The Hedgehog And The Fox Debate Practice

by Don Friedman on June 29, 2017


The oldest version of the saying is from ArchilochusThe fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing. It shows up in Aesop and was more recently used as the based of an essay by Isaiah Berlin. If we strip away various morals that have been found in that one sentence, it is a comparison of two different ways of thinking. Some people use one overarching idea to organize their thoughts, others use different ideas depending on the context. (The morals in the ancient tales usually favored the hedgehog, whose defense by way of curling into a ball and letting his spiky back repel carnivores was seen as superior to the fox’s many tricks and stratagems. If we’re honest about it, ancient fables and newer fairy takes are full of anti-fox and anti-wolf sentiment, probably because those predators posed a real threat to rural livestock.)

Old Structures might seem at first glance to be a hedgehog practice. Of the 400 or so buildings we worked on in 2016, one was new. The rest of the buildings were existing, and almost all of them were built before 1950. There’s an obvious consistency there. I’d argue that’s the context for the real issue, which is how we approach our work. We work with, in no particular order, steel, cast iron, wrought iron, reinforced concrete, mass concrete, brick, ashlar stone, rubble stone, terra cotta, concrete block, cast stone, wood, artificial wood, glass, and aluminum. We do pre-purchase conditions assessments, post-collapse forensic assessments, and assessments for a dozen other reasons; we design repairs, replacements, and removals; we design any kind of alteration you can name. We may have our preferences – it’s no secret that I believe that altering and reusing a building is better than replacing it – but there’s a wide spectrum of options that we can and have used.

Most importantly, the wide range of building types, materials, structural systems, existing conditions, owners, and future plans that we encounter means that it’s not possible for us to treat every project the same way. Everything we do is contingent on the context of the particular project, which means we have to use multiple strategies for different instances of the same problems. That seems pretty fox-like to me. Even more fox-like is the fact that we do so – we’ve adopted a contextual approach – not because we have an overarching theory of how conservation engineering is supposed to work, but because it’s what works for us.

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