The office is a rapidly evolving space. Technology is simultaneously being introduced, replaced and rejected in this dynamic environment trying to find its best form. An office may host a wide variety of different organizations, departments and people at any one time and over the course of its lifetime, each with different characteristics and objectives.
This creates a fundamental problem, how do we construct a building the will stand the test of time, considering its diverse and unknown needs?
“This is a critical question,” says Ken Shuttleworth, founder of London-based Make Architects and recently elected president of the British Council for Offices. “Buildings on the drawing board now will have employees working in them that aren’t even born yet, so developers need to think smarter. In 2017 the infrastructure of a building is more important than the structure itself. We need to provide the means to easily upgrade and adapt the building to make it flexible for the future.”
Technological development and other forms of “progress” shape each new generations’ needs and demands – while some members of society begin to discover Facebook, today’s youngsters already consider it old fashioned. The building itself outlives both the technology and the working generation, relatively static from the day it was designed; Retrofits are possible but not ideal – it would be much better if we could futureproof our buildings for all the unknown developments ahead.
The key to winning this game is not the ability to see into the future. It is preparing, as best as possible, for any eventuality that may arise. To futureproof a building against technological development we must design and construct our buildings with flexibility, adaptability, and diversity – we discussed in an article early this year ‘How can we Future Proof Smart Buildings?’
What has become known as ‘agile building demands’ involves the “collaboration and engagement with all consultants from the outset to ensure that the flexibility is built into the fabric”, according to Shuttleworth. He suggests that, “much like sustainable techniques that improve the environmental performance of a building, for optimal effectiveness the integration of technology can’t be bolted on at a later date. The project team must work with the tenant from the earliest opportunity to understand what their needs are, so as to design solutions into the building.”
One established technology stands out in its ability to offer flexibility and collaborative capacity in the design and construction of buildings. Building Information Modelling (BIM) “is a collaborative way of working, underpinned by digital technologies, which unlock more efficient methods of designing, creating and maintaining assets,” we said back in 2015. BIM’s integration with the cloud has further increased its collaborative ability and the emergence of 3D printing is set to further disrupt the flexibility of the construction process.
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” proclaimed Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet. At the Milken 2016 Global Conference, Schmidt predicted that 3D printed buildings “will have a massive and long-lasting impact on the world.” Enabled by BIM, 3D printed buildings promise to help us build for the future through greater flexibility in design and construction.
BIM is not only concerned with the structure of a building but its infrastructure too, and it is the infrastructure that really needs to keep up with the times. Circuit sizes, for example, have grown from 0.1 gigabits in 2006 to 10 gigabits in 2017, so what should we expect from them in 2030?
We will also likely need more cables, reaching more endpoints as more and more of the buildings “things” get connected, that’s if we don’t fully embrace wireless, which might not need cabling but would demand walls be made from Wi-Fi frequency friendly materials. That said, cyber-security concerns may insist on wiring or Wi-Fi blocking exterior walls – futureproofing is a tricky business.
“BIM creates an accurate model of all building processes in one location, allowing the way the systems will interact to be predicted,” says Susie Rumbold, president of the British Institute of Interior Design. “We now design for the whole life cycle of each building, from construction through operation, and to eventual demolition and disposal.”
BIM itself will also need to evolve and is doing so, as BIM level 2 takes hold in the industry it is already looking forward with level 3. The concept of ‘4D’ BIM has become the new buzzword recently, where data is used to analyse time; then ‘5D’ which includes cost management, and ‘6D’ will enable greater facilities management usage.
When considering the right mindset for futureproofing, Lee Penson, chief executive of Penson, the architectural firm behind workplaces for YouTube, Samsung, Google, has a theory that could stand the test of time. Whilst new generations might grow up in different technological environments, our biological evolution is a much slower process. Humans will still be humans in 50 or 100 years (putting the cyborgs discussions aside for the moment) creating a constant that we can focus on to plan on the same timeframes of buildings.
“Humans will always operate in the same ways and live by the same values, by and large, even as new tech comes and goes,” Mr Penson concludes. “If you create a space that is all about humans and life in general, then you’ve already future-proofed your workplace, no matter how long the build takes.”