Our cities are about to become more adaptable than ever as architecture and urban planning enter a new age of super flexibility.
Cover image: The highly flexible new Echo building at TU Delft. Render: Plomp
The corona pandemic has shown us all how suddenly society’s needs can shift, and with this, how our cities have to be able to cope with sudden changes to remain thriving, functional and enjoyable places for people to live. As we look towards the future of our industry, it’s clear that we are heading into a new age of architecture and urban planning – one of super flexibility.
While the pandemic has acted as an impetus for this renewed focus on adaptability, it is not the only driving force behind it. Increasingly urgent environmental concerns and advancements in technology are also principal factors.
Of course, the concept of flexible buildings is not new. It gained notoriety during the Modernist movement in the 20th century, which had a mantra that ‘a house is a machine for living in’. But it was during the Japanese Metabolist movement that arose in the late 1950s when the idea that buildings and urban designs share the same abilities as living organisms (like growing, reproducing and transforming in response to their environments) emerged.
Today, flexibility in architecture is all about creating places that can continuously adapt their layout, space and even structure to suit the changing needs of their users. This approach is something UNStudio has been incorporating into our designs for decades, and it’s also the theme of our new report, exploring the different ways in which flexibility and adaptability are currently being added into urban planning, architecture and product design.
In almost all of the examples featured, the flexible elements are only now possible because of the growth of disruptive technologies. Today, we are in a position to be able to use big data to better understand and design for how our spaces will be used. And this is leading to many innovative approaches to architecture and urban planning whereby this data is used to guide, improve and even personalise our built environments and the experiences we have in them. The concept for the Brainport Smart District in the Dutch city of Helmond is a key illustration of this.
Brainport, which we plan to be ‘the smartest neighbourhood in the world’, will see the construction of 1,500 new homes over the next 10 years. But this innovative housing district isn’t designed with a pre-determined fixed plan. Instead, it will be developed in line with residents needs and wants over time. To do this, we will add a central digital layer referred to as the ‘Personal Data Platform’ (developed by our daughter company UNSense). Essentially, data gathered from homes, workplaces and public spaces in the neighbourhood will be fed into this platform and used to help create new tech-assisted solutions focused on improving everyday life for the residents. The ambition is to achieve a sustainable, circular and socially cohesive neighbourhood that enjoys joint energy generation, food production, water management and revolutionary transport systems.
Another project named in the report is Echo at TU Delft, which is now close to completion. This new inter-faculty building will house seven new teaching rooms, but it’s designed with features that allow for the space to be reconfigured when needed – whether today, tomorrow or in 10 years. The two largest lecture halls, for instance, have movable walls, which can be put in place in just 15 minutes, allowing for these spaces to be divided into smaller rooms as needed. The entire building also features a high-tech, tiled flooring system, in which the ventilation ducts and power sockets are also incorporated. We specifically chose this system, because the tiles can simply be lifted up and rearranged if TU Delft want to change the layout of the building in the future. Additionally, we used modular walls on the top floor for easier reconfiguration.
It’s also important to point out here that 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.
One way these renovations can become more efficient in the future is by adopting BIM-SPEED technology. BIM, which stands for Building Information Model, is a digital representation of a building. And the ongoing BIM-SPEED project, which is run by a consortium of 24 companies including UNStudio, will develop a combination of methodologies and tools around this with the purpose of determining the most energy-efficient alterations for buildings. The aim is to reduce their energy usage by 60% and to help reduce the renovation time by 30%.
By adopting this technology on a national or EU-wide level, it will be possible to store all of our building’s information in a central hub, and to use this information to digitally plan and test the performance of renovations on virtual 3D models before undertaking them on the physical structure. It means that everything from the placement of windows to the materials used can be tested and optimised for their performance and environmental impact in advance.
Aside from the buildings themselves, the products we use in them also add greatly to the flexibility and adaptability of a space. And with the addition of new technology, we can now also create products that adjust to a person’s specific needs and have a positive impact on their wellbeing. For instance, Soliscape, which our UNSx team created with Delta Light, is a versatile system that uses sensors to determine the optimal lighting and acoustic conditions for users, and adjusts the settings to best suit their needs. It also comes as a toolbox of flexible components that can be used to create ‘lightscapes’ that fit your specific space, but can then also be rearranged later.
Innovations like this really show how we are moving from smart buildings towards responsive architecture. And we are only at the beginning. As technology continues to develop, new possibilities for expanding the lifespan of our buildings and making our built environment more flexible, sustainable and healthier than ever will emerge.