14 Nov 2015

Adaptable Housing - a paper I wrote back in 2012...


This 'paper' (now post) pursues the investigation into the current and future position of flexible, adaptive architecture in response to social, environmental and economic factors. It emphasises the overarching need for this shift in architectural design, explores its current position, and lastly demonstrates the technological potential of the built environment becoming humanly responsive. It highlights distinct areas for exploration and welcomes advances in smart technologies for the incorporation in to our architecture.


Buildings have previously generated a pre-conceived notion of being static yet we are currently in a transitional phase towards a more dynamic architectural environment. Buildings are being conceptualised less as concrete, steel and brick elements but more as a series of pro-formative, responsive elements; energy systems, air systems, lighting systems, acoustic systems all with the intention of increasing our comforts as the users and occupiers. (Schwitter, 2008) Flexible architecture is that which can adjust to changing needs and patterns be it social, environmental or economical. It embraces the ability to make changes pre-occupation, yet most importantly has the potential to allow the building to change and adapt over its lifetime (Schneider & Till, 2007).

Recently we have seen ample reasons for incorporating the concept of flexibility and adaptability into our built environment on a worldwide basis. Escalating from the idea of flexibility being used to manage issues caused through social, economic and environmental factors, I decided to explore this further. I have identified from my reading, four significant elements that work in a cyclic motion, two of which act as catalysts: the expanding city and climate change. And two which offer plausible solutions: recycling and reaction.

This Paper will, using a systematic approach, identify and appraise past, current and future urban developments from around the world in order to recognise and challenge limits of adaptability within architecture and the built environment.

The Expanding City

Urbanisation is defined as an increase in urban population faster than the increase in total population; the 21st century is likely to be dominated by urbanisation, kept on the move by expanding cities. Studying data from previous decades, experts have developed growing concerns towards statistics and demographic trends that show urban populations in many cities across the world seem to be rising. (Genske & Ruff, 2006)

At the millennium it was proven that the world’s cities are growing in total by more than 60 million people, the equivalent to the entire UK population, each year and by 2015, the UN predict that there will be 358 ‘million cities’, that is cities with a population of one million or more: worryingly, no less than 153 will be in Asia. It is also predicted that 27 mega-cities of more than 10 million inhabitants will also have been established and by 2025, two thirds of the world’s population, approximately 5 billion people, will be living in cities. (Hall & Pfeiffer, 2000)

The housing demand of an aging society further stimulates excessive urban sprawl and by 2030, it is predicted approximately 16% of the world’s population will be older than 60, with the anticipation that one in three could be over this age in Europe. (Hall & Pfeiffer, 2000) Being equipped to adapt for issues such as an ageing population is vital. Integrated housing refers to multi-generational homes that offer older people an environment that encourages their integration in to society rather than away from it. The idea of “aging in place”, in which elders remain in their own homes and communities is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to specialised senior facilities (Schittich, 2007). Simple design ideas can ultimately result in facilitating a fit between a house’s constraints and the needs of the occupant (Friedman, 2002). A UK government scheme currently being promoted is the lifetime homes concept. Originally an idea developed nearly twenty years ago in an attempt to design a home that offers not gimmicks that people do not need, but features that make the home flexible enough to meet whatever comes along in life. It now sets out sixteen parameters that go above and beyond ‘Part M: Access to and Use of Buildings’ from the building regulations. Though often not even noticed by its occupants (Sopp & Wood, 2001), many of these 16 items do offer the ability for someone to stay in their home for the duration of their life. Standards and conditions will change and develop but with the simple design features introduced in a lifetime home it means making alterations or adapting spaces to suit the user’s needs are easily achievable.

Changing cities also offer opportunities, not only to architects and government schemes but also to new forms of land and resource management. Urbanisation and the growth of cities have been accompanied by the maturation of slums, home to nearly a third of the entire world population. Residents have to choose between health and safety, and a need for shelter. The conditions faced by slum occupants often include poor housing, poor access to clean water and sanitary, overcrowding and building on land that is unsafe and unsuitable for habitation. 
Dharavi, Mumbai is the largest slum in India and one of the biggest in the world. Mumbai is a city with approximately 14 million inhabitants, and Dharavi is located within close proximity to the financial district. It occupies just one square mile yet has a population, officially, of around 600,000 though this is realistically closer to one million. They reside in approx. 100,000 makeshift homes, with one of the world’s highest population densities at more than 18,000 people per acre. (Apte, 2008) Dharavi is however unique and vibrant, it is self-sustaining and has a thriving industrial business resulting in 80% employment across the Slum. The street also is more than just a thoroughfare - it is a space of transaction, dwelling, eating, working, gathering and recreation as well as transition. The same place can change identity many times throughout a day. (Shepard, 2007)

“Every morning this industrious population rolls up its beds and in an instant transforms tens of thousands of living spaces into an informal network of freelance workshops, making and selling almost anything imaginable”  Kevin McCloud, 2011.

The overwhelming density does not allow for any space to be wasted – on trains, under bridges or in between buildings. Nor does Dharavi allow for any material to be wasted, recycling is a way of life, not just to construct their homes but as an income and is an industry that employs 250,000 people right across the Slum. 4,000 tonnes of waste is recycled every day and generates $72 million per year. This along with the potential methods of street proficiency practised both individually and cooperatively by its residents should be something we commend and learn from. With the Slum being positioned in a prime location for development it is constantly under pressure from the rich, however if anything this place should be replicated, not replaced. (Apte, 2008)This flexibility and adaptability is something we just cannot apprehend in the civilised western world where space is gaining premium and unemployment is increasing. The close proximity between jobs and high density, low-rise housing results in an organically developed urban form that is walkable, community-oriented, and network-based something that we are striving to achieve in the UK with ‘Planning Policy Statement 3: Housing’. What does seem to be evident is a lack of preciousness towards the built environment and surrounding areas, perhaps a bold statement, but in turn, practically, this allows it to continue its construction over time, as and when it is required, in effect creating a ‘living city’.


Change always bears opportunities. In the case of transforming cities, these opportunities must relate to the notion of sustainable development. The development of our cities to meet the rising population demands must be carried out in a way that does not impact the world’s resources for our future generations. Dharavi is setting benchmarks for recycling waste, however this chapter looks at recycling more specifically and primarily that of existing spaces and structures for creative re-use. When architecture outlives its purpose in which it was originally designed for, it has in the past been felt that it is time for it to make way and a new building to be put up in its place. This should not be the case and rather than demolishing existing structures we should be looking at inspired ways to re-use them to solve contemporary needs. The definition of regeneration is ‘to renew’ or ‘impart new life to something’. In the context of urban regeneration this includes bringing derelict land and buildings back into use and improving environmental quality.

The United Kingdom’s cities are littered with derelict sites once of industrial activity. The re-use of these sites does not have to be permanent in order to have an impact on the environment and its surroundings. With the Olympic Games heading to East London in 2012, Roger Wade, of designer clothing brand ‘Boxfresh’ felt it was the perfect time to launch his latest idea, Boxpark, a ‘pop-up’ shopping mall located on a brownfield site in Shoreditch. The Bishopsgate Goods Yard site opened its doors in August 2011 as the world’s first shopping mall to be constructed entirely using recycled shipping containers. The idea makes use of a site at a time when all eyes will be on the East of London, not only promoting the area but also the creative re-use of shipping containers. The mall is split in two halves, retail at ground level and a mixed-use area upstairs including cafes, restaurants, coffee shops, art galleries and exhibition space. No high-street brands can be found on site either, encouraging the rise of new independent designers to demonstrate their innovative abilities to a wider audience. Boxpark, described as ‘Shoreditch’s answer to a 2011 shopping mall’ has identity, uniqueness and something that distinguishes itself from any other mall, within which you could quite easily forget where you were sometimes as they all look the same. It also acts as a cultural hub to the area, collating an eclectic mix of ages and tastes to experience these small spaces that have each been tailored individually by their designer. The development displays grand scale recycling on a level that has not been seen in the world today and even better is that next year it will be on show to millions of visitors from all around the world. It makes use of an empty site in an expanding city, enhances the local economy, uses a completely recycled structural element and further still creates a vibrant social core encouraging interaction and life, a fantastic example of what can be achieved through recycling.

The 2012 Olympic Games pose very exciting times for the United Kingdom both on the track and off it. Frequently Olympic hosts spend millions or in the UK’s case, billions, on developing arenas and the necessary infrastructure in order for the event to run smoothly and often more importantly so that the country is shown in the best way to the billions that tune in to watch the games. But my question was ‘what would we do with an 80,000 seat athletic stadium once the games have finished?’… in many cases the stadium and the money it cost to build is surplus to anyone’s needs. However, the Olympic Park Legacy Company has worked tirelessly to develop a plan for what happens to our facilities when the games are over. Firstly it should be noted that 98% of the new facilities to be used for the games have been built by British companies, equating to 1,400 contracts and an estimated £6 billion worth of business (Ruddick, 2011). Secondly, the main Olympic stadium has been designed as ‘two stadiums in one’, essentially a permanent 25,000 seat stadium with a 55,000 seat skyward extension which can be removed when no longer needed (London 2012, 2009). Initially there had been talks with 2016 Olympic host hopefuls, Chicago, whom were looking to buy the additional 55,000 seat extension for use in a similar way. The Stadium has been designed as a series of components in order to create an adaptable structure, which facilitates deconstruction for the purposes of post-Games requirements and re-use. For example, all the steel was bolted rather than welded and the roof structure has been designed in such a way that it can be removed or adapted in legacy for use with the smaller stadium. It is now likely that the stadium, in its reduced size, is to play host to professional football once the games are over. Similar to the previous example, this innovation sends messages to the world, exhibiting sustainability through recycling and adaptable design. It only takes simple measures and a mind set on developing a long lasting environment for future generations to go a long way towards achieving more of a sustainable planet and battling climate change.

Climate Change

Climate change is an issue of global signi´Čücance, since the beginning of the 20th century, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased, but it is impossible to determine how much this increase is due to human activities. That said, in 2004 over a quarter of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions come from the energy that we use to heat, light and run our homes. (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2006) In the last decade, there were three times more weather-related natural catastrophes in the world than in the 1960s, including heat waves, floods, droughts and forest fires. All these types of events have a big human and economic cost. (European Commission for Climate Change, 2011) Avoiding a possible global crisis that may be caused by climate change necessitates us to reduce global warming or greenhouse gas emissions across the world by half by the middle of the current century. By changing patterns and using energy more responsibly, we can reduce the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases that drive climate change. (London 2012, 2009)
Although flexibility and adaptability has been referred to mostly in this paper as an architectural concept, it is also important to understand how the construction industries and a building’s occupant’s  attitude and state of mind is hugely influential in the total embodied energy of a building. This chapter will briefly explain using psychological theories, possible reasons for the current condition of our built environment in the western world and the effect that this is potentially having on the speeding up of climate change.  In 1872, Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher, wrote the book ‘The Birth of Tragedy’, and in this book he talked of two cultural perspectives based on ancient Greek mythology, Apollonian and Dionysian. The Apollonian view requires everything to be crisp, intellectualised and perfect, in construction; plumb, square, level and centred. Whilst the Dionysian belief is open to interpretation, tolerant of the organic and resourceful. The issue lies with the Apollonian need for consistency, every perception we have must tally with the ones we had like it before, when this is not the case, something is wrong and we become disorientated. This is very much the attitude of our modern culture and in turn imposes these demands on the way our environment is constructed, which can result in the process becoming very wasteful when something doesn’t line up with a recognised pattern. A good example of this might be when a wall of glass is being constructed, but one of the window panes has a small crack in it. Instantly this pane of glass would be removed and thrown on the skip to be taken away and dumped with no thought towards any other uses for it, or people who may find uses for it, but because at that point the small crack meant it did not fit perfectly in the Apollonian perspective, it was no good (Phillips, 2010). This has to change if we are to reduce the emissions produced within the construction sector. What may also be necessary is a restructuring of the current state of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Housing has become a commodity and right now for many people self-esteem and vanity is on the same level of significance as basic needs – shelter, water, food etc. (Phillips, 2010) It would be ill-advised to suggest a shift fully towards a Dionysian perspective however, in order to become more sustainable, in order to combat climate change and in order to preserve the natural world for what it is for generations to come then a change in attitudes and behaviour is inescapable. We have the technologies to help aid change and to help us respond to an ever changing and demanding environment, but we must make efforts to design and think in a way that coincides with these technologies and elevates them from merely a standalone, bolt on gadget, and encourages reaction and correspondence with our conscience.


It is believed by many that design has a great influence on people’s quality of life, yet nowadays this influence is unfortunately more often a negative one. A primary motivator for the design of our new buildings needs to focus on creating a design solution that is flexible and adaptive at any scale, and most importantly, responsive and intelligently active with respect to the changing individual and climatic context. (Magnoli, Bonanni, Khalaf, & Fox, 2001) The current built environment in many cities creates segregation and self-segregation, contributing to social exclusion. Neighbourhoods commonly face high unemployment rates and lack space for any creative industry. (King, 2011) Affordable housing alone does not respond to the needs of the environment and just as boarded up shops and vandalised walls weaken an area, creating social diversity and sustaining livelihoods can be achieved through a flexible, responsive architecture.
Reactive, responsive architecture can come in countless forms and be the solution to many different issues however the following example on a very simple level addresses problems of an economic, social and environmental context. Completed in late 2010, the Live Work Home, by Cook + Fox Architects, considers the longevity and livelihood of a shrinking city in the state of New York, affected by the migration of significant industry away from the area throughout the 20th century. Essentially what I would describe as a small modern bungalow, the simple and flexible construction of the Live Work Home was designed to address a range of uses and allows for a lifetime of waste-free adaptation. Constructed using a column-free structure with sliding doors and mobile partitions, the 130 square metre project reconsiders the assumed definition of “home” for a new, urban context. Based on the following quote

“Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time. Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time. Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time. It’s time we gave this some thought.” -Buckminster Fuller, 1970.
An open, linear plan was created to achieve the greatest possible flexibility at the least expense and to allow residents to “age in place,” as mentioned earlier, encouraging long-term residence and intergenerational living. Further to this idea, notions of healthy living concentrating on our innate human need to connect with the natural world are served as a response to the cities climate and ecology. The city’s long, light-starved winters make using natural daylight a top priority, the dwelling is orientated to maximize solar exposure, along with direct and diffused daylight from light-tubes penetrating the roof. A perforated screen wraps the entire building and works along the western and northern facades to bounce daylight into the house, as well as filtering light through adjustable rotating elements. The screen also features a large, garage-type front door, which can fold up to create an opening that doubles as a front porch.  This space creates an ethic of “eyes on the street” to instil residents with a feeling of safety and engagement with the neighbourhood. (King, 2011) This simple, affordable piece of architecture sets precedents as to how adaptable, responsive buildings should be designed. It demonstrates components that react specifically to its locations context in a simple yet innovative manner to which future developments should learn from.
Architecture that is designed to make use of fewer resources and adapt efficiently to challenging site requirements is particularly relevant to an industry that currently, as described earlier, is increasingly aware of its environmental responsibilities. (Magnoli, Bonanni, Khalaf, & Fox, 2001) Right now architectural literature is abundant with buildings that claim to be products with a strong environmental agenda. Yet, with closer inspection, few of these buildings are really as “environmental” as they claim. An environmentally-responsive architecture is not a fixed ideal, but an embryonic concept that must be redefined and re-evaluated with every new project. The formation of environmental responsiveness should like the previous example, relate to its occupants and their activities, to its location, and to varying changes in climate. (Yannas, 2003)
One piece of deployable architecture that responds directly to the needs of disaster victims, and specifically those in Haiti is that of Andres Duany, of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. In January 2010 Haiti was victim to an earthquake that measured 7.0 on the Richter scale. According to official estimates 316,000 people lost their lives with 300,000 injured, over 97,000 homes were destroyed and 188,000 homes damaged in southern Haiti alone. (National Earthquake Information Centre, 2010) The situation was critical, more than 100,000 were left homeless, and it called for radical measures to ensure the health and safety of these people was intact. Many designs for disaster zone shelters have failed in previous years and will no doubt continue into the future, however Duany’s approach to the issue appeared responsive and logical.
The design uses an innovative new structural panel system by ‘Innovida’ that provides a reassuring resistance to both hurricanes and earthquakes. The design also makes use of the skills possessed by the locals in order the construct the units and it is estimated that the average unit should take no longer than half a day to put up. The master plan for the site was produced in a way that accounts for 726 beds per acre; streets divide the development providing semi-public forecourts. Shelter units are in clusters of 4 but each unit has its own private courtyard and outdoor bathroom. For those singles or partners who are not in need of an entire unit, rooms are available to rent. (Joseph, 2010) In order to respond accurately to climate, location and occupant needs, detailed research was carried out.  For these shelters to prove successful and set them apart from previous generic attempts the design had to be tailored specifically for the highly complex cultural and climatic environment. From family structures to the way they like to eat, the development was designed to offer a comfortable dwelling that kept a disruption of habits to a minimum. Designs for deployable structures to be used in disaster zones have for a long time been non-specific and therefore not entirely effective in becoming truly responsive to the issue in hand. Once again, simple measures, extensive research and effective design allowed for Duany’s concept to become successful and change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
Evidence of adaptable architecture being adopted on a bespoke level has been in place for many years, however movements towards larger scale, mass productions have yet to take off. What this paper has highlighted is the enormous effect it can have on our built environment and in turn the way we live, work and play.
Making alterations or adapting spaces to suit occupant’s needs can be easily achievable when designed in to a building. Construction over time, as and when it is required, combined with components that react specifically to a locations context, strive towards creating a ‘living city’. The measures we take do not need to be complex either, simple, innovative design backed up by extensive research and a mind set on preserving our world for future generations can be the difference.

Currently, in physical terms, it should be noted, it is purely effective design driving adaptable architecture, though research is currently exploring dynamic, transformable and intelligent materials and even living matter to be incorporated into our built environment, be it to enhance, sustain or develop the way we have grown to live. Multi-dimensional materials that have the properties capable of controlling elements of a spaces size, heating, lighting and ventilation will allow our cities and buildings to become ever more humanly responsive, influencing ultimately the impact that we have on the world, now and in the future.