Monday, December 31, 2007

Futureproof Buildings

Buildings are among the longest lasting artifacts of our current decisions. They exist in the future, we pay for them in the future and they operate with energy generated and people employed in the future. We often launch them into that future as if that world will be the same as this world. We know that will not be the case. As a result, much of what we design is bulldozer bait before the construction loan or public bond issue is paid off.

Consider a public library, for example. The typical planning horizon recommended by all the accepted standards is at least twenty years. Who today knows what media will be popular two years from now, let alone twenty. Will there still be a need for bookshelves in 2027? How will people use libraries? What will be the source of heating and cooling and lighting energy and what will it cost? What types of computing devices will people carry, or wear or have implanted? Another question we have to add today is, what will the local climate be like?

My recent planning methodology has focused on Futureproofing the buildings I am designing and many of those buildings happen to be libraries. But the concept of Futureproofing applies to all buildings, including those that are existing and are to remain functional in the future.

Consider the following proposed qualities for Futureproofing buildings:

Response Ability

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called architecture "frozen music." That may have been fine in the mid 18th century, but as the artic melts, perhaps it is time for architecture to thaw out. Buildings today need to respond and adapt to rapid change and be more like an orchestra that can play many different kinds of music. This starts with planning the site with an eye to possible later expansion of the building or alternative use as the user population dynamics change. Design for change by employing strategies like raised-floor plenum systems and demountable walls. Raised floors have come a long way since they were only found in computer rooms. Today they offer multiple advantages for energy efficient and healthful displacement ventilation, flexible plug and play electrical and technology wiring, and the ability to easily reconfigure a building systems and floor plans without the need for major renovation. Raised-floor systems can also be used in many existing building retrofits.

Net Positive Resource

Ideally, a new building should be designed such that it is has a net positive impact on the environment in twenty years or less. For example, it should be designed such that it produces more power than it uses on site from renewable sources like solar and wind. At some point in its first twenty years it will have produced more power than was used to make the materials it was constructed from, transport them to the site and assemble the building. In other words, a well-designed building should be able to recover its embodied energy. Existing buildings have a head start on this, since you save the embodied energy when you adapt them rather than tear them down.

As energy costs and impacts rise, buildings need to respond more like sail boats and less like power boats, working with natural energy flows rather than against them. If the local climate allows, design for natural ventilation, natural shading from trees, passive solar gain in winter and optimize natural daylight. If possible, design the building and the site to capture more rainwater than it uses and release that water as pure as rain or better. Model the energy demands of the building as it is being designed and invest in an effective, well-insulated envelope for the building to minimize the need for energy inputs. Look for local resources such as wind, moving water (for micro-hydropower or tidal or wave action systems), waste heat (for free heating and absorption cooling), biomass, night cooling, solar exposure and other opportunities for free energy.

By taking advantage of natural energy flows, you can have a building that is largely independent of the grid and rising energy prices. At the same time, it can also be more comfortable, more healthful and less expensive to build and operate.

Form Follows Multiple Functions

When you look at any component of any living system, you will see it serves multiple functions. A tree limb is a structural component but it is also a pipeline for transporting water and food. As designers, we should strive to emulate nature's elegant effectiveness. How can each component of the building do more than one thing? The raised floor system I mentioned earlier functions as a modular floor, but it also provides a way to deliver fresh air without ductwork (which also saves about 30% of the energy used in ducted systems) to where it is most needed, provides an infinitely flexible wiring plenum, negates the need for ceiling systems, and allows for shorter buildings with the same effective floor to ceiling height. We are seeing the same logic applied to dynamic double-layer building skins that help heat, cool and ventilate the building and windows that function for daylight, view, passive solar gain, insulation, ventilation and (with imbedded photovoltaics) electricity generation.

Disaster Resistant

With climate change we can expect stronger storms, extended droughts, more wildfires and more floods, but it has always been a good idea to design disaster-resistant buildings, both as a matter of safety for the occupants and a matter of conserving resources. Again, this should start with site selection. Are you daring fate by building in a known flood zone or wildfire zone or in a low coastal area? Take into consideration that a changing climate may elevate the risk for a particular hazard beyond what it was in the past.
It is relatively inexpensive to improve the disaster-resistance of buildings through the use of more integrated structural ties between the foundation, walls and roof systems. Monolithic building systems such as reinforced poured concrete, autoclaved aerated concrete and structural insulated panels offer resistance to multiple hazards and allow for a potentially more energy efficient building envelope. Other strategies that may make sense in your area include exterior storm shutters (the kind that actually protect windows from storm damage), fire-resistant exterior envelope, earth-sheltered construction, green roofs, and hardened below-grade storm shelters.

Planned Relevance

We tend to plan for obsolescence in our "just haul it off to the dump" society. Most buildings still die from neglect or cheap construction that allows water to penetrate. But a growing number of buildings today become part of the local landfill, 40% of which will typically be construction and demolition waste, due to simple irrelevance long before the building itself has deterioriated. They no longer serve their intended purpose because the purpose changed and the building can't economically adapt to that change. To plan for relevance, we need to become more aware of the potential for future change and prepare for it in advance. We can do that by working with the extended context of the site. In public projects, for example, it is critical to involve the community in the design process in a meaningful way, such as an intensive open public design session (charrette) during early concept development. This is an opportunity to learn about the extended context beyond the site and beyond the present. Developers have also learned that working with the local neighborhood groups often means the difference between a project that gets built and one that doesn't, but public input often reveals opportunities for more effective design solutions that relate better to the existing and future context. Designers need to be aware of any masterplans and transportation plans that may affect the future viability of the site.

Locating buildings in areas of existing infrastructure (or redeveloping existing buildings) not only saves money, it improves a project's relevance in the short term and long term. Taking advantage of existing and planned public transit stations may become ever more important in the future as population continues to migrate toward urban environments and automobile-friendly sprawl begins to lose its appeal under pressure of increasing costs for fuel and highway construction reaches the point of dimishing returns (or we finally realize that point was reached long ago). Pedestrian and transit oriented development is gaining momentum in most metropolitan areas and it would be a good Futureproof move to locate in one of those existing or planned areas.
(photos: Some of my earlier sustainable design projects while with Veazey Parrott Durkin & Shoulders in Evansville: Top – Ohio Township Central Library, Newburgh; Middle and Bottom – Oaklyn Library, Evansville – both featured in Heart of Community: The Libraries We Love – Published by Berkshire Publishing Group and edited by Karen Christensen and David Levinson.)

Copyright 2007 William M. Brown