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Zero carbon is today’s design
To meet social, environmental and economic needs of 30 years hence, our buildings of the future must embrace sustainable design.
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No crystal ball required – just imagination Nick Ling

We can’t read the future, but we can prepare for it by creating buildings that are flexible by design and adaptable by construction.

Architects and engineers are designing tomorrow’s buildings using yesterday’s ideas. Are our offices, homes and civic infrastructure fit for the future? Colleagues at Mott MacDonald fear not, so in February we got a dozen experts in climate resilience, structural engineering, urban planning, building services and architecture together to ask: what should buildings look like in 2050?

To us, the link between increasing carbon emissions and global warming is clear and unequivocal. The UK building of tomorrow will experience hotter, drier summers, wetter winters and stronger winds; many will be at risk from more frequent and intense flooding. Meanwhile, we’re seeing a digital revolution taking place against a backdrop of population growth coupled with resource scarcity and economic constraint. There is a moral duty on us all to clamp down on waste and maximise value from our buildings, particularly in cities where space is often limited.

Buildings in 2050 will need to be adaptable to suit multiple uses. There’s already a rise in multifunctional and live/work spaces; for instance we’re now seeing a variant on ‘Airbnb’ – a web-enabled hospitality industry game-changer whereby people can rent out rooms to people who would normally stay in a hotel: People are now starting to rent out desk space, so one person’s home becomes another’s office. Many office buildings have areas that can be partitioned, turning them from intimate workspaces into conference rooms. Sports and entertainment venues have been pursuing multifunctionality for some time to create seven days a week community hubs and maximise return on investment by ‘sweating the asset’. In future a school by day might become a clinic by night. How much further can we extend that thinking? Like much in the future, potential new uses can’t be imagined let alone foreseen – but we can be sure that today’s conventions aren’t a reliable predictor.

Changes to hourly and daily uses require designs that are highly flexible. And that flexibility should encompass the option to entirely reconfigure buildings to meet longer-term changes in need and use. The current norm is to create permanent spatial layouts which are non-specific and therefore flexible in their use, but alternative thinking is driving designs towards modular structures that can be expanded or reduced in size, opened up into large spaces or portioned into smaller ones, strengthened to take greater loads, or ‘lightened’ if use and loading is decreased.

For real sustainability, buildings might be designed as if they are temporary structures. Not only would designing with a ‘temporary mindset’ make it easier to adapt to unforeseeable changes in social and economic need, but with surprisingly large numbers of new developments being ‘caught out’ by climate change, a flexible approach to designing and constructing would enable buildings to be relocated or adapted in the face of persistent environmental risks.

Could the value of a building be based on its ability to adapt, rather than on its land and material value? BIM design is enabling modular ‘catalogue-based’ design that benefits from standardisation, while also allowing the kit of parts to be assembled in many different ways to meet diverse physical needs and client objectives. This would also facilitate full reuse of parts at the end of a building’s useful life. They would be efficient structures that could be dismantled and either rebuilt or reconfigured in new locations, or ‘returned to stock’ allowing individual parts to be incorporated alongside new modules, for new purposes. There could be bonus points in the planning approvals process for specifying an already-used structure.

And designing for disassembly and reuse would create demand for new construction industry skills, logistics and supply chain services, supporting new employment.

To some extent, such buildings already exist and the London 2012 Olympics showcased a number of them. The shooting events venue at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, for example, was designed and built using an efficient, demountable and reusable modular steel structure clad with 100% recyclable PVC inner and outer skins. The structure used standard steel trusses that are widely available for hire – they had previously been used by Madonna on her ‘Sweet and Sticky’ tour – and were returned to hire after the Games.

By 2050, the continuing development and use of BIM will allow material properties and the loading history of every component in a building to be documented, to inform reuse options. Instrumentation used to monitor these members could also provide intelligence on condition over time, allowing for preventative maintenance or replacement – perhaps automated asset management will e-order, or commission a 3D-printed replacement part.

Buildings of the future won’t end up on the scrap heap… there won’t be a scrap heap! Zero carbon is today’s design. Tomorrow’s buildings will not only need to incorporate renewable power generation to ensure they are net contributors to the grid. Add in renewable materials such as sustainably sourced timber and the mix gets more interesting still.

To meet social, environmental and economic needs of 30 years hence, our buildings of the future must embrace all of these ideas. And we should be designing them today.

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