Better to travel than arrive

In the first of an occasional series on fundamental approaches to design Alex Lifschutz urges architects not to make the idea of a finished building their starting point

LDS' Island Studios: home, laundry, recording studios, office.
LDS' Island Studios: home, laundry, recording studios, office. · Credit: Chris Gascoigne

The idea of a building being ‘finished’ is rooted in our way of designing and denies the reality that most buildings should stand for a long time and therefore need to change – radically – over their lifetimes. Architects need to design for this.

In the developed world, building replacement rates are low.  Europe’s housing, which accounts for over 75% of the total built stock, has an overall replacement rate less than 1%.

With approximately 27m dwellings in the UK, we are straining to build 130,000 homes per annum. This rate of building means that, just to stand still on numbers, every home has to last over two centuries. But some housing only lasts 40 or 50 years (eg much Council housing of the 1970’s). We also need to raise the number of dwellings if so much of our stock will be in use for 300 years.

This enforced longevity also applies to many office and commercial buildings. Our own premises in Chiswick are part 120, part 170 years old and, before our occupation in 2006, had already seen use as dwellings, laundries and recording studios.

We all understand that it is good practice to preserve embodied energy and reduce emissions through retention rather than reconstruction. The evidence above suggests that we have little choice. But are we facing up to the challenges of longevity and change? Are we constructing homes and other buildings that will last 200 years or more? Planning and Building Regulations are silent on these matters. Indeed, well-meaning design guides inadvertently lock building structure and envelope to existing typologies and standards.

Before our occupation in 2006, our own premises in Chiswick had already seen use as dwellings, laundries and recording studios

So what approach do we need? How should we design new buildings to last and how should we tackle the reuse of existing buildings? Alex Gordon’s 1972 paper ‘Long Life, Loose Fit, Low Energy’ succinctly set the blueprint for buildings that could meet the test of time. Central to Gordon’s thesis was the notion that the initial uses of a building should only fix its outer parameters, allowing wriggle room for new uses to inhabit the shell. He imagined buildings that were both flexible and adaptable.

In terms of ‘flexibility’, Norman Foster’s Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank (on which I worked in the early 1980’s), provides large spans and open floor areas that were designed to accommodate changes in the bank’s operations.  Flexibility makes change quick and easy, although the results work only within the building’s own terms. HSBC’s deep floorplates would struggle to cope with anything other than commercial uses and the elegant hanging structure is not amenable to cut and paste.

‘Adaptablity’ implies a greater effort is required to alter a building, but that the changes may be more radical. The most obvious examples of adaptable buildings are terraced houses. Unlike the open spans of the Bank, crosswall construction is inherently inflexible but it turns out to be extremely adaptable. Internal partitions can be removed or added, bearing walls can be breached and rear and roof extensions added.

The Architectural Association in Bedford Square is a collection of 18th century houses that were formerly home to seven bourgeois families and now accommodate over 1000 students. The buildings have been constantly modified to meet changes in academic practice and student numbers since the AA moved there in 1914.

The Architectural Association's ground floor plan over time.
The Architectural Association's ground floor plan over time.

Framed structures, such as Victorian factories or warehouses, are good at carrying loads and permit major structural revisions. Their tall floor-to-ceiling heights suit both commercial and residential uses. At Oxo Tower on London’s South Bank we found a late 19th century building with a concrete frame that had already been adapted many times. Our scheme for the building turned it into shops, studios, co-op apartments and a very large roof-top restaurant for Harvey Nichols.

Given its history, we recognised that our conversion merely marked a moment in the life of the building rather than its final incarnation. So we relocated the vertical circulation cores to logical positions at the centre and ends of the building, strengthened and repaired the structure and laid out the various uses as rationally as possible. Indeed, in this ‘loose fit’ hybrid of adaptation and flexibility, the building is better prepared for future change than it ever was.

JW3, our new Jewish Community Centre on the Finchley Road, is an example of a new building designed with change in mind. As it is the first community building of its type in London, it had a somewhat imprecise brief, and a loose-fit approach seemed to be the most appropriate way to develop the design. Since opening a year ago, the building has attracted over four times its anticipated visitor numbers. Already, it is being used in ways we couldn’t have foreseen but were able to facilitate by making JW3 spatially flexible in the short term and programmatically adaptable in the long term.  

JW3 is adapting already thanks to an imprecise brief and loose-fit approach.
JW3 is adapting already thanks to an imprecise brief and loose-fit approach. · Credit: ©Nina Sologubenko

Perhaps the most nimble space in JW3, and a reminder that open space is ultimately much more flexible than built space, is the small piazza in front of the pavilion, set down and sheltered from the busy road. Sometimes it is a relaxing open area with patrons spilling out of the café, at others it hosts weddings and events in marquees. It has ice skating in the winter and, most recently, a sandy beach was introduced for the summer holidays.

JW3’s concrete frame, divided by non-load bearing partitions, can be easily altered to accommodate new uses as the directors of the organisation see fit. Were the community to move to other premises, the depth of the floorplate means it could be easily converted to a school, commercial space or apartments.

Returning to the HongKong Shanghai Bank, in 1985 I was in Italy urging the manufacturer of a vast array of stone banking hall counters for the lower floors of the building to complete his work in time for the opening (over 300 linear metres of desks were eventually shipped by Jumbo Jet to meet the deadline). Calm in the face of my desperation, he told me not to worry; his family had been working on the Duomo in Florence for the last 400 years. ‘And,’ he said proudly, ‘the building still isn’t finished.’


Alex Lifschutz is director of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands