Designing for the future can save headaches — and money — in the long term
The future doesn’t always work out as planned. Betamax players are worthless, nobody is building Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion homes and we still don’t have flying cars.
Predicting the future is a constant challenge for designers and builders. It’s essential to prepare for inevitable changes, but it can be costly to bet on innovations or technologies that never take hold. In reality, there is no such thing as “future proof,” yet it should be the constant ambition of every design.
“We may not be able to predict the future, but as designers we have the unique opportunity to design, shape and create it,” LPA Associate Eric Jones says. “Future thinking demands innovation and unlocks potential for creative solutions that push the boundaries of what is possible.”
Research and a deeper analysis of a project can help explain why future planning is good business, removing the need for a crystal ball. Demographic analysis, insight on code updates and data on shifting community interests provides solid evidence that investing in the future makes economic sense.
LPA conducts comprehensive post-occupancy evaluations (POE) on projects to examine how spaces are actually used over the course of time, looking for clues on how to design the next generation of spaces. The POE research shows what is working over years—and what’s not.
“Looking at the POEs for many projects, it’s clear flexibility and adaptability are always key issues,” says Kimari Phillips, research analyst for LPAred, LPA’s in-house research team.
One of LPA’s core philosophies is to “build less.” In many cases, furniture or temporary, removable features can meet the current needs better than permanent structures.
“The more things you build into the space, the less opportunity you have to modify it in the future,” says LPA Associate Principal Arash Izadi.
Closing off Opportunities
In schools, teachers and students often find new, creative ways to use rooms over time. Veteran designers understand that schools will stay relevant longer if they recognize at the start that learning environments are going to evolve. LPA’s design of the lobby at San Diego’s e3 Civic High was initially intended as a student gathering space, but it soon morphed into a popular community meeting area, thanks to the movable furniture, integrated sound system and open design.
Future proofing schools includes designing systems to reduce energy and water use, and maintenance costs, as well focusing on areas for collaboration and connections between students, Kate Mraw says. The process often starts with asking “what if?” question upfront.
“What if the school wasn’t organized by grade levels? What if subjects were only taught through project experiences?” Mraw says. “Being able to stretch the thinking also stretches the options going forward.”
The same philosophy works in civic and corporate environments, where tough choices have to be made. In many cases, it’s not about predicting the trends, but “not closing off the opportunities that may happen,” Jones says.
Trying to determine the difference between a fad and a game changer can be difficult, especially when investor or taxpayer money is on the line. There are always choices. Pickleball may be popular now, but will people still be playing the game in 10 years? Do you put pickleball courts in your new park?
“You have to prioritize and look at the demographics,” Izadi says. “That’s why we do a lot of projections and demographic studies.”
Every builder has stories about how a technology or trend was gleefully embraced, only to find it out of fashion in a few years. A few years ago, a California city built its new council chambers around a stalactite-like structure hanging from the ceiling, which was meant to serve as the center for the chamber’s multimedia technology, LPA Principal Jim Wirick recalls. It was obsolete in two years, he says.
“Especially with technology, you need the infrastructure for flexibility,” Wirick says. That means larger conduit points for easy access to equipment, larger server rooms and extra space to expand. Something as simple as the right placement of electrical outlets can make a big difference down the road.
“You can never clearly predict tomorrow,” Wirick says. “All you can do is set up the infrastructure so when tomorrow arrives you don’t have to tear down the walls.”
LPA’s design for game developer High Moon Studios’ main workspace features raised I-beams, which look like steel girders, that deliver power and connectivity to the mobile work stations. The beams allow for different desk configurations and easy changes in wiring.
But technology is only part of the equation. People change. Work habits shift. Flexibility is essential in all aspects of the building design, keeping in mind that standards for energy efficiency and employee comfort change. Elements like operable windows and automated shades often are value engineered out of a design, only to cost building owners more when tenants are unhappy and energy costs rise.
“With data, we can help clients better understand that some elements may be expensive upfront, but in the long-term they will be more cost-effective,” Phillips says.
The Age of Autonomous Vehicles
Builders are facing many tough choices. Most prognosticators agree that transportation systems will change radically in the next few years. Any owner must decide on how to handle roads and parking, knowing autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing programs like Uber may dominate in the future.
“Planning for autonomous vehicles creates a shift in vehicular and pedestrian circulation patterns on our site plans,” Jones say. “Instead of expansive parking areas for personal vehicles there will be more emphasis on creating a new experience for arrival and pick up.”
Parking is a large—and expensive—dilemma for many developers. Demand for parking spaces may plummet, turning massive parking garages into hulking wasteful relics. Yet, that doesn’t change the current need—and local mandates—for parking spaces.
There are ways to build a parking garage for the future, but they may add to construction costs. High ceilings, smart ramp design and a well-engineered structure can allow the garage to morph into office or retail space, instead of bulldozing it in 10 years.
Old warehouses, which are often revitalized into office or retail space, provide clues as to what works for future proofing new buildings, says Mickey Conrad, an LPA Principal based in Texas.
LPA recently converted an old warehouse into its San Antonio studio, taking advantage of the open space, the minimum number of columns, high ceilings and natural light, he notes.
The warehouse wasn’t designed to be future proof, but the bones of the structure made it adaptable for the next generation. “Taking a building as it is and repurposing creates a much more creative result,” Conrad says.
Preparing any building for a long life should be a key part of any sustainability strategy, Conrad says. Future proofing is part of the formula, making sure the building doesn’t need to be replaced before it’s time.
“Otherwise, you tear it down and push it into a landfill,” Conrad says. “And then you expend new energy and materials to rebuild it.”
There are no easy answers to achieve the goals. But future planning allows buildings, schools and offices to evolve over time, and make users happy, no matter what new fads may emerge.
“We want to encourage people to think about the future and what makes sense, not only for now, but the long term,” Jones says.
This story originally appeared in Catalyst, a quarterly publication that takes a deep dive into the new ideas, industry leaders and cutting-edge initiatives changing lives by design.