Notes towards an adaptable future

This guest post comes from Chris Brown, the Chief Executive of Igloo Regeneration.  The text originally appeared as part of a joint submission to our design competition last year with Ash Sakula Architects which was one of the winning submissions (see image above) for an adaptable neighbourhood.  Chris actively writes on his own blog as part of the Regeneration and Renewal website.  Igloo has been involved in several interesting and successfully adapted projects including the recently completed Porth Teigr in Cardiff designed by FAT Architecture one of our collaborators.


Collaborative consumption

Collaborative consumption is a major trend in sustainability at the moment. For example, Zipcar, the largest of the car clubs where cars are shared by communities in half-hour slots, is now a billion dollar company in America. At the other end of the scale, the social centre at 56a Crampton Street in south London includes a bicycle repair space with a full set of tools, which the local community can share to fix their own bicycles. Sustainability is driving away from consumption of goods to consumption of services.  Of course, car rental companies and bicycle repair shops have been doing things like this for ages. However, the ways and means of sharing resources have become more innovative against a backdrop of the likelihood of resource shortages and the need to reduce the production of greenhouse gases. The question for us is how we can apply this to the built environment.

Commercial office buildings are inhabited for less than a quarter of the time. That is to say, for 10 hours out of the 24-hour day (40%) and for five days out of seven in a week, on top of bank holidays (65%). In addition, people are either ill or on holiday for about 15% of the time.  Ideas about the working environment have become more flexible with the increasing popularity of hot desking and serviced offices. Equally, a mobile workspace is embraced more and more; from home, in the café or park, at clients’ premises or while on the move.

Space is underused

Businesses want to be functioning 24 hours but employees don’t want to work night shifts, so they have offices in different time zones. Consequently, all around the world, office buildings lie empty most of the time. And as the world’s population grows and urbanises, even more offices are built that lie empty most of the time.  In the developed world, as the economy changes from an industrial to an information age, fewer factories and more offices are needed. This increasingly mobile and knowledge working population requires more smaller homes as people live longer, have children later and divorce more. But while space per office worker reduces, residential space per person is increasing. Small homes are inefficient to build and to run.

The cities we have inherited are generally far from efficient. They are often low density with poor streets and public spaces. They are often not nice places to be, which is why people flee to the suburbs to even more low density where there is a reliance on cars. Such a reliance is unsustainable as petrol becomes more expensive and the resources scarce.  Life in suburbia doesn’t bring people happiness, however, as they lose contact with community, commute further to work and consume more as a result. Leisure is increasingly digital and mobile, as smartphones and tablet computers deliver television and social networks to us wherever we are in a compact format.  As a result of spending more time commuting, and more money and time eating out and social networking, we increasingly use ‘home’ just as a place to sleep and procreate. Web-based networks, such as, suggest that many young people in society no longer feel the need to nest. They carry their life in a bag, travelling extensively and moving base regularly.

Making better use of expensive space

So, what if we could use our buildings and places more flexibly and more efficiently: buy the use of the space rather than the space itself?  Perhaps we should aim to occupy a building half of the time instead of a quarter? This opens up the possibility that the entire doubling of the world’s urban population between now and 2050 (three billion extra city dwellers) could be accommodated in existing buildings. Therefore reducing environmental destruction through mining or greenhouse gas emissions for building materials.

But could a future like this ever work?
Would people accept it?
How wouldit be organised?
What would it look like?

In this groundbreaking piece of commercially grounded research and development innovation, we have set out to provide some potential answers to these questions.
Market-driven adaptation
Innovation tends to be driven by markets so we need to understand the market drivers behind these changes.  Is new build value greater than total development cost including external costs of mining finite resources and production of green house gases (excluding land)?
If yes: Is it greater than total development cost as above including the value of the land and any buildings?
If yes: Is it greater than the value of the land and the enhanced value of the buildings plus the value of embodied carbon and social value of existing fabric and use?
If yes: Consider demolition and redevelopment with new maximum sustainable adaptable buildings.
If no to any of the above: Consider value enhancement through adaptation.
Similar questions can be asked for existing buildings and spaces.
Is the building/space in the highest value use?
Is the building/place fully utilised (intensity of existing use, 24/7)?
If yes: do nothing
If no, consider: Change to highest value uses
Add meanwhile buildings (beach huts, roof pods, floating spaces)
Create Nomad Pavilions (intensify 24/7 use within buildings)
Ameliorate and animate space between buildings
Add transition spaces (cafes, libraries, outdoor seating)

Monitor, Feedback and Adapt
This process doesn’t stop, it is a continuous process of questioning.

Have social, climate, physical, institutional, technological or market conditions changed?
If no: do nothing
If yes: go back to stage one.
Space Efficiency – Nomad Pavilions

The technology is in place to use internet booking systems to find somewhere to work or sleep with short notice. There is already the demand from travellers, low budget workers and sofa surfers Storage lockers, which are accessible 24/7, can be used to store possessions. At the moment, serviced offices are more like car clubs. A further stage of innovation could be to design buildings with spaces that can be used for both work and sleep during a 24-hour and seven-day period?  These same principles would apply to the buildings that we once called offices and in the future will be known as Nomad Pavilions. With sliding and pivoting walls, furniture that folds or rolls away, these buildings would convert incrementally from office to residential at the touch of a button each weekday evening. Many offices already have showers and Wi-Fi.  It’s a bit like living in hotel but with all your own possessions. 

These moves would also require innovations in our regulatory system. For example, which use class these would fit into – currently sui generis but potentially B1/C3? Also, there would need to be consideration of the security of tenure desired by occupants as well as how prices might be controlled.  As mentioned above, markets always adapt. If this increased use of space were to generate higher revenues, which more than compensate for higher costs (particularly if the embodied carbon in buildings and in combustion engine travel starts costing more) then the funds for these buildings will be forthcoming.


It is no longer as simple as travelling from point A to point B; people want to be in different places at different times. Caravans and campervans serve this function but are dated and underused. Instead we could designate pod sites all over the place, in the city (on the roof, in the yard, on the riverbank) and in the country (on the beach, in the hills). These pods would be designed to operate as workspace and as living space, and move to meet demand. We would hire them by the time slot: 8am-6pm five days a week or 6pm-8am plus weekends.  Our personal belongings, which are increasingly few in an anti-consumerist information world, would live in our secure private store (accessible 24/7). Thus, accommodation costs would be halved, our discretionary disposable incomes would double and we spend more time travelling.

In-between times and places

At the beginning and end of the day, we would move from our working place to our sleeping place and we would meet our friends virtually, in the spaces between buildings (streets, squares, parks) and as we travel. Libraries will re-establish themselves as public spaces where our communities store all the things that we share between us, along with cafes and shops.  Where building uses overlap, we would use these, probably ground floor, transient spaces as our social spaces to eat and meet and also to wait for our private space to come available.



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