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Designing 'Future Proof' Buildings?

Science fiction has a funny habit of becoming science fact' – William S. Burroughs1

'Hi-Tech', by it's nature, soon becomes out-of-date as technology moves with the times, so as an 'architectural style' it could only ever be a fad or short-term solution. At the same time, any building that contains the latest components can be termed 'Hi-Tech'. Hardwick Hall – 'more glass than wall', would have been the Hi-Tech of it's day (1576-97). The pursuit of technology in building is nothing new – it is the terminology to promote ideas that is new.

Hardwick Hallmini

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, England by Robert Smythson

With the 'intrinsic flight to the future'2, it is now common to hear architects claim that their buildings are 'future-proof'3. Given that we have very little idea about what the mirage of the future will bring, this is a slightly odd claim. It might be 'characteristic of the development of ideas that they do not appear as memories pointing to something that is past, but as expectations directed towards the future'4, but how can the design of an office be 'future proof' if in the future everyone works from home?

A school may claim to be a future proof design and yet in the future all teaching may be via a computer terminal at home. Aspects of this form of teaching might make good economic sense for both government and individual families: the value of buildings would also no longer be inflated by their proximity to the 'best schools'. It could relieve traffic congestion, lower emissions, slow the spread of infections, stop class disruption, bullying and student shootings – while simultaneously also possibly improve education as the best teachers could reach the maximum amount of pupils via a medium that is known to engage their interest. Under such a future scenario, the building becomes redundant and what might be needed in its place would be more green space on which to socialize and play games. The claim that a building is 'future proof' is contested by the fact that nobody knows what will happen in the future.

What can be said of many modern buildings is that they have become less 'future proof'; designed more as stand alone 'art objects which tend to be less adaptable. When some large office blocks in Canary Wharf, London, remained empty at the end of the 1980s, one building owner complained, "a Nash terrace in Nottinghill Gate could be designed as a house, converted to offices, then to flats, it moves with the market – but what can I do with an acre of open plan office space when no one wants it?"

Oddly, what might in reality be the most 'future proof' of building types could be the timber frame buildings that were constructed in 1250 and are still here in 2013. These buildings might not look futuristic, but they were the original pre-fab kit houses and have withstood the test of time and are still sought after, centuries after their creation. All that the architects of today mean by the term 'future proof', is that access can be gained so that the 'short-life parts of the building can be changed and its total lifespan can be extended'5. Changing a few wires does not make a building 'future proof' – especially if everything goes wireless. As Winston Churchill said, "It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see'6.

Wealden House, Lindfield

Futurist pre-fab housing circa 1250 AD

Alex King is an architect and his design 'Santiago Townhouse' won the British Homes Awards in 2011 -  Alex King Design/ Designalexable, examples of his latest work can be seen at:

1   'The adding machine & other essays'. William S. Burroughs 1985.

2   'intrinsic flight to the future' – Hegel's technological concept of history suggests that technical progress has become mixed up with both technical progress and Darwinian evolution. This 'history underpins a technological bias of practice, often at the expense of architecture and making places for "life and action" – 'Architecture Re-assembled'.  Trevor Garnham.  2013. Routledge.

3     The term 'future-proof' was mentioned by Norman Foster in his German TED Talks Lecture, it appears in  Richard Rogers 'Architecture – a modern view' and has recently made an appearance in the RIBA Journal and other architectural publications. 

4    'An essay on man'. Ernst Cassirer.  P53 1944. Yale University Press. Original quote: William Stern.

5    'Architecture – a Modern View'. Richard Rogers. P53. 1991.

6    'The wicked wit of Winston Churchill'. Dominique Enright. P146. 2001.