Sustainability in architecture using spatial adaptability

Marek Lüley


In the current era of made-to-fit products, the topic of adaptability in architecture may seem obsolete or unsolvable. However, the creation of customized space can also have its negative aspects. Changing social, economic or cultural circumstances can result in situations where the designed area may no longer be satisfactory. Although we have already gotten rid of the standardized and generalized design model, we still have to cope with the rigidity of solutions that require exacting reconstruction or demolition. The consumption of embodied energy and the disposal/processing of the waste and the dependence on energy generated from fossil fuels leads to excessive production of carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change that influences various aspects of our lives. The role of an architect who wants to promote sustainability is to approach building construction with regard for the environment. This might seem to be just a well-worn phrase, but at the current stage of technological development, we are able to implement this concept at multiple levels of architectural design and building systems.

When considering sustainability in architecture, we should not just limit ourselves to its formal aspects such as ecological principles and energy efficiency. Sustainable architecture is such architecture that does not harm the social, economic or cultural environment. Alexander Gordon‘s theory of 3-L (Long life, Low energy, Loose-fit), which suggests the long life of buildings as an important factor in a responsible treatment of our planet, is one of the strategies for achieving such a trend in architecture. In practice, this means extending the service life of buildings, where the adaptability of the buildings can help us.

This article describes the importance of two aspects of adaptability in architecture. The first is the conceptual or design approach. At this level, we can recognize the defined properties of this type of architecture and the strategy for achieving them in their practical implementation. The second aspect is the process. It focuses on the operation and on the adhering to the ideas of the approach. In the latter, the human factor often fails, and the building, though designed perfectly, loses its intended quality. Previous studies and concepts in the theory of adaptability in architecture mostly focused on its description and identification in existing buildings. There were rare examples of real experimental applications (Maison du Peuple in Clichy, Rietveld-Schröder House, Koolhasov Floriac House, NEXT 21 in Osaka). Of course, it has been explained with the difficulty of implementation and even bigger operating and maintenance problems. By gradually developing this concept, the authors began to agree with the Hertzberger‘s polyvalence theory, which with its built-in quality offers the possibility of different interpretations of the space that allows bigger purposefulness.

However, this approach also has its limitations in the absolute freedom of adaptability, because it only considers limited possible use. These attempts at free space utilization have resulted in the Biennale of Architecture in 2018 with the theme Free Space. The proposed space solutions have the ambition to provide (us with) such freedom and democracy.

The paper presents approaches to the architecture that, because of its concept, resists time and unpredictable circumstances. The concepts are presented in a gradient from the very basic perceptions of adaptability, such as movable partitions and the flexibility of building components, up to the totally static forms that were also valuable contributions to the topic. Initial failures of moving components due to their technical imperfection or unreliability have discouraged users to further develop these ideas. Another line of development focused on the quality and performance of architecture as a determinant of its resistance to change. Each of the approaches offers us a sufficient solution within its capacity and, as the case studies have shown, these approaches complement and support each other. An overview and some case studies also indicate a lack of the aforementioned attention paid to the actual operation of such structures and models of maintenance and sustainability that could work smoothly despite events that lead to changes in cultural, sociological, environmental and political conditions. Once we have established appropriate social and operational involvement, the solutions would still need technological maturity for us to be able to benefit from the adaptability model in architecture. One of the solutions is to consider computing technology processes that have been re-focused from space-generating tools to processes integrated into materials, robotic production, and autonomy. The strategies that focused on resilience of architecture in time and thus contributed to the sustainability of architecture in the past decades should be further developed, taking into account the current trends in material and technological innovations.

Keywords: adaptable architecture, polyvalence, layers of a building system, sustainability