#22 Adaptable Buildings

While most of the work I am currently involved with and am writing design guidance for relates to the new-build market, many of the buildings I have been involved with during my career as an Architect in practice involved conversion of historic buildings. These buildings were originally designed for a purpose that is no longer needed today and, rather than condemning them to the archives, people had a vision to transform them for a new use – an old pumphouse was converted to a bistro restaurant; a former grain warehouse became a mixed use development of offices, shops, restaurants and homes; an old farmstead became a boutique hotel.

When designing buildings today, we need to be designing for adaptability.  While the much-publicised conversion of office buildings into tiny flats unfit for purpose is not advocated, it is possible to design buildings for multiple uses, for adaptability.  This will help us conserve resources and energy that would otherwise be used to demolish buildings when they are no longer needed for their original purpose, as well as helping to reduce carbon emissions.

Built in 126AD, the Pantheon in Rome is the largest and oldest unreinforced concrete structure in the world and the world’s oldest unrenovated building.  The Roman concrete used in its construction is extremely durable due to the use of volcanic ash, and it has been absorbing carbon throughout its life, which actually increases its strength!  What an amazing material!  Modern concrete is not as environmentally friendly as Roman concrete, requiring a lot of energy and water to gain the raw materials it uses, and causing environmental destruction and pollution in quarrying for the aggregates used in its production.  However, it does absorb carbon and one argument in its favour is that it can be used to create buildings that could last forever, if they are properly looked after and designed for adaptability.

I was recently asked what my favourite building in the world was – a very difficult question to answer, as I love and admire countless different buildings for different reasons – there are so many different building types and buildings set in all sorts of diverse locations, it is hard to make direct comparisons between any of them. To narrow down the field, I decided I would only consider buildings I had visited and, put on the spot, I found myself citing an historic building – the building that sprang to mind was Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona, originally built in the 1350’s and sensitively restored by Carlo Scarpa between 1958 and 1964, which I have been lucky enough to visit twice.  The modern interventions carefully meet the original features in a harmonious way, to give the overall experience of walking through and around the museum an incredibly peaceful feeling.  It’s a building that has really stuck in my mind. 

But, why do we often love old buildings? I think the answer lies in the beauty and attention to detail that makes them so memorable and (for me at least) the fact that they were conceived and constructed before the industrial revolution, drawn by hand and built with primitive tools and local resources.  They radiate a real sense of beauty; which I think we all crave as human beings.  As I walk through cities, I often find myself looking up and snapping some wonderful details on buildings that are simply too good to ignore.

The Building Better Building, Building Beautiful Commission recently published a report called “Living with Beauty” in which they promote the design of beautiful places.  If people love a place, they will look after it and will want to retain it in all its glory. So, let’s continue to design beautiful buildings and places that people want to be in and want to retain for the future. This will help us to create sustainable and resilient buildings and communities, helping to tackle the climate crisis at the same time as enriching the environment we live in.

Retrofit of existing buildings is the biggest challenge facing us as we strive towards Net Zero Buildings by 2050.  80% of the buildings of 2050 already exist and they come in all shapes and sizes; as well as being built to different levels of energy efficiency (some with no consideration at all to energy efficiency).  A sobering fact to finish on is that many of the buildings that will be constructed this year, at the height of the Climate Emergency, will need to be retrofitted to meet the Net Zero standard.  We need to be following design guidance prepared by LETI in their Climate Emergency Design Guide and aspiring to the targets set by the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge if we are to make progress towards Net Zero; and we need to adopt new ways of thinking, new concepts, like the Active Building concept.

Published by jorclarke

I am an Architect, currently working at the Active Building Centre, and studying for a Doctorate in Sustainable Built Environment (D.SBE), which is focused on developing an Active Building Design Guide.

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