Change Is Inevitable; Design For It

Change happens fast in today’s world and the rate is accelerating.  Even Moore’s Law, which says technology becomes obsolete in 18 months, seems outdated.  My new iPhone that I got this past fall will probably become an old model as Apple launches a newer one this summer.  This is an issue for the built environment.  Building supply is highly inelastic and resistant to change.

There is a problem with our approach.  Chances are that a building built today won’t be used for the use it was designed for in the future.  Planners, designers, and developers need to create adaptable urban forms that can grow and change in response to human needs and preferences.  Anticipation is key.  Taking a page from the concepts in the book ‘Cradle to Cradle,’ the build environment should be designed within a holistic economic and social framework or what’s also known as “lifecycle development.”  We need to protect and enrich our ecosystem through enhancing the flexibility of our buildings to limit their functional obsolescence.

Seattle’s Columbia Tower is a good example of how not to do it.  With its space 50% vacant and companies choosing to build new buildings rather than fill what is available, you have to wonder what is wrong with the design.  It can’t all be attributed to its location, which might not be ideal but is by no means bad.  Issues with the building’s low floor heights, poor mechanical systems and ultimately lack of design foresight could cause this great American skyscraper to become obsolete.

To reduce the significant financial and environmental costs of redeveloping or repurposing buildings we must plan for change.  As much as possible, the urban form needs to be designed in a way that allows adaptation and evolution.


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