Keep Options Open
It is impossible to know what the needs of a building’s occupants will be in the year 2050 and beyond, but it is possible to design and build in ways that help keep options open.
“The structure often gets in the way of easy repurposing of buildings, especially with respect to interior spaces,” Reis says. “Buildings that are able to accommodate long interior spans without a forest of columns should naturally lend themselves to adaptive reuse. Buildings that are naturally stiff may allow for modification more easily while still maintaining their strength.”
“We already go to great lengths to keep buildings flexible for future technology,” Freed asserts. “Raised-access flooring, demountable partitions and open floor plans are pretty standard in offices. The larger opportunity is in how we design the base building. The floor-to-floor heights, the numbers of bathrooms and elevators, and the locations of fire exits can really make or break how easily an office, for example, can be converted into something else.”
“One of our recent projects was for a non-profit called JEWISHcolorado and all the electrical, lighting, mechanical and insulation were dated and replaced, but the structure of the building was fantastic,” Mather recalls. “We were able to completely repurpose it to where it’s effectively a new building.”
Today’s retrofits often face challenges incorporating data infrastructure because no one was thinking about broadband cabling and server rooms in the 1960s. Because today’s buildings must account for that, and data technology is getting more compact, this will likely be less of an issue in the future.
“In the 1990s, we put coaxial cables into every wall because we thought that was the future of communication,” Freed explains. “Then we used ethernet cables for another decade until Wi-Fi made those obsolete, too. Today we’re installing wireless sensors that measure air quality, room occupancy and much more and then transmit that information to a central hub. Technology updates will continue to have a smaller footprint. What we need to plan for is strengthening the backbone structures, like power and data, that run those systems.”
Here Today, Home Tomorrow
By their very nature, some building types are better suited to future adaptation than others. In some segments, particularly with housing in the U.S., there is a tendency to build as quickly and cheaply as possible without really looking very far into the future.
“I look at the proliferation of low-cost, mostly wood-framed, multifamily for-rent products around the country and those are clearly not designed for the long term,” Mather says. “Some are built to a little higher quality for condo conversion, but most of the time they are not because they are usually flipped to another developer as a commodity and not really adaptable for future use. I would say that projects like office buildings are probably the easiest to adapt because they are intended to be flexible, where tenants can do whatever they want in a big envelope.”
With the changing nature of the office and its role in business, it is possible that there might be a high demand for repurposing office space in the future. As society’s needs shift, and we see a greater need for housing, future-flexible buildings can become extremely useful.
“When it comes to envisioning futureuse cases of buildings, I have heard a lot about the reimagining of workspaces,” Reis says. “What we’ve learned from COVID is that for high-occupancy buildings, like offices, there is a great deal more flexibility for people to work from home than previously thought. Given our desperate need for urban housing, we may be at a very opportune time to consider how office buildings might be repurposed for housing, retail or other uses.”
“Hotels are actually pretty adaptable, especially with the emergence of micro apartments,” Mather adds. “We’ve seen that around the country because they are smaller spaces. Whether that’s one unit or two, they lend themselves well to that kind of conversion. I’ve also seen some of the older government buildings, particularly federal buildings, that may have been offices at some point, become less usable for office space because they have small floors with shallow distances from the perimeter to the core. They can become more amenable to hotel or residential use.”
“We’ve all heard for years that malls are dying. That doesn’t have to be true,” Freed notes. “A 5-acre building swimming in the middle of a 20-acre sea of asphalt parking could be radically reimagined into a diverse, mixed-use community hub of housing, dining and dense retail. You could de-pave those parking lots and infill new jobs and housing. They often are already centrally located on major transit lines, even in the suburbs.”
PHOTOS: M MOSER ASSOCIATES, COURTESY AMERICAN SOCIETY OF INTERIOR DESIGNERS