Can flexible design future-proof our infrastructure?

Constructing adaptable buildings can make them better value for money and more sustainable
The Centre Pompidou in Paris is an example of a public building designed with flexibility in mind
The Centre Pompidou in Paris is an example of a public building designed with flexibility in mind

When construction began in 2010 on the Opus – the futuristic tower in Dubai designed by Zaha Hadid – the plan was for it to house offices. But at quite a late stage in the project, the developer’s vision changed to reflect what it saw as a period of change in the emirate and instead adopted a mixed-use proposal, encompassing office space, residential apartments, retail spaces, restaurants and even a five-star hotel. 

Changing tack was not without its challenges. But the result was a building far better equipped for the future. BSBG Group, the executive architect tasked with realising Hadid’s vision, wrote in a recent blog that such mixed-use projects “have a far greater chance of standing the test of time” because they are set up for multiple functions from the outset.

“The success of architecture has to be connected directly to the degree of flexibility it presents in its use,” wrote the design firm. “Architecture that doesn’t respond well to change runs the risk of stagnation.” 

So-called flexible design is now a key component of modern infrastructure, with proponents arguing it allows buildings to be longer-lasting, better value for money and more sustainable. From hospitals to theatres, housing to offices, infrastructure is designed with adaptability in mind and Covid and the climate crisis have added fresh impetus to the trend. 

Robert Kronenburg, emeritus Roscoe professor of architecture at the University of Liverpool, has been researching the topic for 30 years. He says that, despite growing recognition of the trend, it’s not a new one. 

“There’s no time in history when adaptability and flexibility haven’t been an issue in architecture. It’s just that some buildings have responded to it better.”

Creating multi-use spaces

Flexibility is not just about the form of a building, Kronenburg says, it’s also about how it is made, the materials used, what the environment is like inside and how responsive it is to people’s needs. It also takes a “huge amount” of work and planning, as developers are, to some extent, dealing with the unknown. “You can’t predict the future, but you can make allowances,” he says. 

The Dutch architect Franz Van Der Werf has been pioneering his principles of open building since the mid-1970s. One of his best-known projects is the Pelgromhof – a housing complex in the Netherlands for older people. Its 215 apartments are easily adaptable as residents age so that they don’t have to move into new accommodation because of health or mobility issues. Van Der Werf even went as far as calling them “lifetime guaranteed”.

You can’t predict the future, but you can make allowances

“You can move walls around easily to make the place more accessible,” says Kronenburg of the scheme. “Or there might be a space you can use for a cupboard but in the future turn it into a lift so you can get up to the next floor more easily. It doesn’t look like anything special or different on the outside, it’s about subtle hints in the design.”

Examples of fexible infrastructure

Famous public buildings such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Japan’s Sendai Mediatheque library were designed with flexibility in mind and have successfully served as multi-use event spaces for decades. Further back in the late Victorian era, architect Frank Matcham pioneered the concept of flexible staging and scenery when he designed and refurbished some of Britain’s most famous theatres, creating venues that could be easily adapted for different productions. 

A major driver for flexible design today is the need to create human-centred spaces that reflect the changing way we live, says Michael Lewis, group design director at BSBG Group. Not only has Covid driven many of us from office-based environments into remote- or hybrid-working patterns, but mental and physical wellbeing are also higher priorities.

“Quality of life has been a critical factor in driving a movement in flexible environments, both in a physical sense at home and in the workplace, where the psychology of flexible working has positively impacted employees and employers,” he says. 

In office design it has meant reducing the size of boardrooms and creating more space for hot-desking and social interaction, Lewis adds. In homes, meanwhile, activity spaces and workspaces “are becoming crucial”. 

Peter Brickell is engineering director, head of innovation at WSP in the UK, an engineering professional services consultancy that has helped clients to build flexibly. He says the traditional view of flexibility was how well a building could accept different tenants and how quickly space could be let. But this is changing as developers focus on sustainability – something that will be a “driving factor in the design of buildings for the foreseeable future”.

An eco-friendly way to build

Unlike some standard designs, it is unlikely that a building designed flexibly will have to be demolished and rebuilt to change its use. That makes it less carbon-intensive and waste-generative in the long run. “There is much more interest in the circular economy of a building and the flexibility of buildings to change at a more fundamental level, extending the lifetime of the investment,” Brickell says. “Can an office change to residential or another commercial use in future? Can the materials be deconstructed and reused?”

Designing flexibly comes with challenges and is not always viable. It typically takes longer, costs more, and can butt up against space or location constraints. There are also no legislative requirements to build flexibly as there are to build sustainably, leaving it up to the client and developer to take the lead. Lewis believes that most architects try to “do the right thing” but developers’ interests can get in the way. 

“The real question is, can you create a mainstream movement for future-proofing? Will developers pay for future-proofing in the long term, or are the financial pressures of ROI and capex the drivers in the mainstream design industry?” 

Brickell acknowledges the challenges of flexible design but says the effort is worth it given the immense benefits. “The construction process always has limits but the key is to keep innovating,” he says. “Designers and developers need to keep pushing the art of the possible and assess the risks on a building-by-building basis. What is a gamble on one project might not be on the next in a few years.”