If the past year has taught us anything, it is that humans can be very adaptable. Almost at the flick of a switch many of us were expected to completely change our usual working habits and learn to do our jobs in a way we have never worked before.
This got us thinking – wouldn’t it be great if our buildings could adapt as easily as we can? Whilst we definitely don’t want another 2020, there are many aspects of our lives that continue to change at pace – how we travel, how we buy our groceries and how we communicate. Technological change is fuelling most of this, but it has an impact on how we live in our own homes.
The term “long-life, loose-fit” coined by architect Alex Gordon is particularly relevant to this concept of adaptability. This concept questions the idea that a building or development project is finished on the day it opens, and instead suggests that a building only begins its life once it is constructed. From this perspective, a building should be designed and constructed with adaptability in mind, meaning that throughout the life of the building, it can adapt to new ways of life and have many different purposes and identities.
London’s Oxo Tower is one of the most iconic examples of a “long-life, loose-fit” building. Starting its life as a power station for the Post Office in the 1900s, then a cold store for the producers of Oxo Stock Cubes, and following refurbishment, now a mix of retail, restaurant and design spaces, as well as accommodating 78 flats.
This concept is the epitome of sustainability – as it encourages us to use the existing built environment, but to refurb and reinvent, rather than demolish and rebuild. Our own London office is a perfect example of this – converting what was an underutilised car park into an exciting new office space.
The Government’s introduction of a more flexible Use Class Order and new Permitted Development Rights does present some fantastic opportunities to reinvent existing buildings. There are also some incredible opportunities to retrofit historic buildings to extend their lifespan, just as our own Heritage and Townscape team have experienced.
However, are we failing to design new buildings with adaptability in mind? There is a risk that as we rush to meet the ever-growing housing targets, that we construct homes that are not suitable for adaptation to suit new ways of living (and working) in the future.
Planning policy is slow to catch up, and essentially becomes out of date the moment it is adopted. Our focus on meeting the numerous policy requirements can mean housing schemes are over regulated, potentially constraining the flexibility for future occupiers to curate how the space is used.
The “long-life, loose-fit” concept was coined many years ago but remains as relevant as ever and should be at the forefront of our minds when designing sustainable places for the future.