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Designing for the Future: The Role of Adaptability in Architecture

In a world characterized by rapid change and evolving needs, architecture must embrace the challenge of creating spaces that can flex and evolve alongside our societies. In this interview, we engage in a dialogue with Robert Schmidt III, an expert from Adaptable Futures at Loughborough University, to delve into the realm of "Design for Adaptability." Schmidt sheds light on the principles, challenges, and significant implications of this forward-thinking architectural approach. He elaborates on how this method not only enhances a building's ability to accommodate evolving demands but also holds the key to a sustainable future by minimizing the wasteful practice of frequent demolitions and rebuilds.

Written by Danielle Khoury Gregorio.


Can you provide us with an overview of the concept of design for adaptability and its significance in the field of architecture?

[R.Schmidt] For me, designing for adaptability comes down to our comprehension of two key concepts - change and time - and their interplay within and between our buildings and society. While it is impossible to predict when and how change will unfold over time, both physically and socially, it is inevitable that the need for change will arise. The capability of our buildings to accommodate these changes constitutes the essence of designing for adaptability.

With a continued focus on reducing our propensity to demolish buildings and construct anew, the ability to decrease the cost and effort required for buildings to adjust to our evolving needs gives tremendous significance upon the implementation of adaptability strategies and solutions. Therefore, if we are truly committed to sustainable construction, getting the most out of our resources and buildings becomes essential.

In your experience, what are the main challenges or barriers that architects and designers face when implementing design for adaptability? How can these challenges be overcome? 

[R.Schmidt] Many of the challenges for implementing adaptability strategies stem from the time lapse between costs and benefits. This gap exists because a significant part of a building's capacity to accommodate future changes is tied to initial design decisions. This suggests that any capital costs incurred will carry a level of uncertainty, as the need and benefits unfold downstream, alongside the reduction of costs and time associated with the required changes (operational costs). While certain strategies can be cost-neutral or even cost-saving, the prevailing perception often is that they all come with an initial expense. This gap between cost and benefit often manifests in ownership models, where many developers prioritize quick sales without considering costs in the following five to ten years.

Although making improvements, our industry still struggles with handling existing buildings effectively. Frequently, our knowledge of these structures is inadequate for facilitating change, given that final construction details might be unknown and modifications are often inadequately documented. Conventional mindsets suggest that it is easier to work with a blank slate (new construction) rather than grappling with existing buildings, where unexpected conditions might arise. Consequently, due to perceived higher risks and increased complexity, costs tend to rise immediately. Legislative barriers further compound the issue, as most countries are geared toward promoting new constructions. For instance, in the UK, new buildings are exempt from certain taxes, while adaptations to existing buildings are subject to full taxation.

Is there a right balance between flexibility and durability when designing a building? What considerations should be considered to achieve an optimal mix of both qualities in the design? 

[R.Schmidt] The question often arises: is it better to design for disassembly (circularity) or for longevity? While these design aspects may seem to conflict,  I would argue that they need not be inherently opposed. Durability typically pertains to the component itself and its ability to withstand wear and tear, whereas flexibility or disassembly is often linked to the connections between components. Developing innovative methods for connecting components without causing harm is of utmost importance. Take, for instance, the People’s Pavilion designed by Bureau SLA, where the objective was to restore all materials to their original state and return them to the supplier or owner. This project explored innovative techniques for fastening heavy, durable components while maintaining the ability to disassemble them. One could argue that this design wasn't intended for long-term occupancy or full compliance with building codes. However, considering our approach to maintaining and servicing buildings as resource repositories is a crucial shift in mindset. This shift enables alternative construction strategies that foster increased flexibility and circularity in our buildings.

Ultimately, achieving the right balance between these two aspects must be informed by the specific context of each project. Yet, as these two approaches become more harmoniously aligned, our buildings gain the capacity to evolve in  either direction, regardless of what we anticipate at the start.

In the context of design for adaptability, the concept of "shearing layers" suggests that buildings consist of different layers that change at varying rates. How do architects typically approach the design of these layers to accommodate the different rates of change over time? Are there any specific techniques that can be employed to ensure that these different layers work harmoniously together to support the overall adaptability of the building?

[R.Schmidt] Unfortunately, most architects still do not consider buildings as a set of shearing layers. Designing with layers has two parts. The first starts with understanding the function(s) that a component serves. The second entails considering the lifecycle of that component or function. A building designed in layers enables the easy separation of components with differing functional lifespans. This approach can be referred to as “function distribution”, where designers intentionally isolate functions. 

On the other hand, architects can also adopt a function-sharing approach in their designs, wherein they explore how a component can perform as many functions as possible. While the latter approach may appear to maximize a component's potential, it often reduces its adaptability when changes are required without necessitating a full replacement of the entire solution or larger components, leading to increased costs and time.

Similar to the balance sought between flexibility and durability, architects are tasked with finding equilibrium between segregating and sharing functionality within components. This equilibrium hinges on the probability of change and the broader performance of the building.

Much like the balance between flexibility and durability, architects must navigate the equilibrium between separating and sharing functionality within components, taking into account the likelihood of change and the broader performance of the building.

What considerations do architects need to consider when choosing materials that can withstand modifications or be easily replaced to accommodate future design changes in the context of adaptability?

[R.Schmidt] Thinking locally holds significant importance - having knowledge about local materials and skills can reduce complications when future changes become necessary. This concept can be extended even further; a key forward-moving strategy involves increasing the industry's comprehension of global material and waste streams. A critical shift in how and where we get resources is imperative. Initiatives like 'urban mining' must receive more attention, as they transition our resource piles from geological sites to urban areas.

Connections between components or materials are crucial as well. Dry versus wet joints is often the initial consideration. Subsequently joints that do not damage or penetrate the component are useful. This can be achieved through the use of simple intermediate components that have flexible interfaces to enable joining two components together without damaging them.

Equally crucial are the connections between components or materials. The choice between dry and wet joints often serves as the initial consideration. Following this, joints that neither harm nor penetrate the component gain significance. This can be achieved through the use of simple intermediary components that have flexible interfaces, enabling the joining of two components without causing damage.

Designing for adaptability requires a forward-thinking approach to anticipate future needs. How can architects conduct research and gather insights to inform their design decisions and ensure that the spaces they create will remain adaptable in the face of evolving user requirements?

[R.Schmidt] To a certain extent, you cannot predict with absolute certainty. Mies Van der Rohe once stated, “Make your spaces big enough, man, that you can walk around them freely, and not just in one predetermined direction! Or are you all that sure of how they will be used? We don't know at all whether people will do with them what we expect them to. Functions are not so clear or so constant; they change faster than the building.”

While Mies' words ring true, there are strategies that can lend support to the process. The recipe for designing  for adaptability is never uniform; each project requires a nuanced mix of strategies, building characteristics, and tactics to achieve a finely tuned level of adaptability. The result frequently encompasses a mixture of specific (client-based) and generic (market-based) forms of accommodation. Clarifying client needs stands as a pivotal step, ushering in a more nuanced response. Consequently, the briefing becomes an important process that is often limited in terms of time, communication, and format. It allows for an appropriate solution to arise (specific response), rather than a preconceived one (generic response). 

Collaborating with the client and the broader design team to evaluate potential change scenarios can be instrumental in determining where to spend money and the type of solutions considered. For example, lower-cost solutions tend to be implemented more often when there's certainty, seen as ‘good buys’, while uncertainty might label them as ‘cheap tricks’. If the cost is high but the need is equally assured, such solutions become 'life-savers.' Conversely, high-cost and uncertain solutions may be viewed as ‘money to spend’ options. Working through these scenarios with the client  can provide greater clarity to how future changes are being addressed and how a holistic approach can balance out cost and uncertainty. 

With that said, an important consideration still remains: designers must be willing to leave 'space' for others to change the design, in a way that they can allow their ego to be undisturbed, remaining responsibly specific yet indeterministic at the same time.

Collaboration with various stakeholders is essential for successful design for adaptability. How can architects engage and collaborate with clients, contractors, engineers, and other professionals to ensure the seamless integration of adaptability into the design and construction process?

[R.Schmidt] Collaboration stands as an essential ingredient for achieving good results, regardless of whether the focus is on designing for adaptability or not. Effective collaboration thrives when fueled by a shared goal, an open mindset, mutual understanding of each other's values, and clear lines of communication. All these elements help to mitigate the individualistic nature of a project and the blame game that often occurs when no one is willing to take responsibility. 

The shared goal must be connected to the project's long-term success. In many cases, this objective is best served through a client who acts as a design champion. This becomes especially crucial when considering adaptability, as its immediate and quantifiable market value is relatively limited due to buildings' conventional valuation and conceptualization being centered on use rather than across uses.

Frequently, co-locating within a project office is suggested as a way to enhance communication and collaboration. The growth of our digital competencies during the pandemic has also facilitated a more fluid working environment. Additionally, Building Information Modeling (BIM) and other shared platforms promise to improve communication through collaborative digital work environments. While BIM's ability to store information is impactful, challenges concerning intellectual property (IP) persist within these digital and collaborative spaces.

Looking ahead, what emerging trends or innovations do you foresee in the field of design for adaptability? How do you believe these developments will shape the future of architectural practice and the built environment?

[R.Schmidt] The rising importance of circularity and a heightened awareness of material flows are crucial for adaptability, particularly in the need to eliminate waste streams from the design process. A key challenge I work with students on is pondering how waste streams can be seamlessly integrated into supply streams. This is relevant not just for new construction but also for the continual upkeep and evolution of our buildings. As AI's applications continue to expand, its infinite capacity to work through change scenarios and assess a given solution's capacity to accommodate them will be beneficial. Additionally, AI's ability to foster design concepts that have yet to be considered is noteworthy.

The ongoing advancement of bio-engineered materials is promising to provide a rich new palette of materials to work with. This not only ushers in innovative methods of constructing buildings but also introduces radically new ways of  conceiving their operations. Could our buildings become more regenerative? The realm of 3D printing presents interesting opportunities and challenges. A primary challenge involves applying the concept of shearing layers as a load-bearing system, suitable for both interior and exterior finished surfaces. Furthermore, new freeform applications can lock furniture locations by creating specific spaces for larger items like beds or tables.

The integration of IT and smart building technologies will continue to grow. This integration enables our buildings' performance to adapt more seamlessly, encompassing aspects like lighting and thermal control. However, it also introduces a layer of technology into the fabric of the building, potentially making future changes more complex. The increased utilization of wireless and Bluetooth applications for technology management will help to ameliorate this condition. While all the new possibilities are exciting, it’s important to remember that simplicity and familiarity are often the key to enabling change to occur easily.  

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