Posted in practice
on February 11, 2016 4:38 pm EST
Big, Little, and the Spaces In-Between
As natural resources become more scarce, the cost of adapting an existing building is becoming more attractive. In fact, adaptive reuse could become the most sustainable idea we employ.
Within our design studio, when first talking to prospective clients about a new project we like to say, “Sustainability is our culture, not our conversation.” We consider it part of our basic job, just as it is our responsibility to design a structure that doesn’t leak when it rains.
"The human scale ultimately determines how we size our buildings, from the door width to the height of a window to the length of an aisle—every architect has memorized the basic dimensions of human scale."
—James Theimer, AIA, Principal Architect, Trilogy Architecture, Redding, CA
We don’t talk about saving the planet one building at a time—unless the client wants to—and we don’t ask for permission to design an environmentally friendly design as if it’s a choice, we just do it. That’s because these days it really doesn’t cost more to design sustainably as long as you are thoughtful about how you go about it.Building Evolution
What we do like to talk about with our clients is the importance of thinking about how their building use may evolve over time, and how that should be reflected in the initial design. Recently, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) based in Washington, D.C., noted that 61% of all construction is retrofit projects, with the American Institute of Architects (AIA), also in Washington, D.C., showing that half of architects’ revenue comes from this type of project. As natural resources become more scarce, the cost of adapting an existing building is becoming more attractive, and adaptive reuse could become the most sustainable idea we employ. That means that there is a good chance the buildings we design today will be used for something different in the future.
Sanctuaries nowadays often need to accommodate different sightlines for multimedia presentations, and natural light has become more prevalent as our ability to control light infiltration has grown. Connectivity between spaces—or buildings, cities and countries, for that matter—has increased with new technological advances. Better acoustic control makes big spaces work better for small work areas. Modular furniture can be portable but appear to be fixed, vastly improving our ability to quickly transform a space for changing uses. These are just a few relatively recent changes. How do we design buildings that will function for a hundred years or more in the future, when you consider that the Internet didn’t really exist until 15 years ago, and it has fundamentally changed the way we look at many aspects of construction?
It starts with understanding that all buildings are made up of different kinds of space—public vs. private, office, conference, and large assembly—all arranged around some type of circulation space such as a hallway or gallery. But at least in the foreseeable future, people are going to remain roughly the same size. This is not meant to be facetious; the human scale ultimately determines how we size our buildings, from the door width to the height of a window to the length of an aisle—every architect has memorized the basic dimensions of human scale. That means a room’s size is the critical factor in determining how many uses it can accommodate. Whether we realize it or not, every building has small- and medium-sized spaces, but relatively few have large spaces included in the design. That’s because large spaces such as assembly halls are usually the most expensive type of space to build structurally. But they also have the most versatility. Large spaces can be divided into smaller spaces, but not so easily the other way around.Structural Flexibility
Many buildings these days are still designed with interior load-bearing walls and closely spaced columns—just two examples of limiting future changes in your building layout because it works for the initial building program. So, when we are designing a building that needs a large assembly space, such as a church, we design for the most cost effective long-span structure possible, and not just for the main sanctuary, but for the other spaces, as well. We refer to this as “structural flexibility.” Does that mean that every building becomes a big box? Absolutely not, and that’s where design comes into play. We discuss with our clients how the building can be designed to be as flexible as possible on the interior for likely changes in the future, while ideally still maintaining an iconic exterior form—this will not only make the building more useful to the client in the long term, but more valuable if it is sold.
Thinking about how we organize different sized spaces is a sustainable concept that we need to embrace for all of our buildings. If we do that, then sustainability becomes part of the basic building equation, and not one item on a checklist for the client to answer yes or no.