Putting the Flex in Flexible Buildings

Winston Churchill’s insight, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” doesn’t fully apply in our modern world.  According to Stewart Brand, the author of How Buildings Learn:  What Happens to Them After They are Built, we first shape our buildings, then they shape us, then we shape them again and again.

To avoid the need for endless remodeling and renovation, and to increase the life span of the buildings we create, architects, builders, and homeowners should think in terms of flexible space.  Implementing this concept both suits the need of present building occupants and easily and economically accommodates change in the future.

This strategy is especially important in speculative buildings because developers are not aware of the needs of an unknown tenant, let alone future tenants.  Also, in general, a flexible building has the advantage of costing less in the long run.  Initial costs may be higher compared to a conventional building, but the life cycle cost of a flexible building will be greatly reduced and the structure will be insulated from obsolescence.

According to Robert Ries of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture and Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics, “Designing buildings with flexible space allows for easier changes in office configurations and reduces the environmental impact that would result from renovation.  Also, the indoor environmental quality of a space often deteriorates when spatial renovations are done that do not include changes to the associated systems—such as lighting and mechanical—which, in turn, has been linked to poor occupant performance.”

Stuart Brand points out that more dollars are being spent in the United States on changing buildings than on erecting new ones.  A staggering $200 billion was spent on renovation and rehabilitation in 1989.

If a building is not initially designed to incorporate flexibility, there may be ways to adapt it later.  Reis notes that “there are building components that have a longer life (structure, shell), those that have a medium life (mechanical systems) and those that have a short life (interior systems, lighting, IT infrastructure).  You can look at a building and determine which aspects you want to make flexible for your anticipated uses—but, there are limits to the amount of flexibility any one building can achieve.”

Some examples of adaptable spaces include the Adaptable Workplace Lab at the General Services Administration headquarters in Washington, D.C., Owens Corning headquarters in Toledo, Ohio, and the ALCOA building in Pittsburgh.

Opened in December, 1977, the Robert L. Preger Intelligent Workplace (IW) at Carnegie Mellon University researches and demonstrates advanced building systems and their integration for total building performance.

At the Intelligent Workplace, spatial and technological flexibility is achieved in a number of ways, including movable storage wall systems, column-free interiors, reprogrammamable lighting controls, structured wiring, and relocatable floor-based telecommunications, power and data outlets.  Additionally, the face components are demountable and relocatable so that windows/doors/opaque panels can be added and deleted, and the structure itself is demountable and unboltable.

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