Complexity thinking may have both modelling and metaphorical applications in the through-life management of the built environment. These two distinct approaches are examined and compared. In the first instance, some of the sources of complexity in the design, construction and maintenance of the built environment are identified. The metaphorical use of complexity in management thinking and its application in the built environment are briefly examined. This is followed by an exploration of modelling techniques relevant to built environment concerns. Non-linear and complex mathematical techniques such as fuzzy logic, cellular automata and attractors, may be applicable to their analysis. Existing software tools are identified and examples of successful built environment applications of complexity modelling are given. Some issues that arise include the definition of phenomena in a mathematically usable way, the functionality of available software and the possibility of going beyond representational modelling. Further questions arising from the application of complexity thinking are discussed, including the possibilities for confusion that arise from the use of metaphor. The metaphor of a ‘commentary machine’ is suggested as a possible way forward and it is suggested that an appropriate linguistic analysis can in certain situations reduce perceived complexity.