The Most Sustainable Building Is the One That Is Already Built: Multi-purpose and Healthy Spaces
Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection sought to explain the origin and survival of species on the planet. In short, it points out that the fittest organism survives and can reproduce itself, perpetuating useful variations for each species in a given place. Adaptation is, therefore, a characteristic that favors the survival of individuals in a context. In the construction world, we could draw some parallels. Could the adaptation be an important quality to increase the useful life and efficiency of a building over time, considering the changes and demands of society, as well as technologies and lifestyles?
Adaptable buildings have the ability to accommodate an evolving set of demands related to space, function and components, without being technically unfeasible or cost-inefficient. The Adaptable Futures research group, from Loughborough University, focuses on studies on the adaptability and longevity of buildings, around the question: “Why do certain buildings last hundreds of years and others mere decades?” The researchers address adaptability in detail, looking at the complex web of dependencies that induce, prevent, and accommodate change. The work includes designing for adaptability, flexibility and adaptive reuse of our inventory of buildings and urban spaces.
The reuse of a pre-existing building for new activities became known as adaptive reuse. The practice has been widely adopted in recent years as a strategy to deal with spaces in a more economical, sustainable, practical and efficient way. As adaptive reuse avoids expenses related to demolitions and new constructions, it presents itself as a solution capable of meeting urgent demands, such as for social, cultural and housing uses. In addition to being an economic choice, carrying out an intervention of this kind is also a conscious choice to preserve the memory associated with the building and the urban and social fabric that are already present. The transformation of potential locations offers gains that go beyond physical results: they preserve memory across the different layers of time, that can coexist in the same place.
Indeed, this is a coherent concern as the world faces an ecological and climate crisis, as well as a scarcity of natural resources. Urban areas have faced problems with their vast built stock, related to the misuse of buildings and the high energy consumption of current properties. To solve this, many demolitions and reconstructions are being carried out, even in structurally sound buildings, generating huge amounts of waste, which rarely end up being reused or recycled.
“The most sustainable building is the one that is already built”. This statement was made by the architect Carl Elefante, and was featured in this article made in collaboration with the site’s readers. There, some concerns are raised in relation to the real function of architecture in a world that changes so much. Should spaces be neutral, like large sheds that can receive any use? Should furniture and flexible elements play a leading role in organizing spaces in the best way for certain purposes? A living example was the COVID-19 pandemic, where the home had to assume multiple functions, such as work, leisure, study, sport, etc. In addition, the spread of the virus has brought additional concerns about indoor air quality and antimicrobial technologies that were previously dedicated to healthcare spaces.
Fortunately, there are already several products available in the market that make it possible to easily divide an open space into compartmentalized uses more suited to different programmatic demands. Drywall walls immediately come to mind, allowing one to create partitions with thermal and acoustic insulation in a few hours, and are easily dismantled and recyclable. There are also even lighter solutions. Placo® Modulo consists of light, mobile or fixed partitions, which allow spaces to meet new needs and new ways of working. Mainly intended for the tertiary market, the product offers great versatility and allows you to create or rearrange a space, separate rooms, delimit a circulation area or create modular sections, through opaque or translucent panels with sober finishes. When trying to both maintain the transparency of a space yet have a sense of privacy when necessary, there are products that can allow for this. Priva-Lite®, for example, is an intelligent glass that instantly changes from transparent to translucent by simply flipping a switch.
Indeed, special attention should be paid to the interiors of projects, as 90% of our time is spent indoors. It is essential to ensure a comfortable, productive and healthy indoor environmental quality, following well-regulated design parameters and practices that consider temperature, lighting, noise pollution, adequate ventilation and the quality of the air we breathe. The latter is especially important because, contrary to what we might think, air pollution is much greater indoors than outdoors. Novelio® Classic CleanAir consists of a range of paintable fiberglass wall coverings that improve the air quality of spaces by removing formaldehyde. This organic component – released mainly by laminate furniture, new floors and some paints or glues – is trapped in the wallpaper and is not released into the air, and the principle remains active even after several coats of paint. In addition, they are impact and fire resistant, durable and decorative coatings.
In addition to these options, several other products and technologies have been developed to increase the flexibility of spaces and buildings, while maintaining quality, durability and safety. Buildings need to be adaptable and must easily allow them to accommodate change, but it is also essential to consider the components in their interiors to improve the quality of life inside, as well as saving valuable natural and economic resources.