Designing for Adaptability
Buvana Murali and Amit Arya propose a case for future growth centered on doing more from less by repurposing infrastructure, city streets, industrial landscapes and buildings

I n the late 1950s, Dutch Architect Herman Hertzberger opined that architecture should “…do more with less… the point is not to build more buildings but to revise the buildings we have.” Along with John Habraken, they believed that the architect’s role was not to provide a complete solution but a spatial framework to be filled in by the users.

There is no time more significant than the present when this notion could take root. The pandemic has struck a blow to the very aspects that brought us together: our streets, cafes, restaurants, workplaces, shared housing, cultural institutions and public places. It also exposed the inequalities in our cities and the disparity in the access to housing, healthcare and public spaces. Studies reveal a disproportionate number of deaths in lower income group communities since social distancing was impossible in overcrowded housing The costs of inaction are too high: carbon emissions made a sharp rebound after lockdown restrictions eased in various cities across the world compromising air quality and threatening to exacerbate the very symptoms of the disease. Even before the pandemic, buildings were responsible for 39% of global carbon emissions, and about one-third of emissions in the U.S. of which 90% construction debris ends up in landfills. There is a growing urgency to address energy and emissions from buildings and construction if ambitions for a 2°C reduction in global temperatures are to be achieved. An overhaul of construction methodology and

Diagram illustrating the projected U.S building construction waste over a 15-year time-frame were it to occupy the entire Central
Park in New York City. Photo Credit :  BUVANA MURALI & AMIT ARYA

Adaptive reuse of a 1970s office building into a 140 unit residential development. Photo Credit : © PBV ARCHITECTEN

our approach to building is front and centre in debates about how to arrest climate change.

The twin crises demand us to be more thoughtful, efficient and democratic in our distribution of resources. Creating systems that have multiple lives, are accessible to many and flexible enough to allow for a diversity of usage for extended periods of time, have both ecological and economic urgency.

Thinking on their feet: Adapting city streets Expecting the rise in vehicular traffic as people return to private vehicles and their effect on pollution and congestion, cities such as Paris, London and Milan were quick to adapt their network of streets to accommodate more pedestrians and cyclists and ban cars from entire districts. Streets are being used for outdoor dining, allowing the restaurants and cafes that were suffering for lack of customers to remain open. Using as little as paint and traffic cones they tactically adapted to the public need for outdoor life.

These changes may well be on their way to becoming more permanent. In a move that could usher the next era of urban street life, city governments across the world pledged various proportions of their roads to dedicated pedestrian and bike lanes, eliminating private vehicles altogether. The versatility of the existing city grids and the combination of progressive governance and political will made possible what would otherwise have taken years of bureaucratic paperwork. The opportunity is ripe to adapt our cities to be less car dependent, place pedestrians and cyclists at the core and to prioritise safety and health over traffic.

Could obsolete building stock be used to meet the scarcity for affordable housing? The pandemic accelerated a trend in remote work that was already underway. At the time of writing this, several industries were considering extending their work from home policies permanently. This will impact not just the way we live and work but subsequently how we plan our cities. While it is too early to predict what changes this would entail, the future office will be designed around interactivity and be less about meeting cubicle counts. The bulk of older office stock with smaller floor plates and outdated ventilation systems, especially those that were already vacant pre-Covid, will be hard to lease. They may, in fact, be better suited for residential use, given their location in downtown areas that are central, walkable, lively and well-connected to mass transit.

Several cities use tax credits and abatements to incentivise office-to-apartment conversions in areas that have a glut of obsolete office stock and an undersupply of residential units. Such conversions are not new; over the last few

Top: Gasholders London – an adaptive reuse of a pair of century old cast iron gasholder frames into a residential development by Wilkinson Eyre
Facing Page: Gasholders London – view from the internal courtyard showing the old cast iron frames

decades many of the older office buildings in Lower Manhattan have been turned into luxury residential condos. However, switching this to affordable housing is a bit of a challenge, since land value typically rules out anything but highend apartments. This will require expanding government incentives to meet the scarcity in affordable housing and to aggressive lobbying to earmark a higher number of units of low-income housing within downtown areas.

One such example is in the Netherlands. In the years following the 2008 financial crisis, the Dutch government passed new laws allowing housing retrofits in existing obsolete buildings. The newly lowered regulatory barriers in the form of prescriptive codes for daylight, height and sound resistance drove an increase in supply of housing. The new law fueled opportunities to transform office buildings into apartments, especially those situated in the city centres. It also sparked innovative and creative solutions and generated jobs in the housing market. A case in point is the transformation of an office building into a 140-unit apartment building in the heart of the city close to the Hague. The original structure was built in the 1970s for the UWV (the Dutch Welfare Department). The retrofit designed by PBV Architecten, included the addition of an extra floor, recladding the facade with lightweight materials and introducing terraces at various levels activating the space both vertically as well as at grade.

Why adapt when it is easier and sometimes cheaper to rebuild?

Consider a solid mass 16-storeys-high covering the entire area of Central Park. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that is how much waste the U.S. building industry generated in 2015 of which 90% was from demolition.2 Repurposing existing buildings, where possible, generates less waste going into landfills and extends the energy embodied in construction. It is often cheaper and faster to get such a project completed because inheriting a structure and foundations takes months off from the construction period. Saving time translates to savings in the overall construction budget.

Besides ecological and economic reasons, buildings are relics that knit historical fabric together and are often artifacts of a different era. Tearing them down not only disrupts the fabric, we also lose construction systems and techniques that are no longer common in the way we build today. They have unique and somewhat idiosyncratic elements that can leverage the value of incoming programmes.

With the Gasholders Project in Kings Cross, London, Wilkinson Eyre Architects transformed the abandoned industrial cast iron skeletons into apartment buildings. The result is a remarkable juxtaposition of old heavy industrial frames with the new light and intricate cladding enveloping the building. 145 units in cylindrical blocks sit nested within a trio of wrought-iron frames.

These frames, which date from the 1860s, have been dismantled, repaired and re-erected on the site. A cylindrical atrium is wrapped by walkways that connect the individual apartments.

Repurposing often catalyses development in underutilised city sites where such pilot projects create an initial momentum for development. One such case is that of Empire Stores in Brooklyn, NY. The architects, S9 Architecture, transformed the pre-Civil War era coffee warehouse along the Brooklyn waterfront bringing much-needed office space, retail, dining, public space and exhibition galleries to the neighbourhood. The revitalisation of 85 acres of Brooklyn Bridge Park went hand-

Photo Credit :  ©PETER LANDERS

Top: Empire Stores – Designed by S9 Architecture is an adaptive reuse of a coffee warehouse into a mixed use building
Left: Empire Stores – Historical image of the Warehouse, May 22, 1936

Facing Page: Empire Stores – Rehabilitated windows and bricks of the coffee warehouse provides a historic context to the new development


in-hand with the retrofit and injected life and culture into this once blighted area of Brooklyn.

An open-to-sky court formed by excavating an interstitial space between the old brick facade and the new inserted programmes serves as the public space inviting tenants, community and park visitors. Details like the patinated metal window frames, the restored brick and wood structure contrast and complement the modern grey metal and glass language of the intervention. A grand stair and elevator rise through the courtyard and extend into a terrace that opens to iconic views of the bridges and the Manhattan skyline.

A case for Vertical Manufacturing

Another transformative project that adapts and builds on existing underutilised urban sites was the Brooklyn Navy Yard in NY. Working with the Brooklyn Navy Yards Development Corporation, the master planners, WXY, developed the plan to transform the former Navy Yard into a hub of vertical manufacturing and innovation. It is now a one-of-a-kind ecosystem that spans 300 acres, housing 500+ businesses and employing upwards of 11,000 people. Capitalising on its accessibility via boat, train and bus, it brings advanced manufacturing back to the city, which is rare, especially in the context of New York. The design ties the waterfront back to the city, makes visible what was once behind walls, adds public space and creates a unique and diverse centre of urban manufacturing and innovation.

Such projects are increasingly common worldwide, especially in former manufacturing centres like Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the US and Eindhoven in the Netherlands, which have vast swathes of post-industrial stock that are waiting to be repurposed. Repopulating them as mixed-use districts makes economic sense since the infrastructural resources are already in place.

How do we factor in changes within the life cycle of a new building?

Designing for adaptability anticipates changes in new buildings and plans for them. Although it is hard to predict how future technologies and culture will affect buildings, it is critical to incorporate design strategies that extend the lifespan of materials and their embodied energy and ensure that less waste ends up in a landfill.

The best principles are often the simplest. While selecting materials for a new building consider using durable, low-maintenance materials and systems that are easier to repair and modify, thus extending their longevity and embodied energy. This creates a robust starting point for the project, eliminating frequent and intermittent interventions. Factor in redundancy into the structure and foundation systems to allow vertical expansion. This plans for growth in capacity and accommodates future densification. Design generous ceiling heights so that buildings can swing between various uses. Keep the structural system with clear and modular spans. Use building systems that are separated so that changes to one do not require changes in others.

Doing this buys freedom and flexibility in a volatile market and allows for changes in ownership or tenancy. Using reversible mechanical connections grants easy deconstruction or disassembly. Finally, consider using building materials like mass timber that reduce overall carbon footprint. Mass timber not only sequesters carbon, it can also be designed using mechanically fastened connections that are easier to disassemble; which is harder to do with steel and impossible to do with concrete systems

No more ‘single purpose buildings’

While there may be ecological, historical

Bird’s-eye view of the Brooklyn Navy Yards masterplan

Brooklyn Navy Yards masterplan – Barge Basin Waterfront. A publicly accessible waterfront lined with showroom spaces for yard tenant products

and cultural reasons for reusing existing buildings and factoring in adaptability into new construction, it still isn’t the first option that a developer would consider. There are too many unknowns that could drive up costs associated with fitting systems on an inherited site. There is also the assumption that tearing a building down and building afresh assures you the best fit for your needs. At times, brand image and aesthetics may not sync with that of the clients. This is where policy incentives make it attractive and tip the scales in that direction. Several green building agencies such as LEED and BREEM offer ratings on reuse of older buildings as well as designing new buildings to be adaptable to unforeseen future use.

Designing for Adaptability

Regardless of where the crises lead us, it has been an inflection point in the way we think about our cities. It has revealed our unpreparedness in dealing with crises of this magnitude and disparities in the access to housing, healthcare and public space. A healthy city is one that is equitable, sustainable and affordable and can continue to attract the diversity and talent that made our cities great places.

History has taught us that cities are “...humankind’s most durable artifacts”.3 London, after the Great Fire in 1666, New York after 9/11, Chicago after the 1871 fire and Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the horrors of the Second World War were all rebuilt in profound and resilient ways and are still thriving. The process of urban recovery is up to us. The current pandemic in an opportunity to be resource efficient, equitable and to leave a legacy for our future generations. In the words of Greta Thunberg, “Humanity is now standing at a crossroads. We must now decide which path we want to take. How do we want the future living conditions for all living species to be like?”



1.Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing, By N.J Habraken: Urban International Press, UK, Edited by Jonathan Teicher, 1999.

2.Buildings that last: Design for Adaptability, Deconstruction, and Reuse, AIA Publication

3.The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, By Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella: Oxford University Press, 2005.