Much has been said and written about the many potential changes to the built environment as a result of the Corona-19 pandemic, from speculations about a shift away from large city offices as a result of working from home, to a new understanding of the importance of public spaces for the strengthening of community bonds. However, one of the most evident developments to have taken place over the last year and a half is a renewed focus on flexible and adaptable design.
While not new concepts, uncertainty and the potential for sudden change again in the future has led many designers and their clients to place renewed importance on the ability to modify buildings and spaces, whether this be to accommodate daily change of use, or to quickly adjust to changing market demands for specific typologies.
In the following report, we delve into these themes and the different ways in which they are currently being incorporated into urban planning and architecture.
Flexible design is of course not a new concept. In the 20th century, the approach gained notoriety during the Modernist movement with the concept of the ‘living machine’ and was particularly seen as an important resource for mass social housing as a result of post-war housing shortages. Following the disbandment of CIAM in 1959, the Japanese Metabolist movement picked up the mantel and proposed that buildings and urban designs share the same abilities as living organisms, such as growing, reproducing and transforming in response to their environments. The Metabolist’s vision was based on their belief in social good and the belief that cities should adapt to society’s needs, rather than constrain them. Later, in the 1980s, Dutch architect John Habraken advocated for the ‘Open Building approach’, based on the understanding that both stability and change are realities in the contemporary built environment.
Now, spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasing urgency of environmental concerns and recent technological advancements, design is merging with data analytics, automation and device usage and bringing with it a whole new age of interactive flexibility and multi-functional use of space.
The benefits of flexible and adaptable design
Flexibility and adaptability bring numerous benefits across all scales of design and ultimately create added design value for the client and the end user on multiple levels. Here we highlight some of the benefits, from urban masterplans to products.
Urban plans are fundamentally systems of activity and need to operate according to resilient, flexible systems in order to respond to both predictable and unpredictable change. Such systems can enable cities and neighbourhoods to remain attractive, safe and useful, particularly during times of social, environmental and economic upheaval.
Instead of the traditional fixed plan, flexible urban design can propose a set of urban design solutions using a set of interrelated design rules. This enables designing systems of solutions rather than a single solution, thus creating the possibility for response to change.
Post-Corona, any planning measures taken need to strengthen the infrastructure of prevention in cities, enable healthy economies and contribute to the health of the planet. An approach of ‘flexible urban density’ that enables the multi-functional use of public space and mixed-use organisational models could contribute to solutions for all three challenges.
For the design of individual buildings, flexibility is an extremely useful resource for maintaining the economic value of properties and vastly reducing the cost of demolition and replacement (to both planet and pocket).
Buildings that are structurally designed from the outset with a future change of use in mind also save expense and resources. Similarly, designing buildings with future retrofitting in mind can not only increase longevity, it also means that upgrades to the building can further reduce material costs and energy consumption in the future and thereby increase the asset value. According to a 2016 World Green Building Council report on the subject, “Owners report that green buildings – whether new or renovated – command a 7% increase in asset value over traditional buildings”, while modular design can reduce up to 80% of the components used in the exterior, thereby increasing resource-efficiency.
Designing buildings that enable internal fit-out changes in high turnover environments, such as retail spaces or offices means that the transitions of these commercial spaces to successive occupiers is a much smoother process, as the cost and time of refurbishments is reduced.
Spatially, the most evident benefit of a flexible or adaptive design approach is that they enable a more efficient use of space, an increasingly important consideration in these times of increased densification and housing shortages. This, coupled with a growing need to use the same space for multiple different uses (such as working from home), has led not only to a renewed focus on adaptable spatial solutions, but also to new hybrid furniture systems.
Today, with the growth of disruptive technologies, we are in a position to use big data to better understand and design for how our spaces will be used, while integrating automated processes can enable self-regulating spatial and environmental adaptation.
In the following examples, we highlight different approaches and strategies to flexible and adaptive design from a selection of UNStudio projects and urban studies. For a number of these projects we joined forces with the consultancy arm of UNSense for the technology layers within the designs.
Project H1 – Kwangwoon University Station Area Development, Masterplan, Seoul, South Korea, 2020
More than a masterplan, ‘Project H1’ serves as a pilot for an adaptable strategy for mixed-use urban developments of the future.
In 2019 UNStudio was invited by the Hyundai Development Company to design the transformation of an existing railway area in Seoul into a 405,000 m2 superior residential environment in a green neighbourhood; a smart ’10 minute city’ for the digital economy, where open innovation, green energy and diversity create an attractive and productive area to live and work.
H1 is a mixed-use neighbourhood that relies on System Design, where, rather than being fixed, certain components can be arranged according to different needs. As such, the masterplan incorporates various approaches to flexibility and adaptability across different typologies and scales.
The apartments and co-living spaces propose a new typology, based on the Radial typology. This enables multi-generational and lifecycle housing of different sizes and price classes; flexible, compact, or co-living apartments that cater to multiple family and tenant configurations that can change over time.
Furthermore, the co-living, officetel (an office model that combines the features of a house, a hotel and an office) and residential apartments are designed with flexible furniture, including a ‘Living Wall’ system that enables different spatial configurations while housing various smart functions and gadgets.
Amenities such as leisure, co-working spaces and health services are seamlessly integrated into the architectural concept, while the retail component is complemented by a ‘third space’ concept comprising multi-purpose communal spaces with no fixed programme, discussion ‘salons’, spaces for pop-up events and urban break out spaces.
Meanwhile, a mobility square services all the transport needs of the people who live and work in H1. Here, mobility experiences based on shared services provide a high level of flexibility, as users can decide on their preferred service package.
UNStudio also worked closely with UNSense to propose a digital interface for H1 in the form of an additional service layer that would collect and analyse user requirements and translate these into curated service packages.
Bruzzano Milan Masterplan, Italy, 2021
The concept proposal from UNStudio and UNSense for a new intergenerational health themed urban district on the northern edge of Milan was selected for further design development earlier this year by Unipol.
The boundaries between traditional hospitals and more comfortable environments to receive health services are becoming more fluid. In Bruzzano, together with UNSense, we saw an opportunity to introduce a new form of a flexible typology of ‘Care Communities’, forming a decentralised health and healthcare themed district with technology bringing healthcare services closer to the end users and encouraging healthy lifestyle choices as part of the everyday life.
In UNStudio’s proposal, supported by UNSense, technology forms an integrated part of the design that can set up short and long term targets, execute, monitor and enhance built and green environment. The project has the potential to become an innovative testing ground for healthy green tech, used for testing new systems which can be scaled and used throughout the neighbourhood and the city and adapted for other areas in the future, when proven successful.
Brainport Smart District, Helmond, the Netherlands, 2018
Unlike anything we have designed before, our urban vision for Brainport Smart District is a flexible grid that will develop around the demands of its inhabitants. As such, Brainport Smart District is not a pre-determined fixed plan that is designed first and built afterwards; it is a responsive urban ambition, where design and construction will go hand in hand with step-by-step development, guided by its users.
The urban plan offers opportunity for growth with a flexible framework of incremental density. Factoring future economic and social flux, the site is parcelled into a series of strips (from north to south) that demarcates the district into ten parts, offering a diversity of urban and landscape densities and use.
Over the next 10 years, 1,500 new homes and 12 hectares of business premises will be built around the needs of people who live and work in the area. The ambition is to achieve a sustainable, circular and socially cohesive neighbourhood that enjoys joint energy generation, food production, water management, joint digital data management and revolutionary transport systems. As such, the development will be characterised by the application of the latest technologies and knowledge, becoming a ‘living lab’.
Data gathered from homes, workplaces and public spaces will feed into a central digital layer referred to as the ‘Personal Data Platform’ (developed by UNSense), and will be used to help create new tech-assisted solutions focused on improving everyday life for the residents.
Future Campus, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland, 2018
As learning transitions into a flexible, engaging and communal endeavor, UNStudio’s competition vision for UCD’s Future Campus transformed the current monofunctional campus into a ‘Marketplace of Innovation’. By reimagining the UCD campus as a vibrant space filled with agile spaces, the campus becomes a destination for learning, culture and commerce: a green space of engagement.
As part of the Future Campus masterplan, a new Centre for Creative Design building was designed as a kick-starter for connectedness. It acts as a flexible platform that fosters serendipitous knowledge sharing and engenders a culture of engagement within UCD’s community.
Qingdao World Horticultural Expo Theme Pavilion, Qingdao, 2011-2014
In the design for the Qingdao World Horticultural Expo Theme Pavilion UNStudio combined expert knowledge of logistics, spatial organisation, specialised typology, future flexible usability, function programming, façade intelligence, user comfort and sustainability.
Following the World Horticultural Expo 2014, the landscape art themed expo park was set to become a new venue for eco-tourism, which would shift the focus of Qingdao’s tourism from sightseeing to leisure. Together with the organisers, UNStudio incorporated a possible future lifecycle into the design of the Theme Pavilion by allowing a transformation of the buildings into a hotel building, accommodating conference and teaching facilities. As part of the design process, the future use of the Theme Pavilion was therefore incorporated into the DNA of the design.
Echo, Delft, Netherlands, 2017 – 2021
Designed to meet the Delft University of Technology’s need for versatile extra teaching space and currently under construction, Echo is a new inter-faculty building that transcends current learning environments.
This additional building for TU Delft will house seven new teaching rooms, many of which can be divided into separate spaces to reflect the diversity of education methods and study styles. Each of these teaching rooms have been designed based on the current and future needs of the lecturers and students at this leading Dutch university, enabling maximum flexibility for the constantly changing world of learning.
The seven teaching rooms have been designed with flexibility in mind. The focus will be on medium-sized and large teaching rooms, accommodating between 150 and 700 people. These spaces will be adaptable, with the largest lecture hall able to be divided into three separate rooms.
Van B, Munich, Germany, 2018
Currently under construction in Munich, the new Van B residential project offers a completely new form of housing that reimagines the future of urban living.
As a prototype for modern city dwelling, Van B is designed to cater to changing demographics and multiple family constellations. Located on Infanteriestrasse next to the city‘s future ‘Kreativquartier’ (Creative Quarter), Van B features highly flexible apartments, outdoor and shared communal spaces and presents a new model of urban housing.
Van B challenges old conventions of square footage and fixed footprints to empower people to live in more flexible ways. The architectural strategy was to devise as many different ways as possible to reconfigure an apartment, transforming square metres into quality metres.
To achieve this, UNStudio designed an adaptable partition and furniture ‘plugin-based’ system, which allows homeowners to use the space in a 40m2 apartment almost as if it were a 60m2 loft.
ECC Eindhoven (Elysion Congress Centre), Netherlands, 2021
The winning proposal for the Elysion Congress Centre will create a new state-of-the-art congress and conference centre in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. In order to ensure financial feasibility during exploitation, a proposal was developed to create a flexible and hybrid design for the 1,500-seat auditorium.
By creating different configurations within the conference space, the auditorium can be divided into four independent smaller auditoria, enabling smaller conferences to take place simultaneously within the building. When configured in this way, retractable seating also makes it possible for the lower auditorium to be used as a banquet hall while the other conference rooms are in use. In addition, a recording studio located in the conference centre will make it possible to host hybrid online and live events.
Article courtesy of UNStudio
Further UNStudio articles about flexibility and adaptability can be found on the following links:
Ben van Berkel – Post Corona, the New Age of Architecture is ‘Super Flexible’
UNSx – Adapatable Workspaces: Rethinking the Meaning of Work
Selma Larsson – Modular Construction in Architecture: The Future of Flexible Design