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In an age of ubiquitous fashion, high-speed technological evolution, and constantly changing criteria for the measurement of quality, a building remains a long-term commitment to a direction, a style, and a particular character. A concrete foundation doesn’t easily move. A steel frame is not easily changed. An expensive skin system lasts for decades.

So how do we make buildings responsive to the continuous changes that shape nearly everything about life today?

These days we accomplish this by throwing buildings away, much like we do everything else. A storefront is stale so we tear it out and build a new one. McDonald wants to reshape its brand so hundreds of thousands of restaurants are remodeled for fashion reasons only.

The old neighborhood was torn down for the mall and not the mall is being torn down to rebuild an old neighborhood (except the stores will be mall stores…)

The assumed requirement of this kind of change has produced a theory of adaptability much like our recycling mentality: as long as it’s recyclable it’s OK to throw it away. Thus, our most cutting edge buildings are flimsy and superficial and are made easy to dismantle so that, when trends change, they can too.

At DTA, we don’t believe you achieve adaptability by making it easier to throw things away. We don’t believe in making buildings bland and temporary. We don’t believe in making buildings that can be unhinged, dis-assembled, relocated so that fickle trends can come and go.

We think the wholesale reshaping, re-facing, and rearranging of buildings and interiors every time technology, tastes, and regulations evolve is an environmental disaster–not to mention an unsustainable financial addiction.

Staying fresh is staying responsive, and that does not require throwing anything away. A responsive building, a building that learns, is one that is designed for passive adaptability at the outset. By creatively balancing sensible form with flexible use, we extend a building’s durability of purpose.

 

Achieving this durability requires vision and high levels of leadership during the design period. Ensuring that buildings are not too highly refined to suit limited purposes, and understanding the likely evolution of culture and technology (and the likely cycling and recycling of physical arrangements), allows for a foundational flexibility that does not depend on ephemeral technology in the first place.

By remaining focused on what parts of a building should evolve and adapt, and by avoiding superficial evolution that chases fashion rather than function, a building can be designed to last for generations, to house all sorts of purposes, and to remain fresh simply by being useful.

Regular maintenance requirements will still replace various finishes and fixtures on a regular basis

We see a new paradigm of sustainability, one that shifts away from the disposability and relocation of objects. One that looks at durability as the cutting-edge green technology: make it last a hundred years. And not just physically. Design it so that it will be enjoyed and appreciated at 25 years, 50 years 100 years.  Design it to age gracefully and make the parts that need to be changed easily changeable.

Most of all, learn how to better manage desire and expectation. Eliminate ego and evolve identity such that you don’t have to throw a building away just to make it yours.

We prescribe a greater flexibility in both expectation and adaptation on the part of owner’s, organizational structures (rather than physical structures) and operational models. Because in many cases it is far easier to alter your expectations than to alter a building.

That may sound like lowering expectations to some, but that is not it at all. We’re proposing deeper expectations. The expectation that both the building and the users are grownups and prefer not to waste. Instead we take a more carful look at the ways genuine needs generate durable forms.

 

·         Are classrooms custom workplaces for individual teachers? Or are there ways to design a classroom so that it works as a chem lab today and a sculpture studio ten years from now (and then a chem lab again ten years after that?)

·         Can we build a communication and data system in a building that fully recognizes its likely obsolescence in five years? Better, can we determine that the communication system should be little different than a cosmetic layer so that the bones of a building will work regardless of the technological fad of the decade?

·         And most of all, can we find an aesthetic expression that is grownup and timeless so that it will look good three generations from now and more.

What can we change about ourselves and our expectations so that we get over the urge to throw buildings away? What maturity of thought will allow us to enjoy a restaurant or club in a 100-year-old pub more than we might in a brand-new glass box that will look silly in ten years.

Can we question our entire ethos of fashion and seek to eliminate the part that loves the superficial and, instead, nurture the part that gravitates to the substantial?

Adaptability is not just about alteration (or disposal) of obsolete forms that were made obsolete by superficiality in the first place.

Adaptability is a rich, intertwined dance between what exists, what is available and what is desired such that nothing of value is wasted. True adaptability is genuinely sustainable because it will not only save resources, it will enlighten and inform healthy decisions.

These principles are already embedded, by the way,  in ancient architecture, in traditional forms, and in the best modernism.