To truly contribute to the development of society – and remain relevant for generations to come – buildings need to be flexible. Never has this been clearer than now, when we’re faced with a global health crisis.
As the world continues on its path to realising a post-covid society, authorities are scrambling to put out advice on how to adapt public venues to better safeguard people’s health.
While in the future buildings will be designed from the outset with stricter health regulations, existing structures will need to be reconfigured. Although to what extent exactly is still unknown.
With history as a guide, covid-19 is going to have a lasting impact on how we design for the built environment. We’ve seen this happen through other major world events, such as the 1918 flu pandemic, 9/11 and the 2008 financial crash. And these won’t be the last.
But not all disruptions come with crises; new forms of culture, societal shifts and developments in technology also have the power to reshape the world.
At UNStudio, our mission has always been to produce user-centric designs that are adaptive, resilient and future-proof – whatever that future may bring. It was for this reason that we created our strategic design and ideation arm, called UNSFutures. Using speculative design and forecasting, we look at how global issues such as climate change, societal inequalities and human health threats could affect how we design for the built environment.
But with the future changing faster than ever before, even the most accurate predictions can become redundant by something like a sudden advance in technology. To be able to navigate through these changes, the key is to design with flexibility in mind.
From offices and retail spaces to museums and schools, architecture has to be able to adapt to meet the ever-evolving needs of society. A key example of this is in educational institutions, where teaching methods and study styles are constantly evolving.
Last week we unveiled our latest example of this: Echo, a new campus building for the Delft University of Technology (images above). Our brief? To design an inter-faculty building that would meet this leading Dutch university’s need for extra teaching space. But our vision went far beyond this.
We felt it was crucial to create a space that transcends current learning environments, to be adaptable enough to accommodate the future needs of the lecturers and students, too. With this in mind, we designed seven new teaching rooms, most of which can be divided into separate spaces, enabling maximum flexibility. The largest lecture hall, which seats 700 people, can be divided into three separate rooms. Beyond the classrooms, we looked at how we could make the in-between space usable to, supporting the contemporary culture of ‘everything anywhere’.
Our design for the Singapore University of Technology and Design (image above) also provides this level of adaptability. Classically, tertiary institutions have assigned faculties to specific buildings spread across their campus grounds. For the SUTD, we used a new way of organising a campus building, distributing faculties over multiple buildings that are divided vertically. With this approach, it gives students and lecturers the opportunity to meet and share knowledge across disciplines. In addition, the meeting spaces, classrooms and laboratories can also be adapted to different arrangements.
One of the most relevant areas for flexibility in today’s world is the workplace, with big questions remaining about how we will design these spaces in the future.
For one approach to this, we can look at the Southbank by Beulah development (image above) in Melbourne. Working in collaboration with COX Architecture, we looked at how we could maximise the spatial diversity in its two towers. In the smaller of these structures, we designed a concept for a new type of workplace, with open co-working/hotdesking zone that are spread across a network of platforms, balconies and terraces spaced vertically up the building, creating both indoor and outdoor areas for staff to work in. Brainstorming can be done on a green balcony for instance, while focused work could take place in the middle zone and collaborative work in the winter garden.
By designing buildings with flexibility at their core, we as architects can provide solutions for the needs of today, as well as the uncertain needs of the future.