Designers Anticipate Tomorrow’s Needs in Today’s Buildings

One of the challenges on any retrofit or adaptive reuse project is that a building constructed decades ago most likely won’t anticipate the needs of today’s occupants. It was built to serve a purpose specific to its time and its role in the community at that time. Designers often have to figure out how to work around structural constraints to properly incorporate modern technology and function.

The new M Moser workspace in New York represents an agile, future flexible “living lab” for ongoing adaptation and change.
The new M Moser workspace in New York represents an agile, future flexible “living lab” for ongoing adaptation and change.

But what if today’s new construction anticipated tomorrow’s needs? Although it is impossible to predict the future, it is possible to design flexibility into the equation so it is easier to use and reuse buildings years from now.

The concept is starting to pick up momentum and has often been referred to as “futureproofing.”

“It’s a good buzzword, but I don’t really love it because it’s impossible to completely anticipate something to the point you could futureproof it, so I think it’s a little far-fetched,” says Brent Mather, design principal with Gensler’s Denver office. “I prefer to use the term future flexible. It’s
dynamic, so you can plan for anything.”

“The term futureproofing works if you’re clear which future you’re proofing for,” notes Eric Corey Freed, senior vice president and director of sustainability for CannonDesign. “In reality, it’s a blanket term for thinking ahead through the lens of resilience. We plan and anticipate all the possible stresses and shocks that could disrupt operations in the near and long-term future. This can be done for a technology, a policy, a building, a neighborhood or even an entire city. It’s an excellent way to test the utility and lifespan of ideas.”

“The essence of futureproofing is longterm thinking,” adds Evan Reis, executive director and co-founder of the U.S. Resiliency Council. “It should consider not only the capacity of a building to adapt to changing uses, but also to future hazards, natural and manmade.”

Minimize Impact

Strategy and design teams created the workplace to address individual needs through new digital strategies, space planning, flexible furniture and technology.
Strategy and design teams created the workplace to address individual needs through new digital strategies, space planning, flexible furniture and technology.

An increased focus on sustainability, embodied carbon, life-cycle assessment and long-term building performance has inspired more attention to this futureflexible concept. Programs, such as LEED, have put emphasis on the environmental impact of constructing a building. But what about the impact of tearing it down? Demolition generates a great deal of waste and forces new construction that generates more waste. There has been a tendency to view buildings as somewhat disposable.

“By their nature, buildings are big, expensive, immovable objects, so you’d assume they would be perfect candidates for reuse,” Freed says. “Yet our first instinct is to tear them down and build something new. This is a missed opportunity. The increasing competition for and dwindling supply of construction materials, skilled labor and energy will drive demand to reexamine how we look at our existing buildings and infrastructure. In addition, the upfront carbon produced from demolishing and rebuilding will become too expensive a cost to bear.”

“Echoing a quote from Carl Elefante, FAIA, principal emeritus, Quinn Evans Architects, ‘the greenest building is one that is already built’,” Mather notes. “We all want to design net-zero, carbon-neutral buildings, which is great and aspirational, but if you have a building with good bones, you’re automatically lightyears ahead in terms of reducing the carbon footprint and not disturbing the site environment.”

“I don’t necessarily believe that futureproofed buildings would use less material during construction, but the ability to remodel and reuse buildings without having to throw away and replace materials is certainly a benefit,” Reis states. “The largest benefit from a long-term sustainability perspective may be not having to replace the building after a natural-hazard event.”

PHOTOS: M MOSER ASSOCIATES, COURTESY AMERICAN SOCIETY OF INTERIOR DESIGNERS

About the Author

Allan Barry
Allan Barry writes about architecture and sustainability from Chicago.

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