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How can we design adaptable buildings?

July 23, 2015

Making sure an Architect’s work stands the test of time

When they’re young, many future architects dream the buildings they design will stand the test of time, outliving them. The architecture history courses we take in school provide examples of buildings hundreds, or even thousands of years old, but most of us find that we outlive the usefulness of the buildings that we design. I distinctly remember the first time a building that I designed was demolished. I took it personally, and it led me to wonder why it happened.

I’ve spent most of my career working on healthcare facilities, primarily hospitals. It was not unusual that an owner would pay us to redesign a building that wasn’t even under construction yet. Smart owners knew that if their anticipated operations were changing, it was cheaper to pay us to redesign up front rather than wait until the building was in construction or occupied. I attributed these unexpected changes to the ever-evolving healthcare delivery model—but why couldn’t our buildings also evolve along with the owner’s changing needs? 

Most architects claim to design “flexible” or “adaptable” buildings, but in reality, those facilities can be anything but flexible! They are typically constructed with fixed partitions, Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing systems designed specifically to current occupants, and structural systems designed to minimum codes. Many owners/users can’t envision how the building will operate until they move in, even with the wonderful 3D visionary tools that we have. Once occupied, changes desired by the owner are difficult and expensive in the already completed project environment.

Lab space at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences designed to be flexible for the future

In the education market, we know that teaching styles are different based on the instructor, topic, instructional materials, students, and many other factors. Research continues to show us that every generation seems to learn somewhat differently. So what can the design profession do to allow our buildings to accommodate the needs of faculty, students, and curriculum?

I have some easy, adaptable options to consider.

Option 1. Design spatially. Larger, flat-floor classrooms can accommodate a variety of furniture and equipment, and can be subdivided for smaller group use. In healthcare, “universal” private rooms might be an appropriate way to enable multiple uses while adhering to the best infection control strategies.

Modular partitions are appropriate for many different functions in multiple buildings types; the additional cost (approximately 18%–22% added to a building’s construction cost) is normally recovered with the first renovation. Also, necessary changes may be executed over a weekend instead of months. This limits impact to everyone—but especially to the always-important facility’s user groups.

Option 2. Mechanical systems can be oversized with a 15%–25% safety factor to accommodate future renovations that will require additional HVAC conditioning. If the ductwork is looped with no downsizing of the main trunk ducts, higher intensity uses can be accommodated as the need arises in different parts of the building. This ductwork is a modest increase in construction cost and requires just a little extra planning during design, but results in major flexibility for future needs.

Option 3. Most electrical engineers design to accommodate 10%–15% spare breakers in electrical panels. Often this capacity is used before the space is even occupied. Is there anyone who actually carries fewer electronic devices than 3–4 years ago? Obviously, it’s a no-brainer that additional electrical capacity at the panels is an inexpensive investment against a rapidly-changing and technologically advancing world.

The number of low voltage applications with hard data connections has steadily increased but the real growth is in wireless connectivity. Teachers with large class sizes find individual streaming from the internet difficult.  In order to accommodate future increases in Wi-Fi technology, Owners should consider use of fiber technology—with significantly greater capacity—for the electronic backbone. The impact is almost cost neutral over copper, at least if installed only to major distribution points.

Option 4. Consider technology. Cell coverage is often insufficient in many large buildings immediately upon moving in. Preplanning can establish a network with sufficient coverage that answers the question “can you hear me now.”

And in almost any room, placement of empty conduit and boxes can allow the addition of unfunded or unexpected technology in the future. Consider recessed floor systems for distribution of power, data and HVAC for best adaptability.

As architects, we owe it to our owners (and ourselves) to design educational facilities with the flexibility to accommodate changes in educational curriculum, technology, and materials. An investment in proper planning at the beginning of any project, including a clear understanding of the cost implications, will serve everyone better.

I want the buildings we design to have a long and productive life; don’t you?

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