Accommodating the Unexpected: Designing Buildings for Reuse


Central Beheer, Apeldoorn Netherlands Architect: Herman Hertzberger (


Various studies have shown that reusing existing building rather than constructing a new building is generally worth it from both a carbon-savings and urban fabric standpoint. However, when new buildings are needed, how do we design these buildings to ensure that future generations will want to keep and reuse them?

Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger’s built and theoretical work offers a possible new way of thinking about how to approach building-for-reuse. Hertzberger was a key figure in the development of Structuralism, which heavily criticized the mid-century modernist approach of “form follows function.” Instead of the modernist architect who provided a complete solution in a building, Hertzberger and the structuralists believe that an architect’s role was to just provide a spatial framework that was to be filled in by the users.

Historical cities provided inspiration and new solutions for a different form principal based on interpretable, adaptable and expandable architecture. Learning from the constant re-use of buildings in historical cities, Hertzberger recognized that a building’s use and inhabitants change over time. He thus believed in a form that could accommodate different uses and encourage user participation in defining meaning within the construed spaces. While Hertzberger recognized that society has changing needs, he also believed in a continuity of deeper patterns of building use, much like the linguistics notion of deep structure, a universal grammar that all languages share. He sought to identify an underlying order in building construction that was not purely related to function. Hertzberger set architects with a challenge: to find construction rhythms that frame the fundamental pattern of human inhabitation.

Hertzberger’s own buildings tend to have a strong expression of the supporting structural framework, which creates cellular zones. In the “in-between” spaces, Hertzberger places minor elements such as benches to prompt human occupation. For Hertzberger, the creation of strong sight and contact lines is the main focus rather than the representational nature of the façade.

Agile architecture is another way to think about designing for reuse. Agile architecture theories similarly criticize the static rigid nature of new buildings and emphasize agility, adaptability and appropriateness. Under this theory, which calls for spatial, functional and aesthetic flexibility, efficiency is also viewed across the fourth dimension. For example, creating distinctive, hierarchical spaces may be space efficient in the short time but not across time since they would be harder to adapt to different uses. 

The idea of determining or recognizing the fundamental pattern of human inhabitation intrigues me; it would obviously be a huge undertaking without knowing that the findings would be meaningful. However, if extensive research, possible using meta-data could be done, the results could be ultimately used to improve designing flexible and reusable buildings. However, in the meantime, I think the strategies of agile architecture offer a good way to get more specific about what flexibility actually is and how to design to accommodate the unexpected.


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