Future-proofing the buildings we design to promote longevity requires an in-built adaptability that simply isn’t compatible with the systems we’re accustomed to today.

Rory O'Hagan

Rory O’Hagan

By way of example, despite having some discretionary properties, planning policy is surprisingly rigid. Distinct use classes are all we’ve ever known. Our built heritage is typically a fixed, ‘point-in-time’ response to present needs at the time of design and construction. For that reason, we’re rarely invited to consider how a building constructed today can solve a problem in 75 years or a century, or, up until now, the environmental consequences if the legacy we’re leaving behind is demolished rather than repurposed.

Government-led targets to reach net zero by 2030 and the urgency to decarbonise the built environment make this a critical inflection point where we must embrace adaptability at all stages of the development cycle. This needs to happen, and fast. Longevity, and the ability of buildings to flex to prevailing socioeconomic trends, will inevitably factor into the valuation of built assets.

What we gift future generations can’t be fortunate ‘accidents’. Reuse for multiple scenarios must be embedded in the design framework and choreographed from the outset.

With Enfield Borough Council, AECOM, Exterior Architecture, ArchitectureDoingPlace and Hatch Urban Solutions, among others, we’ve developed a technical concept for a universal build system – RightSizer – which will guide the approach to adaptability, championed at the Meridian Water development in Enfield, London.

Mitigating dependence on non-renewable resources, reducing embodied carbon, improving biodiversity outcomes and creating sustainable, intergenerational communities where people are able to age in place all rely on a systems approach that envisions a global ecosystem of interoperable components and parts to make dynamic and adaptive buildings.

Our ambition is for the construction industry to make everyday buildings that can be disassembled and repurposed with minimal waste. We need to move away from the idea that design is only for present or near-term purposes. Component-based modular construction is the most appropriate system approach for genuine adherence to circular economy principles that are required to make all of this happen.

Simplicity and standardisation of physical and digital components are key features of the RightSizer build system. Targeting 60% reclaimed and regenerative components relies on designing structures that can incorporate mixed materials without feeling disjointed or failing to meet critical technical requirements. Pre-cast concrete floor panels, columns and core walls create a durable 100-year plus ‘support layer’. A lightweight, mostly timber ‘infill layer’ can be reconfigured and removed on shorter timeframes, allowing flexible adaption to multiple use cases and a big reduction in embodied carbon.

Before reaching net zero and acknowledging the inflexibility of our buildings, there is a gargantuan national project of retrofitting existing homes that the Office of Budgetary Responsibility estimates to be upwards of £400bn; this equates to the pandemic budget deficit and focuses on the problems of poor fabric performance in mostly leaky old houses.

Moving forward, our industry’s priority should be to create resilient, high-performance and adaptive buildings as standard. For the sake of economic, social and environmental sustainability, we have no other choice.

Rory O’Hagan is director of Assael Architecture