Imagine jumping forward 100 years to visit a building you designed. Will it still be there? What will it look like? Will anyone want to preserve it? Imaginary time travel poses a tough question for designers. Can we assume the buildings we design today will be preserved? Our chances are better if we make our designs adaptable to future needs, but we certainly don’t get to decide.
Architects can learn a great deal about adaptability from our 19th-and 20th-century cohorts. I get excited when asked to rework an old building with good bones, ripe for reinvention. Usually, that means its style has stood the test of time and its materials have the patina of gentle use. Simple forms and flexible structural systems allow for removals, insertions, and modifications. Wood, brick, and steel can be removed and recycled. If the building was designed before cheap energy, it might have passive cooling, heating, and daylighting baked into its geometry, orientation, and fenestration. Architects have become skilled at finding transformative new uses for buildings: mill to museum, power station to performance space, church to art school. But when designing new structures, we may be ignoring the need for future transformation.
The Living Building Challenge is a rigorous environmental design standard. Among other things, it asks 21st-century designers to consider the futures of their buildings by creating an end-of-life plan. This influenced our firm’s thinking for an admissions building at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, an institution that plans to care for it well into the future; our plan puts adaptation first. Timber frames and masonry exteriors last for centuries in New England, so we began with a laminated timber structure enclosed in locally quarried stone. The timber frame has regular bays and mechanically bolted connections for future changes. Fourteen-foot unfinished ceilings make room for exposed mechanical systems that can be serviced or replaced. Interior wood and concrete surfaces are designed for long-service lives. But, if necessary, the building’s primary materials could be salvaged and the entire structural frame disassembled for reuse.
With all the energy and carbon that goes into constructing a new building, is it ever OK to end its life? Since reusing a building avoids new carbon expenditures, second and third lives are preferable to an end of life. However, I think a building can have a good death — if positive change will result.
In Boston, one and two-story automobile industry and fast food buildings along Boylston Street have been removed to make way for a new “urban village.” This group of new buildings supplies a portion of the housing our city needs in a location where people can live, work, and play without automobiles. In Seattle, a one-story pub was removed to make way for Bullitt Center, a six-story, net-zero-energy building. At a recent lecture I attended, the Bullitt Foundation’s CEO, Denis Hayes, called it a “template.” When it inspires future neighborhoods and cities, the embodied energy of that pub will be offset thousands of times over.
We can’t go back through time to un-design our buildings. The next best thing we can do is consider their future as part of the design process.