Why We’ll Need More Flexible Buildings in the Post-Covid Era
The coronavirus pandemic is having huge impacts on the built environment. And those impacts will continue to be felt for the foreseeable future. Our homes, offices, and schools will need to be reconfigured, repurposed and, in some cases, completely reimagined. For years I’ve advocated for a concept called Open Building. With the premise that long-term use and adaptability of buildings and places is inherently more sustainable, Open Building seeks to enhance longevity and resilience through a set of basic principles that affect design, as well as how buildings are constructed and managed over time.
Today, we build 100-year buildings that have constantly changing program needs. Too often, these structures become obsolete within as little as 5 or 10 years. Because funding cycles are long, major reconfigurations are infrequent, highly disruptive, and expensive when they occur. Buildings thought to be unadaptable are prematurely demolished and replaced. Open Building anticipates and facilitates the reconfiguration of spaces and structures facilities, so that change can occur while minimizing disruption to neighboring spaces and supporting a higher degree of local decision-making.
Why the Open Building Approach Has Special Relevance Now
The approach creates permanent settings for continuous, incremental, and, to a degree, autonomous change. We’ve seen, since just late February, a profound change in our living and working habits, and a corresponding impact on the spaces we occupy. As the school year approaches, we’re facing the prospect of empty rooms because they have lost two-thirds of their capacity due to imposed social distancing. We’re staying away from our offices or returning in selective cohorts for one or two days a week. We’re working at home, perhaps in makeshift spaces carved out of close quarters, and we are now sharing our homes with family members who had been living elsewhere. Many of our social, entertainment, cultural, and religious resources sit empty in the face of the bans on large gatherings.
If we can turn our convention centers into field hospitals, we should easily be able to reconfigure our dwellings for changing live/work situations; adjust learning clusters to accommodate more and different-sized classes with required social distancing; and successfully appropriate other spaces that have been designed to do more than one thing well. And our workspaces should be structured as blended environments, where the experience of collaborating with team members both inside and outside the office is seamless.
The Layouts of Schools, Offices, and Homes Will Change as the Pandemic Continues
School classrooms will need to flex more readily for changing cohorts of students sometimes working in greater isolation and in smaller numbers. Integrated technology will need to be tuned and intensified to allow blended learning so that students attending classes online at the same time as their counterparts learning on the spot feel equally connected and equally engaged. Other spaces, indoors and out, will need to be conceived as alternate settings for students to learn and explore in smaller groups. Air quality, regulated through a combination of natural ventilation and carefully filtered mechanical systems, will become critical considerations in the design of learning environments.
Office environments will no longer be collective 9-to-5 workplaces. Like schools, offices will be occupied by cohorts at assigned times, and meetings will be carefully orchestrated and scheduled. Nimble companies will learn to shift gears as restrictions on work environments ebb and flow according to health priorities. The expectation will be that there will be less densely occupied open work areas and more individualized space for those on specific assignments. Most if not all employees will spend a larger portion of their time working at home, again pointing to the need for adaptability and ease of change.
Homes will remain places of refuge but will evolve into more versatile environments where work is supported. With extended families going through longer and intermittent periods of sheltering in place, individual spaces may have to be designed for daily changes in use and the ability to shift interior layouts and, in favorable circumstances, expand or retract within a broader flexible framework will be increasingly important.
Open Buildings Can Help in the Transition to Whatever’s Next
In many ways, Open Building is more of a framework for decision-making than a recipe for building design. But every choice of building component or system, and each decision about what is fixed and what is changeable, becomes a critical strategy in the creation of an adaptable and resilient building stock.
To achieve Open Building and to create structures that will successfully help us to transition from familiar paradigms to more adaptable, nuanced, and versatile places to work, live, recuperate, and learn, the following moves need to take place:
The systems that make up each building need to be separated into different levels of control. The architect may establish a 100-year base building with character presence and permanence. Someone else may design the infill systems that establish functional environments within that represent a 5- to 20-year investment and changes and adjustments may take place more frequently by a user or operations group that are making changes in a 1–5 year period.
The elements and responsibilities between and within different levels of control need to be disentangled. This suggests creating structural systems that shape the overall building but maximize potential reconfiguration within; or developing decentralized mechanical systems that allow different parts of a building to be altered without disturbing others.
Support autonomous control and decision-making. Incremental change needs to be relatively easy and inexpensive to do. Walls that might change should be nonstructural and should not contain shared services. Plumbing within a dwelling should be changeable without disturbing adjacent dwellings—above, below, or adjacent.
Perform capacity studies for a range of uses. Decisions about the base building, with its presence of permanence in an urban context, have to be made with change in mind. We should not be designing fixed spaces for all time but instead should anticipate adaptive reuse by paying careful attention to the dimensions of structural bays, access to natural light, flexibility of circulation, and the manner in which uses might change over time. For example, the parking podium of a midrise housing development should not be not just for maximizing access and capacity for cars; it should have great future potential for live-work spaces, retail, or office space as the need for cars declines and people seek to live closer to their jobs.
How Open Building Addresses Climate Change and Resilience
One of the great examples of Open Building is the main campus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The original complex of neoclassical buildings and courtyards in Cambridge, stretched along the Charles River, is more than a hundred years old but still serves as the connector and vital heart of this thriving campus. Its modularity, structural accessibility, generous natural light, high floors, and accessibility have made it easy to renovate and transform incrementally throughout its entire history. This example of resilience may very well outlive the more recent generation of singular object buildings that have recently sprung up around it. The balance of permanence and change exemplifies a fundamental design strategy for the challenges ahead.
The large-scale impact of climate change that is accelerating before our eyes, now complicated by the pandemic, is calling us to be nimble, flexible, and more open-ended in the planning of urban environments. Open Building is a way of bridging the desire for permanence and stability with flexibility and adaptability. It’s also a way of setting the stage for a more inclusive, distributed decision-making structure appropriate for vital, evolving settings for human activity.
Featured image: Discovery Building, Santa Monica High School. All photos courtesy of HED and Moore Ruble Yudell Architects and Planners, unless otherwise noted.