Adaptability for the future

Whitney Knuf Ahn

Senior Consultant, Nashville

North America

The construction industry and our clients have the opportunity to work together to increase the adaptability of today’s built environment and prepare for the cities of tomorrow.

Expectations for the built environment and construction are constantly evolving. As society expects more sustainable solutions, they are also demanding more flexible spaces that can be shaped to accommodate changing needs.

Smart cities, driven by evolving workforce behaviours and pressure for sustainable urban spaces, demand agile, adaptable structures.

For buildings and infrastructure to remain relevant, there is an increasing requirement for adaptability, sometimes reinvention, and most certainly progressive planning. Businesses, such as WeWork, have exploited this, crafting solutions which provide inexpensive, commercial flexibility and community in coworking spaces.

Sustainable built environments: making the old new

Across North America, clients are reinventing existing structures to maximise sustainability and community appeal. The retrofit of the Old Chicago Post Office is one such example. Touted as the largest historic redevelopment in the United States, this landmark building spans approximately two and a half city blocks and straddles Ida B. Wells Drive. After sitting vacant for 20+ years, the building has re-opened, having been completely renovated to meet its new purpose as an innovative office and retail destination. 

The Old Post Office may still be sitting decrepit and abandoned if not for government involvement. In fact, in addition to government support via tax incentives, which allows for potentially lower rental rates, the Mayor of Chicago at one point threatened to take possession of the building via eminent domain if redevelopment continued to stall. It is an example of how smart cities around the globe have had government contribution spur their success. Governments around the world have offered strong incentives for development of smart and adaptable projects. Great examples of this include India’s investment to develop 100 smart cities through redevelopment and retrofitting and Singapore’s smart nation strategy to transform the country into a digital society.

Financial incentives and stronger planning requirements, like Chicago implemented, should be mandated. Government subsidies and incentives can significantly influence the decisions made by constituents and businesses. The construction industry can play a key role in advising governmental bodies on how codes or requirements could be modified to enable forward thinking. For their part, governments could require plans that include how an asset could be adapted in the future as part of the permit submission.

Governments have more influence than almost any other entity over adaptable environments. Their contribution, interest in and requirement of smart, sustainable cities will play a vital role in wide-spread implementation.

Making the new resilient

In Toronto, Canada, Sidewalk Labs is certainly working hand-in-hand with numerous stakeholders as it develops its plan for a smart neighbourhood named Quayside. In addition to this collaboration, Sidewalk Labs and its architects are going further – planning for adaptability and future use beyond the buildings’ day-one intended use.

One example from Quayside is residential units with an overbuilt post and beam skeleton – allowing various future uses and maximising interior flexibility. Even its design for parking garages has been planned with an eye for adaptability and the future. Here, central elevators, perimeter ramps and robust building services allow for minimally invasive conversion to office or residential when demand for alternative modes of transportation increases.

Not every project has the cohesive scope and breadth of Sidewalk Labs. But, every project, no matter the scale, has the opportunity to look at context and attempt to plan to ensure that whatever is built today is adaptable for tomorrow.

The construction industry has an important role to play in advocating smart, sustainable cities through discussions with their business partners to find opportunities to integrate adaptable elements into their projects.

Sometimes doing the "right thing" is not initially financially profitable, however, there are occasions to discuss the greater impact of these decisions each day. Even the smallest of steps can add up to deliver large impacts.

Before a project even begins, clients should ask themselves what steps they can take to both contribute positively to wider society while also being successful.

While the bottom line drives most clients, the world is moving in a direction where more responsibility is being placed on businesses and individuals, to be thoughtful stewards of our future world.

Whether adaptive reuse or building new for a resilient future, the construction industry has the ability to educate clients to the tangible benefits of such projects.

There are financial and environmental advantages to incorporating adaptability early on in the process – and they can be quantified. Even if clients are not bringing this kind of forward thinking to the table, the construction industry should be. As an industry, we need to be prepared to educate our partners on how building for the future can bring benefits to both clients and to the wider society.

The built environment sector is making an adaptable future

Evolution of construction and the built environment is increasingly driven by a need for projects to be more sustainable, flexible, and resilient, while also maintaining economic viability. Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project and the Old Post Office in Chicago are two examples of smart developments that promote sustainability and make good economic sense. In both cases, proactive governments have provided direction and communicated clear outcomes and objectives for the developers to work towards.

Adaptability is a significant challenge that can be supported by governments, developers, investors, and users – whether that entails retrofitting old properties, or creating new smart neighbourhoods.

The evolution of development has started and is gaining momentum around the world – and this is a change we should all welcome. Urban planning and thoughtful consideration of all projects and programmes should be a priority for everyone – we can all be advocates for smart, sustainable cities.

For further information contact:

Whitney Knuf Ahn
Senior Consultant, Nashville

t: +16184064138
e: