How Buildings Learn


Soon after I moved to London in 1999 to work in the web industry, my friend Jim urged me to read this book, How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand.

Brand’s an interesting character. After some time in the army, in the ’60s he studied design, and became involved with the Merry Pranksters’ infamous ‘Acid Tests’. During the ’70s he produced the Whole Earth Catalog, the counter-culture’s DIY Bible, and in the ’80s he was instrumental in the seminal WELL online community’s development.

How Buildings Learn is subtitled ‘What happens after they’re built’. It’s basically a critique of architecture as an imposition, and a championing of the needs of the occupants of buildings. Brand points out that most architecture competitions are judged on photographs of the buildings on the day of completion. But visit the stunning, award-winning structure a year later, and it’s not unusual to find leaking roofs and unhappy people. Visit it decades later, and it may be severely dysfunctional, hampered forever by the image- rather than time-oriented stamp of the architect’s ego.

Brand champions design that accommodates change, making space for people to change things through use. Adaptation. Responsiveness, you might say.

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Moving to Linux

I recently moved to Linux on my desktop, after many years of being Windows-by-default. I was never fervently for or against Windows, but eventually the advantages for web development of working on the same OS as my servers, not to mention a much more potent OS in terms of local development, were too great to ignore. In this post I want to share a few practical tips, which will hopefully be of use to someone else making the transition.

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Developer’s Custom Fields 2.0 – a rewrite

Together with Adrian Toll, I’m starting to plan a new, mostly rewritten version of the plugin Developer’s Custom Fields.

Despite the obvious power and sophistication of plugins such as Advanced Custom Fields, we both prefer the lighter, more developer-friendly style of our own plugin. And while the proposed metadata UI for core seemed promising for a while, it seems to have stalled for now, or at the very least slowed down considerably. So, we’ve decided to revamp to give this plugin a healthy lease of life until a rival solution does a better job for us.

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Letting go of Force Strong Passwords

For a while now, I’ve been using the Wordfence plugin to add extra security to my WordPress sites. Since this plugin includes (among other things) the ability to force users to choose strong passwords, I’ve stopped using my own plugin, Force Strong Passwords.

Because of this, I’ve decided to transfer it to someone else. Jason Cosper has kindly stepped up. Jason’s a senior engineer at WP Engine, who I gather use the plugin on their network. With this vested interest in the plugin, I trust it’s in good hands.

Force Strong Passwords multisite support

I no longer use my WordPress plugin Force Strong Passwords, since that functionality’s included in Wordfence. However, the plugin is quite popular, and one aspect of it that has suffered due to my lack of experience is multisite support.

On GitHub, Damien Piquet has submitted a simple fix in a pull request, which I’ve accepted. I’m not in a position to properly test this, so if anyone uses Force Strong Passwords on multisite installations, please grab the code with this commit and test away. Providing no issues arise, this will soon be released on

Comments will be closed here – please give any feedback via GitHub.

Offline documentation

Did you know that every individual Google search you do has half the carbon footprint as boiling a kettle? That data centres have now overtaken aviation as a global source of CO2 emissions? Dale Lately highlights these and other discomforting facts in his excellent piece on the Baffler, which explores the deception we engage in when we believe digitisation is ‘etherealising’ us all away from messy material problems.

Of course, on carbon emissions, the only real solution is global action co-ordinated by those entrusted with power. But reading these stats reminded me of something I tried to get into the habit of using, but didn’t – the offline documentation browsers Dash (for Mac) and Zeal (for Windows and Linux).

Together with the Dash plugin for PhpStorm (which adds a keyboard shortcut to search either Dash or Zeal), I’m now set to quit boiling the endless kettles that get pointlessly boiled in an average day’s coding.

Setting the image crop position in WordPress

Here’s a nice addition to WordPress, which I missed in last year’s 3.9 release. Now, when you define an image size with add_image_size, instead of just saying ‘soft crop’ (keep proportions) or ‘hard crop’ (fit to area), you can now also pass an array to define where you want a hard crop to attack the image from. For example:

add_image_size( 'custom-size', 220, 220, array( 'left', 'top' ) );

The first element in the ‘crop array’ can be ‘left’, ‘center’, or ‘right'; the other can be ‘top’, ‘center’, or ‘bottom’. Nice!

As an image size bonus, here’s what I came up with recently when I wanted all WordPress image sizes to be controlled via custom theme code (not just the custom sizes).

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