Some quotes from the chapter on “The Architect Builder” in Christopher Alexander’s The Production of Houses:

This requires, then, that decisions about design can be made, individually, house by house, and that they can even be made while construction is under way. (p. 69)

It requires a system of communication in which the building is not frozen, ahead of time, by drawings, but in which rough plans of the building are translated directly into building, step by step; and for this, the institutional powers of architect and builder – the power of design and the power of construction – must be wedded in a single process. (p. 70)

the kitchen be laid out exactly according to the wishes of the housewife (p. 70)

Further, it requires a form of communication between architect and builder which is simple, cheap, and direct, so that the immense expense of fifty different sets of drawings is not required to design fifty different houses. This direct communication becomes relatively impossible when architect and builder are separate, because the communication must be legally binding – exact – and is therefore immensely expensive to prepare. If architect and builder are one and the same person, the communication can be quick, schematic, because it is only a record for “in-house” use. And it therefore becomes cheap enough to do. (p. 71)

Third, in order for the woman to lay out her kitchen successfully, she must be able to enter the process at various times while the house is being built. It is, generally speaking, not possible to make subtle, exact choices about counter sizes, widths, position of stove, shelves, cabinets, in the abstract – that is, long before the building exists. However, once the shell of the building is there, and the kitchen exists, it is then possible to decide exactly where the details should be by simply standing in the real place and imagining them.

This requires that even at this late date during the process of construction itself, decisions about size, position of shelves, counters, etc., can still be made.

And this requires that the building is still actively open to design decisions, even after its shell is up, and that the builder, who is in the building on a day-to-day basis, has the right to make these decisions with the woman. If the architect is a separate person, again communicating through drawings, the process of choosing each of these kitchens on a direct, person-by-person basis would become impossibly complex and expensive. But if the architect and builder are one and the same, and together have control also over the spending of money, it is extremely simple. The same is true for all the other qualities a good house needs. (pp. 71-72)

I could go on, but I’ll stop here; just read the chapter yourself. You just have to do some obvious substitutions and you get large chunks of XP. Is this book cited in the bibliography of the XP book? I’ll have to check when I get into work, but I have to assume it was a direct influence.

I guess I already was aware that Christopher Alexander had these sorts of ideas, that he wasn’t an influence on software development solely through his invention of design patterns, but I’d never seen it spelled out so clearly before. Which raises the next question: Christopher Alexander and Kent Beck have both done influential work in both design patterns and architect/customer interactions; is this a coincidence? I tend to think the answer is “no”. If you take, say, Singleton on the one hand and the Planning Game on the other hand, it’s hard to see any direct link. But both of their thoughts were much more far-reaching: both of them worked not just with design patterns but with pattern languages, which meld individual design decisions into a richly textured, active, living structure. (Using an expansive notion of living.) And once you have that structure in place, you then have the freedom to make late-binding decisions, which in turn opens up the possibility of designer- (or builder-)customer interactions throughout the entire building process, and even past the end of the building process.

Great stuff. And he’s not at all afraid of the details: there’s theory in this book, to be sure, but it’s made concrete at every step with pictures, with descriptions of small steps, with discussions of experiments that worked, experiments that didn’t work.

Are there many agile construction firms out there? It seems to me like a huge need…

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