Future Proofing Buildings for the New Normal
Steve Jobs didn’t want consumer group feedback when developing the iPhone. This used to fascinate me. But why? Were a consumer group in the 17th century to be asked about improving their own means of transport, they would have talked about better roads surfaces and stronger horses. No one could have imagined a motor vehicle. The ability of a learned individual well versed in a particular aspect of design or engineering will always have the ability to see further than those that don’t.
The current restrictions placed upon us have given a potential glimpse into the future, starting to reveal the areas of life that will benefit from forward-thinking design. There was already a growing trend to work from home, to shop online, and to have ‘virtual communities’ associated more with common interests rather than geographical proximity. This has merely accelerated a trend which was already well underway.
The virus lockdown has meant we experience something that few generations do: to rethink the way we have to operate. It’s brought a new perspective on what we take for granted.
As architects, we touch all of the facets of daily life. Architects are embedded in the process of dealing with the shifting sands of a changing world – designing for today, trying to learn from yesterday, with an eye on what tomorrow might bring. Imagining how our homes can be comfortable places for family life and for work, how infrastructure connects our homes with places of entertainment, work, arts, sport and care, and what those spaces between might be like.
But we also need to look at how we can touch the planet as lightly as possible. There are so many versions of what constitutes sustainable design when it comes to building, but the broader definition we come back to is ‘meeting the demands of today without compromising future generations’ ability to do the same’. This rings true and feels appropriate as we face a global crisis.
Building is a disruptive, resource hungry process, and one which we should avoid doing if there are innovative ways of using existing building stock to achieve the identified need. More and more companies are looking to adapt or alter their premises to make sure they can flex to meet the changing world.
It’s expected that, once we have either a treatment or a vaccine for the Coronavirus, the world will start to tilt back to ‘normality’. However, there’s a question about how far toward the old normal we want to return, given some of the advantages home working – and actually living in the home – clearly has.
We live in a world of finite resources. We can only ever be in one place at any given time – meaning huge swathes of our building stock is unoccupied for long periods of time. Taking the ‘lessons learned’ from lockdown, would it make sense to start to acknowledge the benefits in terms of resource management associated with remote working? We could we start to shape a world which benefits from:
Drastically reducing the number of buildings we need.
Not needing to travel to and from work – freeing up roads and streets for bikes, outdoor activities and pedestrians, while at the time reducing our carbon dependency.
Having properties which can be slowly, steadily heated – a great advantage in terms of utilising on-site (or near site) renewable technologies such as heat pumps, and smoothing out the big spikes and troughs in demand.
The reduced demand on time travelling to and from work resulting in us having more time to look after ourselves, our families, and improving our mental and physical well-being.
There are genuine reasons to be excited by these shifts – and we think architects should use our expertise to help build that positive, vibrant possibility into a tangible reality.
We have what I hope is a burnishing reputation for dealing with difficult projects – those on scraps of land others might avoid. Be it within conservation areas, new houses in greenbelt land, or adaptive restoration and extension of listed buildings. There is a real skill involved in knowing how to undertake this type of work, both the technical underpinning, and the creative leaps associated with making joyful, beautiful spaces.
The lockdown has started pointing the way towards a potentially exciting future, accelerating sustainable trends which were suffering from the inertia of history. I expect architects worldwide can, when we ask ourselves the right questions, continue to shape a better future for families, businesses and communities worldwide.
In the past week we’ve had discussions with other architects nearby about how we can work together to help drive this meaningful shift. We encourage other firms to take this challenge alongside us, to begin the process of engendering a collective optimism about how the crisis can become one of the biggest opportunities we’ve had to improve the way we build for future generations.