been asked for it.

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