Feature Article

Future-Proofing Your Building: Designing for Flexibility and Adaptive Reuse

Bensonwood Homes completed this Maine residence in 2001. The owner requested incorporation of as many Open-Built technologies (see sidebar) as possible, encouraging greater adaptability and a longer life for the home.

Photo: Bensonwood Homes
Some 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus made headlines when he proposed that nothing is permanent but change. In his landmark

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, modern-day philosopher Stewart Brand translated Heraclitus’s insight into the language of design: “A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start.”

Brand does not want for evidence. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that investments in remodeling and repairs equal or exceed the value of new construction each year. Within 25 years, according to The American Institute of Architects (AIA), approximately 75% of commissions to architects will be not for new construction but for the reuse of existing structures. Our own company, BuildingGreen, occupies a building created for the world-renowned Estey Organ Company; I write from a space built over 130 years ago to house that company’s tuning rooms.

Structural durability alone is not enough to ensure a building’s longevity. In order to last, a building also needs two types of adaptability. First, a building should be

flexible, or capable of withstanding reconfigurations while retaining the same larger purpose. These changes are short-term, often routine, and reversible. Imagine reorganizing office space or modifying a home to meet the needs of aging occupants. Second, a building should be capable of accommodating

adaptive reuse, or major shifts in function. Such changes are long-term and less frequent. For example, a laboratory may become office space or offices may become apartments.

British architect Alex Gordon may have been the first to put a name on the concept of design for adaptability. He coined “long life, loose fit, low energy” in 1972. The more familiar, pared-down version,

“long life, loose fit,” was introduced to U.S. audiences with the Architecture League’s “Ten Shades of Green” exhibition, curated by British architect and critic Peter Buchanan (see

EBN

Vol. 9, No. 10).

Though accurately predicting the needs of a building or home’s future occupants is a mission impossible, it’s a safe bet that new needs will arise. How can the design community create structures that transition gracefully as users’ expectations and demands evolve? What features increase the likelihood that a building will be adapted and reused, rather than scrapped after a single use?

This article explores the practice of design for adaptability. It explains some of the benefits of building reuse. And, it lays out some specific strategies to equip a building for future transitions. Though most strategies addressed here increase both the flexibility and the adaptive reuse potential of a building, some relate strictly to one or the other extreme of adaptability. While some strategies apply specifically to commercial or to residential projects, the overarching concept applies to nearly all construction.

Published February 1, 2003